#ChildMolester | Fake lawyer, real question: Do bar morality requirements serve a purpose?

(Reuters) – When Miranda Devlin’s identity fraud scheme first began to unravel in late 2019, she insisted she was a legitimate criminal defense lawyer.

“I can swear on a stack of Bibles that I have taken the bar exam, I have passed the bar exam,” she told a local California newspaper, the Marin Independent Journal, after her arrest at the county courthouse.

To her credit, that was actually true – not that it seemed to make much difference last week when Devlin, 37, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for fraud by U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco.

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Passing the bar exam alone doesn’t make you a lawyer. Would-be attorneys must also be deemed fit on moral character grounds.

For most people, it’s a formality. Less than 1% of California state bar applicants are denied admission each year for failing the fitness and character assessment, a bar spokesman told me.

Devlin, who passed the Golden State’s notoriously difficult bar exam in 2013, was one of the few to be rejected on moral grounds.

According to court papers, she had prior theft and fraud-related convictions in state court, including a felony about 10 years before she finished her legal training via the Law Office Study Program, a California apprenticeship-based alternative to law school, under the supervision of her then-husband in 2010.

Deemed unfit by the bar, Devlin practiced law without a license, admitting in court papers to stealing the identities – and in one case, even paying the bar dues for – two other lawyers who shared her first name Miranda. Her clients included two men facing child molestation charges and one found guilty of attempted rape, according to the Marin Independent Journal.

It’s not clear what will happen in the cases where she was counsel of record, nor how many matters she handled. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California did not respond to a request for comment.

Devlin pleaded guilty to mail fraud (she submitted an online change-of-address form for one of the Mirandas so that her bar card would forward to Devlin), as well as fraudulently obtaining a $32,700 paycheck protection program loan in one of the other Miranda’s name. She was also ordered to pay $565,355 in restitution.

“Ms. Devlin has no valid excuse to offer the court for her criminal conduct. She made terrible decisions that caused serious harm to many persons and entities,” her lawyer, San Francisco solo Mark Goldrosen, wrote in her sentencing memorandum. He also noted that she has started mental health counseling and is a devoted mother to four daughters, ages 16, 15, 9 and 5.

Devlin, who is in custody, could not be reached for comment. Goldrosen did not respond to a request for comment.

The case has unfolded in my backyard. The courthouse in San Rafael, California where a sharp-eyed superior court judge noticed a discrepancy in Devlin’s bar number is just eight miles away from my home.

But the questions it raises are broader. Are moral character and fitness rules for bar admission fair? Do they in fact serve to make the legal profession more upstanding?

In some ways, Devlin is a poster child for why state bars should perform such a gate-keeping function. Her application was rejected on moral character grounds and then look: She went on to get busted for fraud. You might say the bar examiners called it.

On the other hand, it’s not as if the rest of the legal profession is comprised entirely of angels.

According to the most recent report by the American Bar Association, more than 5,000 lawyers in 2019 were subject to some form of public discipline or sanctions, and another 5,000 were privately admonished. My Reuters colleagues regularly chronicle lawyers accused of malfeasance.

Clearly, the character and fitness requirement fails to weed out all the bad apples. But it also raises some basic questions: Do prior misdeeds accurately predict future transgressions? Is someone’s character set in stone, or does it evolve based on circumstances?

Moreover, the character requirement has the potential to adversely impact certain groups. For example, the U.S. Justice Department in 2014 entered into a settlement with the Louisiana Supreme Court for denying bar admission based on “mental health diagnosis and treatment rather than conduct that would warrant denial of admission to the bar,” a potential violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I asked Amy Nuñez, the director of the State Bar of California’s Office of Admissions, how her organization approaches the task of evaluating character and why it’s a worthy exercise.

“Lawyers occupy a unique position of power and trust with clients, may have access to significant funds that are due to clients and are considered officers of the court,” she said via email. “It is important that bars assess, based on the available information at the time, whether there are any issues that suggest a potential lawyer may not be fit to meet these responsibilities.”

Every bar association in the country conducts character reviews, Nuñez said, noting that California in 2020 published revised guidelines for its moral character determinations with the aim of providing greater uniformity, consistency and transparency.

The goal is to “ensure that the State Bar gives appropriate consideration for rehabilitative efforts undertaken by applicants,” she said.

To its credit, the bar seems to have been prescient in denying admission to Devlin. Still, I also can’t help but think that if she’d been admitted in her own right, perhaps she wouldn’t have felt compelled to steal the identities of licensed lawyers in the first place.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Jenna Greene

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com

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