By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
When Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody joined her Texas counterpart and other Republicans in trying to overturn 2020 presidential election results from four swing states, some Floridians wanted her disbarred.
Pam Keith, a South Florida political activist, floated an online petition that slammed Moody for what Keith called “conduct in violation of her oath of office and in abrogation of her responsibility as an officer of the court.” She collected more than 1,700 signatures.
In the end, the petition drive went nowhere. And now the Florida Bar is rewriting a disciplinary rule to forestall any similar efforts in the future. Bar leaders may be reacting to the situation in Texas, where Attorney General Ken Paxton is under investigation for leading the charge that Moody and the others followed.
“That whole Texas thing was a maneuver for a partisan motive and was not any kind of pursuit of justice on behalf of the people,” Keith told Florida Bulldog. “And for Moody to use her title and resources to engage in a purely GOP maneuver is an outrage.”
“God forbid a Democrat had done something like this,” she added. Last November Keith, a Democrat, lost an 18th Congressional District race to unseat South Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City.
EX-JUSTICE BERATES AG MOODY
Moody added her name to a friend-of-the-court brief that endorsed Texas’s attack on 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. Paxton alleged that fraud corrupted votes for president in those states, a claim that had been widely debunked.
The U.S. Supreme Court scrapped Paxton’s lawsuit on Dec. 11. The justices seemed to also send a go-away message to Moody and the 16 other Republican attorneys general who supported Paxton in court.
Soon after, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells expressed his “extreme disappointment” in a letter to Moody that the Orlando Sentinel reprinted.
“Joining in the patently meritless case … brought discredit to your office, and results in the loss of confidence of citizens of our state and nation in the fair and competent administration of justice in Florida,” Wells wrote.
“It is a grave mark against your service as Attorney General which I urge you to acknowledge, and work to repair the damage you have caused,” his letter says.
“You should do that not only because you are Attorney General. You should do that because you are a member of the Florida Bar who has an ethical obligation not to join in frivolous, meritless litigation.”
THE FLORIDA BAR WANTS NEW DISCIPLINE RULE
Moody’s office responded to a request for comment about Wells’s letter and Keith’s petition with this statement: “The petition is simply a meritless political stunt.” Spokesperson Kylie Mason didn’t address Wells’s letter.
Keith tried unsuccessfully to submit her petition to the Florida Bar. She was told the Bar isn’t authorized to investigate complaints against sitting constitutional officers such as the attorney general.
The story would have ended there. Except that about six months later, in July, the Florida Bar Board of Governors approved a “clarification” to the disciplinary rule for lawyers like Moody who are state officials, according to the Florida Bar News.
The existing rule says only that ethics complaints must be filed within six years of these lawyers leaving office. It says nothing about subjecting them during their period of service to the same oversight as other lawyers–or not.
THE FLORIDA BAR SAYS IT CAN’T REGULATE AGS
Now the board proposes an amended rule to spell out, for the first time, that these officials are immune from discipline until their terms end.
The Florida Supreme Court is expected to approve the change. Based on recent history, the justices may not wait for public comment before ruling.
Meanwhile, Keith and others are crying foul.
“The board of governors works hand in hand to protect the GOP,” said Keith, who is currently based in Washington, D.C., where she’s licensed to practice law, while residing in Florida. “There is no balance in our state, there is no rule of law, there is no accountability.”
A Florida Bar spokesperson responded to Keith’s comment by saying, basically, their hands are tied.
The Bar lacks “jurisdiction to regulate constitutional officers that are required to be licensed by the Bar, under Florida Supreme Court case law and the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar,” Jennifer Krell Davis wrote in an email to Florida Bulldog.
TEXAS BAR IS PROBING AG PAXTON
Davis said “no comment” when asked about timing: Why did the board of governors consider the rule change right after all the uproar about Moody?
Attorney discipline rules are different in Texas, where the state bar association is investigating Paxton for professional misconduct. The group didn’t want to proceed, but was overruled by a separate tribunal that runs the state’s lawyer grievance process, the Associated Press reported.
“Disciplinary decisions must not be resolved pursuant to a popularity contest,” Paxton wrote in response to ethics charges. He denied violating professional standards.
In Florida, the Bar outsources ethics hearings but oversees the entire process. The Florida Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of attorney punishment.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-dominated Legislature have been lining up with Texas in many areas of common interest to conservatives.
This time Florida’s following a different path.