Law Life: Lawyer gets slap on wrist for public indecency

Pat Murphy, The Daily Record Newswire

You’d think that a lawyer who gets caught soliciting sex from a stranger in a public park should at the very least have to worry about having his license suspended.

But one state supreme court feels that a toothless admonishment is sufficient punishment for a lawyer who engages in public indecency.

The Nebraska Supreme Court this month publicly reprimanded David E. Cording of Hebron, Neb. The retired lawyer’s troubles stem from an incident at Wilderness Park in Lincoln on June 15, 2010.

According to court records, Cording struck up a conversation with a young man at the park. The conversation turned sexual. One thing led to another and the two proceeded into a heavily wooded area.

Of course, the young man who had piqued Cording’s interest was an undercover police officer assigned to watch for illegal sexual activity in the park.

According to the officer, once in a secluded area of the woods, Cording put his hand under the officer’s shirt, rubbed his leg, and proposed some unmentionable acts. The undercover officer said he arrested Cording when the elderly lawyer began undoing the officer’s belt and zipper.

A Lancaster County jury found Cording guilty of third-degree sexual assault and public indecency. He was sentenced to spend six days in jail and pay $1,000 in fines. The trial judge afterwards tossed the sexual assault conviction.

Cording’s public indecency conviction triggered an investigation by the state disciplinary counsel to determine if professional sanctions were warranted.

Somewhat surprisingly, the disciplinary proceeding against Cording presented an issue of first impression in the state. But despite Cording’s protests that his conduct in the park had nothing to do with dishonesty, the legal process or client matters, there was not much doubt that his criminal conviction for public indecency violated the state’s professional rules of conduct.

One Nebraska rule that should sound familiar to attorneys across the country provides that it is professional misconduct to “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”

This month, the Nebraska Supreme Court in short order agreed with the disciplinary counsel’s conclusion that Cording had violated that rule as well as his oath of office as an attorney.

So the real issue in the case was the appropriate sanction for a lawyer convicted of public indecency. While disbarment would probably be too harsh, one would think that some form of suspension would be in order.

“Public indecency by an attorney does not promote trust and confidence,” the court said in acknowledging the obvious.

The Nebraska Supreme Court nonetheless decided to be merciful. Finding no Nebraska authority on point, the court examined three similar public indecency cases from Oklahoma. Based on the outcomes in those cases, the court found that all Cording deserved was a public reprimand.

“[W]e conclude that a public reprimand must be imposed in order to deter other members of the bar from engaging in such public misconduct and to maintain the reputation of the bar as a whole,” the court said in State ex rel. Counsel for Discipline v. Cording.

If the court really wanted to send a message to other lawyers, it should have at least suspended Cording. That would get somebody’s attention.

And what’s a public reprimand to a guy who has already demonstrated his willingness to solicit sexual acts from a stranger in a public park?

While those who see themselves as being more worldly than I may see Cording’s case as a trivial matter, getting arrested by police and convicted by a jury is still a big deal to ordinary folks.

Being admitted to the practice of law is supposed to be a privilege in the truest sense. To administer mere reprimands to attorneys who are convicted criminals simply diminishes the notion that lawyers ought to follow higher standards of personal conduct.

This corner sees far too many cases from across the country in which lawyers who cross the line get surprisingly light sanctions for serious transgressions. A three-month suspension should be the starting point for any lawyer who commits a criminal act.

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