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Wednesday, June 20, 2007 06:45 pm

On this they agree...

Lawyers in Black Guardians case admonished

Untitled Document After more than three years of legal wrangling, attorneys for the city of Springfield have finally found an issue on which they see eye to eye with Courtney Cox, the Benton lawyer who has filed a fistful of race-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of several former city employees: They don’t want letters of admonishment from the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission made public. “Are you going to file those on the public system?” Cox asked U.S. District Judge Jeanne Scott during a hearing on Tuesday morning. “Aren’t those confidential to the parties?” city attorney Frank Martinez asked. Scott said no, adding that the letters helped explain why she had been forced in January to declare a mistrial in the case popularly known as Black Guardians versus the city of Springfield. The BGA was a cultural organization for African-American police officers, but by the time the group’s 2003 lawsuit reached trial, six of the original nine plaintiffs had been dismissed and the marquee plaintiff, Renatta Frazier, had settled out of court for about $650,000. The long-awaited tribunal on allegations of racism in the police department came to an abrupt halt on the third day, when Scott declared that attorneys on both sides had created an “ethical minefield” [see Dusty Rhodes, “Bit by bit,” Feb. 1]. The problem arose when Cox called as a witness the Springfield Police Department’s highest-ranking black officer, Deputy Chief Rob Williams. Williams had originally been a plaintiff in the case but was dismissed early on because he had failed to state specific claims. When the trial began, Cox was still technically Williams’ attorney, though Williams no longer considered him such. This unresolved relationship presented a legal quandary when Cox repeatedly challenged Williams on small differences between his trial testimony and his July 2005 deposition. After declaring a mistrial, Scott sent a transcript of the proceedings to the ARDC for possible disciplinary action. At a status hearing on the case held on Tuesday, Scott announced that the ARDC’s Inquiry Board had declined to sanction either attorney, instead requesting that they both be admonished. The letters, signed by ARDC counsel Deborah Barnes, state that both Cox and Lang failed to “handle this case competently at this point in the proceedings,” admonishing Lang for “failing to determine the status of Mr. Williams’ attorney/client relationship with Mr. Cox” and Cox for his “inattention to the status of his relationship” with Williams. The panel noted that either attorney could easily have avoided the problem — Lang by making a “phone call to Mr. Cox to discuss the issue,” Cox by following “basic . . . trial preparation” by discussing testimony with his client. The letters end with duplicate paragraphs reminding Cox and Lang that competent representation requires “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation necessary for the representation, according to Illinois Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1(a).”
Scott gave both parties until Aug. 1 to deliver written statements indicating a desire to proceed with the case using these attorneys. If she gets those assurances, a new trial will begin on Jan. 3, 2008.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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