Longtime Baton Rouge lawyer and current City Court candidate Donald Dobbins has been suspended from the practice of law by Louisiana's top court, but Dobbins said he has no plans to withdraw from the race.
The state Supreme Court, citing multiple instances of professional misconduct, suspended Dobbins for a year and a day on Jan. 29. The high court also ordered him to pay a combined $4,440 in restitution to two former clients.
One Supreme Court justice called the suspension "overly lenient" and said he favored "no less than a three-year actual suspension, if not disbarment."
Dobbins' suspension came exactly three weeks after he qualified to run for a vacant Baton Rouge City Court seat. The election is April 4. The other candidates in the race are "Greg" Cook, Whitney Higginbotham Greene, Jonathan Holloway Sr. and Johnell Matthews.
A longtime Baton Rouge City Court judge, the daughter of a 19th Judicial District Court judge and two other local lawyers qualified this week …
Dobbins, who has been a lawyer since 1991, said in an interview that he intends to ask the Supreme Court to rehear his disciplinary case.
He also argues that he only needed a law license to qualify for judicial office, but not to be a judge because judges cannot practice law.
"That's what my lawyers are telling me," Dobbins said.
"I will continue to be a candidate," he added.
Tyler Brey, a spokesman for the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office, said Dobbins' name remains on the ballot because the time to object to his qualifying had passed before the Supreme Court suspended him.
"It's out of our hands," Brey said. "He will be on the ballot unless a court intervenes."
Two former members of the state's Judiciary Commission pointed Friday to a Louisiana revised statute — 13:1873 — dealing with qualifications of judges. The statute says elected city court judges "shall be licensed to practice law in the State of Louisiana for at least five years previous to their election."
One of the former Judiciary Commission members, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment, said it would be "totally ludicrous" to say a suspended lawyer could run for a judgeship. But the ex-member added that he doesn't believe the commission has dealt with such an issue in the past.
He also noted that a lawyer must be in good standing to run for judicial office and be a judge.
"He's not a lawyer," the former commission member said. "I can't imagine the Supreme Court allowing that. He could not take office" if he won.
It would be up to the Supreme Court to decide how to handle Dobbins' candidacy if it lets his suspension stand. The Judiciary Commission only makes recommendations to the high court.
Because the Supreme Court suspended Dobbins for more than a year, he must petition the high court to resume practicing law once he has served his suspension.
The Supreme Court said the record supports a finding that Dobbins "failed to provide competent representation to clients; neglected legal matters; failed to communicate with clients; failed to refund unearned fees and unused costs; failed to properly supervise his non-lawyer staff, resulting in false affidavits being filed in the court record; failed to reduce a contingency fee agreement to writing; forged client signatures on settlement checks; and failed to place disputed funds in his trust account."
Justice Scott Crichton said he agreed that Dobbins violated the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers but disagreed with the sanction imposed by his colleagues, calling it "overly lenient" and saying he favored "no less than a three year actual suspension, if not disbarment."
The high court said Dobbins' violations resulted in actual damage sustained by clients and the legal system.
"In fact, my view of the record and (Dobbins') behavior demonstrates several of (his) clients would likely have received better legal outcomes through self-representation," Crichton wrote.
Justice William Crain agreed with Crichton, and Justice John Weimer said he would impose a two-year suspension, with all but a year and a day deferred.
The high court noted that Dobbins has a prior disciplinary history. He was admonished in 1998 and 1999 for failing to have contingency fee agreements in several client matters; suspended in 2002 for a year, with all but six months deferred, for commingling and converting client funds; and reprimanded in 2005 for engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
In the City Court race, Dobbins, Cook Holloway and Matthews are Democrats. Higginbotham is a Republican. They are seeking the City Court seat vacated last fall when Judge Tarvald Smith won a seat on the 19th Judicial District Court.