Due process rights for all

As a former Yale Divinity School student (many years ago) and now an attorney, I wanted to comment on your story “Ethical grievance settlement rejected” (Feb 15, 2016). I am the attorney representing the individuals who filed grievances against their attorneys after a $25 million settlement of a medical malpractice case.

I was struck by the last sentence of the article: “According to [a] 1997 article in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Altschuler sued his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, after his professor gave him a failing grade in her class after he refused to defend an issue to which he found himself morally opposed.”

Why is that in the article at all? The reporter does not explain, but since the UPenn story does have relevance, I thought I would provide a bit more information.

One of the highlights of the first year of law school is moot court where you write a brief and give oral arguments representing a particular party. I was assigned to represent a party I would have refused to represent as an attorney because I opposed the legal goals of that particular party.

I objected to the assignment. My professor told me to ignore ethics; it was only an academic exercise and that I could be ethical once I graduated law school. That made no sense to me. If I was going to compromise my ethics as a law student, why would it be any different when I practiced law?

I came up with what I thought was a great solution. I proposed to turn this into an academic exercise by representing both sides and doing twice the amount of work.

After some hesitation, the professor agreed. I wrote two briefs, and both were accepted. The final part of the course was presenting oral arguments before real judges in a real courthouse. Unfortunately, the professor broke the agreement and would only permit me to present oral arguments for the side I originally did not want to represent. If I did not present oral arguments, I risked being kicked out of law school for failing a mandatory course. I insisted the professor keep her agreement. She refused. I was given a failing grade. It turned out that University of Pennsylvania Law School had no appeal process for students. The hypocrisy of a law school not affording due process for students became a big issue at the school.

What is the relevance of my University of Pennsylvania case 24 years later? My current case brings things full circle because it involves many of the same overarching issues. Lawyers, who are supposed to uphold due process, have set up a grievance system where those who file complaints against lawyers have no due process rights, not even the right to appeal a decision favoring a lawyer, no matter how flawed the decision may be.

Even if you never have to face an ethical dilemma while a student, the reality is there are lots of choices in life where principles are involved. Someday you may be in a position of power or influence. Remember, principles always matter.

Howard Altschuler is a former student at the Yale divinity school.