Rudy Giuliani’s license to practice law in New York state was suspended on Thursday by a state appellate court. For those who have been following the antics of former President Donald Trump’s former lawyer for the past five years, this may not be shocking. But while in some ways it feels like the predictable culmination of years of questionable and offensive conduct, it’s still a big deal — and good news for anyone who cares about the integrity of the law profession.
It’s probably too much to hope that this finding will pierce the right-wing information bubble, where 56 percent of Republicans still believe the election was stolen from Trump. But it should leave Giuliani’s credibility in tatters with anyone not immune to the truth. And it sends a strong message about the real harm, and indeed danger, posed by those individuals who continue to push falsehoods about the election.
Disbarment — a punishment meted out by a court for code violations — is always devastating to a lawyer. This punishment occurs when a lawyer commits an offense that directly relates to his or her fitness to practice law. Such offenses may include dishonesty and negligent representation. Giuliani, whose license is now suspended, is likely on his way to permanent disbarment, but he does have the opportunity to contest the court’s ruling in a post-suspension hearing. His lawyers indicate they will do this, claiming in a statement that they “believe that once the issues are fully explored at a hearing, Mr. Giuliani will be reinstated as a valued member of the legal profession that he has served so well in his many capacities for so many years.”
But these denials to the contrary, it certainly looks like Giuliani has finally pushed his luck too far. New York law, among other things, forbids a lawyer from “knowingly making a false statement of fact or law to a third person” in the course of representing a client (Rule 4.1) and “engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” (Rule 8.4 (c)). In other words, Giuliani’s monthslong legal campaign on behalf of Trump to overturn the 2020 presidential election through a series of baseless lawsuits and false public statements violated New York’s professional ethics code.
Giuliani’s suspension was unusual because the court ruled that his (rhetorical) offenses actually posed a danger to the public, and indeed, the nation itself. The court noted that:
The seriousness of respondent’s uncontroverted misconduct cannot be overstated. This country is being torn apart by continued attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election and of our current president, Joseph R. Biden. The hallmark of our democracy is predicated on free and fair elections. False statements intended to foment a loss of confidence in our elections and resulting loss of confidence in government generally damage the proper functioning of a free society. When those false statements are made by an attorney, it also erodes the public’s confidence in the integrity of attorneys admitted to our bar and damages the profession’s role as a crucial source of reliable information.
Giuliani’s troubles with the appellate division of the Supreme Court of New York began last January, when a legal advocacy group filed an ethics complaint. The advocacy group, a coalition of lawyers and former judges calling themselves Lawyers Defending American Democracy, presented a detailed complaint alleging that Giuliani “knowingly propagated a false narrative of election fraud to delegitimize ... Biden’s presidential victory and to undermine public confidence in the national electoral process.”
Because Giuliani’s behavior harms the public — and is ongoing — the court took the unusual step of issuing an interim order immediately suspending his license even though the proceedings against him are also ongoing. As the court explained: “Interim suspension is a serious remedy, available only in situations where it is immediately necessary to protect the public from the respondent’s violation of the Rules.”
The court also explained that immediate suspension is only warranted in cases where the evidence is uncontroverted and the court doesn’t believe the bad behavior will stop. This is a strongly worded condemnation and does not bode well for any appeals. While Giuliani will have an opportunity for a post-suspension hearing, the court doesn’t seem to expect Giuliani to prevail. Specifically, the court stated that “the underlying offense is incredibly serious, and the uncontroverted misconduct in itself will likely result in substantial permanent sanctions at the conclusion of these disciplinary proceedings.”
What this means is that unless Giuliani comes up with better defenses than those he has already presented — and it is unlikely he can — he will never again practice law in New York.
It’s probably also too much to hope that Giuliani will stop lying. But it’s a satisfying result for those who spent months watching in frustration as he whined incessantly, misused the court system with his baseless election fraud claims, and did ongoing damage to the legitimacy of U.S. elections.