It is without doubt that the law professors at the Duke University School of Law fear the North Carolina State Bar. This fear is not borne due to a lack of courage on part of the legal faculty of this prestigious institution of learning, but rather due to an abundance of common sense. They realize that speaking out in behalf of justice on the taboo topic of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong's selective and unjust disbarment could net them an outcome similar to his at the hands of the unregulated agency. In disbarring Mr. Nifong, the only prosecutor to be disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar since its inception in 1933, the State Bar sent a strong message to all attorneys licensed to practice in the Tar Heel state: "We have the capacity and the will to take away your legal livelihood on a whim, at our discretion, arbitrarily, and selectively without regard to the merits and justification, or lack thereof, of bogus charges we choose to bring against you." Attorneys throughout the state of North Carolina realized that Mike Nifong was prosecuting the Duke Lacrosse case with professional conduct well within acceptable established standards, and that his actions in that case did not warrant his disbarment (or any disciplinary action). Lawyers were also aware that former prosecutor David Hoke, in prosecuting Alan Gell, withheld exculpatory evidence from the defendant's attorney which enabled Hoke to win a conviction and death sentence against the innocent defendant. Justice was definitely denied in this case as Mr. Gell spent more than nine years wrongfully incarcerated because of a prosecutor acting as an antithesis of a "Minister of Justice." Although Mr. Hoke's actions in the Gell case were flagrantly and egregiously afoul of acceptable standards, attorneys witnessed the arbitrariness of the Bar disciplinary arm when it meted out to Hoke a mild reprimand, the weakest action possible. North Carolina attorneys, especially Duke law professors, are able to put two and two together, and they realize that if they cherish their law license, their employment, and their opportunity for advancement in their field, that they must avoid the minefield which is the taboo topic of Mike Nifong's disbarment.
On Wednesday, November 18, 2009, I trolled the halls of the Duke University School of Law seeking professors to take my "Snapshot Survey" (a survey consisting of one question). Using two hypothetical scenarios (A and B), which were thinly veiled cases representing the Alan Gell case and the Duke Lacrosse case respectively, it asked which Prosecutor (A or B) was more deserving of disbarment. Approximately two dozen professors were gracious enough to give me a few minutes of their time and consider the question. However, without exception, they all refused to answer it. The majority gave no specific reason, whereas a few did acknowledge that they were concerned about possible fallout resulting from any participation in the survey. One professor refused to select one prosecutor over the other as being more "deserving of disbarment" using the irrational logic that to do so would suggest the other prosecutor did not deserve to be disciplined. I was surprised at the number of law professors who told me they believed Mr. Nifong should have been disbarred (three or four). When I asked them to specifically tell me what Mr. Nifong did to deserve disbarment, they all responded that they were busy and had to prepare for class. That response is definitely not unreasonable, especially since I dropped in on them unannounced and without an appointment. One professor, who is an outspoken critic of Mr. Nifong, has been challenged on numerous occasions in the past to explain in writing why he feels Mr. Nifong deserved to be disbarred over his handling of the Duke Lacrosse case. Although he has repeatedly assured me that he would provide me with a written answer (which I told him I would post on our website, unedited and without direct comment), he as yet to do so, and I doubt that he will find time in the future to get around to doing it.
What I find particularly disturbing is that in an institution for legal learning, like the Duke University School of Law, such a topic of significant importance would be suppressed, and that its professors, out of justifiable fear of retribution (whether academically, professionally, legally, and/or financially) would avoid talking about the selective and unjust disbarment of Mike Nifong. Currently, I am unaware of any other topic which would garner such a response, but I would imagine that any subject matter that casts an unfavorable light on the North Carolina State Bar would be applicable. For example, law professors have no problem tackling controversial topics such as the First Amendment Right of racists writing inciteful hate-speech on university campus walls, but they are mum when it comes to discussing issues that threaten the sanctity of the almighty State Bar with its absolute power. Often overlooked is the fact that the issue of Mike Nifong's disbarment is not limited to the man alone, but has wide reaching ramifications about the state's social justice system, the issue of whether justice is a commodity that can be bought by the affluent, and the absolute power of the North Carolina State Bar and the influence it welds with the General Assembly and in the courtrooms.
On Tuesday evening, April 21, 2009, at the North Carolina State University campus, the ACLU of Wake County and the North Carolina State University Pre-Law Services presented the Annual Slater Newman Debate, with the topic: "A Debate Exploring First Amendment Rights, Hate Speech and the Free Expression Tunnel." Panelists for this debate included Professor Michael Curtis of Wake Forest Law School, Professor Shannon Gilreath of Wake Forest Law School, Professor Gregory Wallace of Campbell University Law School, and Legal Director Katy Parker of the ACLU of North Carolina. After the discussion/debate which was open to the public, I handed each of the panelists a survey which covered the subject of Mike Nifong's disbarment and the Duke Lacrosse case. I asked Ms. Parker directly if she would participate by filling out the questionnaire and returning it to me. She responded, "It depends on the questions." Well, she must not have liked the questions because I never heard from her. Neither did I hear from the other three law school professors, despite the fact that I enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for each recipient. I followed up with all of the "Free Speech" panelists, sending them letters dated May 8, 2009. These letters sought a response from the panelist, however, again my attempts to engage them in dialog was ignored. This made it very apparent to me that although the First Amendment may guarantee one's right to freedom of expression, it does not protect one from the consequences that may follow. Being intelligent and rational individuals, I have no doubt that the panelists had opinions that were favorable to Mr. Nifong and contrary to the NC State Bar's actions. However, fearing the repercussions that vocalizing their pro-Nifong opinions might generate, they elected to remain silent. As is so often the case, especially when logic flows against the powers that be, freedom of expression is suppressed by freedom of retaliation. There is no doubt in my mind that had the State Bar's position against Mr. Nifong been legitimate, the law professors, legal pundits, ACLU members and others would freely let their opinions on Mr. Nifong's disbarment be known.
Attorneys and law school professors are not the only ones who avoid, like the plague, the taboo topic of Mike Nifong's disbarment. Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton's staff will not even allow me an appointment to meet with him. And although his staff has acknowledged receiving and reviewing contents of a package that I left for the lieutenant governor, they would not affirm that they had forwarded it to him. Most of the politicians, including outspoken ones, such as Representative Paul Stam, refuse to discuss Mr. Nifong's disbarment with me. I have not, as yet, approached Governor Bev Perdue on the topic, but plan on doing so in the future.
I can appreciate the conundrum in which law professors at Duke find themselves when it comes to discussing the selective and unjust disbarment of Mike Nifong. In the spirit of fairness, I will offer this blog site as a forum for an unedited response by the Dean of the Duke University School of Law. Although the First Amendment guarantees his right to take advantage of this platform, I hope that the prospect of any retaliatory consequences to his statements does not impede it.