Power to Admit and Disbar Attorneys

Power to Admit and Disbar Attorneys

Subject to general statutory qualifications for attorneys, the power of the federal courts to admit and disbar attorneys rests on the common law from which it was originally derived. According to Chief Justice Taney, it was well settled by the common law that “it rests exclusively with the Court to determine who is qualified to become one of its officers, as an attorney and counsellor, and for what cause he ought to be removed.” Such power, he made clear, however, “is not an arbitrary and despotic one, to be exercised at the pleasure of the Court, or from passion, prejudice, or personal hostility; but it is the duty of the Court to exercise and regulate it by a sound and just judicial discretion, whereby the rights and independence of the bar may be as scrupulously guarded and maintained by the Court, as the right and dignity of the Court itself.”305 The Test-Oath Act of July 2, 1862, which purported to exclude former Confederates from the practice of law in the federal courts, was invalidated in Ex parte Garland.306 In the course of his opinion for the Court, Justice Field discussed generally the power to admit and disbar attorneys. The exercise of such a power, he declared, is judicial power. The attorney is an officer of the court, and though Congress may prescribe qualifications for the practice of law in the federal courts, it may not do so in such a way as to inflict punishment contrary to the Constitution or to deprive a pardon of the President of its legal effect.307

305 Ex parte Secombe, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 9, 13 (1857). In Frazier v. Heebe, 482 U.S. 641 (1987), the Court exercised its supervisory power to invalidate a district court rule respecting the admission of attorneys. See In re Sawyer, 360 U.S. 622 (1959), with reference to the extent to which counsel of record during a pending case may attribute error to the judiciary without being subject to professional discipline.

306 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 333 (1867).

307 71 U.S. at 378-80. Although a lawyer is admitted to practice in a federal court by way of admission to practice in a state court, he is not automatically sent out of the federal court by the same route, when “principles of right and justice” require otherwise. A determination of a state court that an accused practitioner should be disbarred is not conclusively binding on the federal courts. Theard v. United States, 354 U.S. 278 (1957), citing Selling v. Radford, 243 U.S. 46 (1917). Cf. In re Isserman, 345 U.S. 286, 288 (1953), where it was acknowledged that upon disbarment by a state court, Rule 2, par. 5 of the Rules of the Supreme Court imposes upon the attorney the burden of showing cause why he should not be dis-barred in the latter, and upon his failure to meet that burden, the Supreme Court will “follow the finding of the state that the character requisite for membership in the bar is lacking.” In 348 U.S. 1 (1954), Isserman’s disbarment was set aside for reason of noncompliance with Rule 8 requiring concurrence of a majority of the Justices participating in order to sustain a disbarment. See also In re Disbarment of Crow, 359 U.S. 1007 (1959). For an extensive treatment of disbarment and American and English precedents thereon, see Ex parte Wall, 107 U.S. 265 (1883).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014