By Scott St. Clair
The “lawyer with baggage” theme is a staple of TV crime dramas. The Law & Order franchise used it as a plot twist a couple times – here and here – to juice up stories where bogus legal credentials threatened convictions. And the current hit series Better Call Saul has strip mall lawyer protagonist Jimmy McGill aka Slippin’ Jimmy aka Saul Goodman suffering a suspension of his law license for engaging in off-center and dubious shenanigans against his brother.
So it’s hardly surprising that New Jersey politics, always looking to sink to new depths, has gotten into the act with its own slippin’ character, LD-26 Assembly hopeful and current Morris County Freeholder John “Slippin’ Johnny” Cesaro.
You see, it turns out that ol’ Slippin’ Johnny ran afoul of the rules and became “administratively ineligible” to practice law after he failed to comply with state bar association reporting requirements having to do with the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts program. As one report described it:
Cesaro was listed as administratively ineligible due to non-compliance with the IOLTA program, a non-profit program that helps disabled and low-income people resolve civil legal matters.
Slippin’ Johnny’s name first appeared on the IOLTA Ineligible List on October 21, 2016. According to Mary Waldman, the newly appointed executive director of the IOLTA Fund of the Bar of New Jersey, attorneys in the state are notified of their filing obligations in December, but those who fail to comply don’t have their names placed on the list until October of the following year, 10 months later. He remained on the list for seven months, not rectifying the situation until just recently.
Waldman said there are close to 90,000 attorneys in New Jersey. The most recent IOLTA Ineligible List had approximately 1,300 names, or 1.45 percent of the total, one of which was Slippin’ Johnny’s who was, per the list, originally admitted to practice in 2001.
It’s not like annual registration and IOLTA reporting requirements are rocket science, especially for someone who was admitted to the bar almost an entire generation ago. So what was it about Slippin’ Johnny that made him…slip?
Media reports appear to have Slippin’ Johnny talking out of both sides of his mouth on whether he did or did not file his paper work in a timely manner. One quoted him as saying he did – “’This was a clerical error on my part,’ said Cesaro. ‘I send my paperwork in every year, and I sent them in this year,’” – while another has him saying he didn’t – “John Cesaro told Parsippany Focus he registers every year but he apparently failed to do so last year.”
How slippin’ is that, Johnny?
There’s enough slip sliddin’ away already in Trenton, so should Slippin’ Johnny slip down the slippery slope to sloppy legislative details? After all, the devil is always in them, and it’s a pretty significant detail that Slippin’ Johnny botched.
But what exactly does it mean to be “administratively ineligible”? Admittedly, it’s a far cry from being disbarred or even suspended for an infraction of the rules of ethics. But it does make an attorney who’s on that list legally unable to practice law.
“Administratively ineligible” is defined by the state bar as:
“The attorney is not currently eligible to practice law in New Jersey for one or more reasons, including failure to pay the annual attorney assessment to the New Jersey Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, failure to register with IOLTA or maintain IOLTA accounts, or otherwise failing to meet the requirements of Rule 1:21-1(a).Administrative ineligibility is not the result of discipline, but attorneys who are administratively ineligible are not allowed to practice law in New Jersey.” (emphasis added)
In other words, if you don’t comply with the IOLTA reporting requirements, you may not pass Go, you may not offer legal advice, you may not collect fees, you may not practice law. If you continue to practice law while ineligible for whatever reason, the state bar association can pile on additional sanctions, as it has done to other attorneys in the past.
Ineligible by any other name – disbarred, suspended or administratively -- is still ineligible. Again, this ain’t rocket science.
Yet for months Slippin’ Johnny did practice law, which arguably also means he violated the legal canons of ethics for the state bar association, which state:
“RPC 5.5 Lawyers Not Admitted to the Bar of This State and the Lawful Practice of Law
(a) A lawyer shall not:
(1) practice law in a jurisdiction where doing so violates the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction…”
And he did so as a prosecutor or public defender for several townships. Elected officials in jurisdictions for which he provided legal services have expressed concerns over the consequences of Slippin’ Johnny’s ineligibility on criminal and other matters he might have handled for them as well as cases that were strictly within his own private law practice. It just gets curiouser and curiouser.
A call to the state’s Office of Attorney Ethics to ascertain the full ethical ramifications of Slippin’ Johnny’s bungling of his paperwork resulting in being placed on the Administratively Ineligible list had not been returned as of late Thursday, June 1.
For someone who promotes himself on the Morris County Freeholder’s website as a strong proponent of transparency, when it comes to his eligibility to practice law it looks like Slippin’ Johnny has been as transparent as mud.
According to reports, Slippin’ Johnny squared himself away with the state bar association so his name was recently removed from the Administratively Ineligible list. That removal, however, is not retroactive – whatever legal work he did between the deadline for filing his paperwork and his removal from the list he did while ineligible to practice law.