As an attorney, you rely on your ability to practice law. It’s what you do. It’s how you pay your bills. It’s your reward for all those years you hit the books and racked up student loans. And it’s why you need to understand “moral turpitude.”
You can put your license at risk by committing acts of moral turpitude. In some cases, you can get arrested and never face discipline from the State Bar. But if you act with moral turpitude, you could be disbarred without ever facing an arrest.
Pressing for specifics
Of the 25 disciplinary records the California State Bar posted between January 10 and February 8 of 2020, seven involved moral turpitude. Of those, three featured convictions. Four were associated more loosely with “acts.” The State Bar suspended three of the attorneys and disbarred four.
The takeaway is that you don’t want to act with moral turpitude. But how can you know what to avoid? After all, moral turpitude is a notoriously tough concept to digest. Even the Supreme Court of California has struggled with it and stated that it “cannot be defined with precision.” Yet, at the same time, the designation has survived legal challenges and could have a huge impact on any potential discipline you may face.
Fortunately, you can find a solid review of the State Bar’s take on moral turpitude in the recent case of a lawyer disbarred in part for domestic violence. Here are some of the highlights:
- The State Bar noted that a conviction for domestic violence “does not establish moral turpitude per se.” Instead, any finding of moral turpitude needed to be established by the facts of the case.
- It cited a definition that consistently linked moral turpitude to acts of “baseness, vileness or depravity” that betray the trust held between people and their societies.
- The issue of moral turpitude is always evolving to keep up with contemporary moral standards.
Perhaps most importantly, the State Bar pointed to a California Supreme Court opinion in which it outlined two ways an attorney’s behavior may reveal moral turpitude:
- Calling attention to “a deficiency in any character trait necessary for the practice of law”
- Shattering trust or disrespecting the law in such a way that it may “undermine public confidence in and respect for the legal profession”
As a result, the State Bar may apply the moral turpitude label to a broad range of actions—not just violent crimes. Already in 2020, the State Bar has found moral turpitude in cases of willful misrepresentation and the misappropriation of client funds.
Responding to ethical concerns
You can’t afford to be disbarred for acts of moral turpitude. If you face discipline, you want to work with someone who understands how the State Bar views moral turpitude and can respond appropriately.