Viewpoint: Knudsen’s 41 charges were a long-time coming
I have covered courts in seven different states and have been a journalist since 1996.
I have seen attorneys who were so silver-tongued that they brought jurors to tears. I have seen some attorneys so woefully inadequate and broken that they were threatened by judges to be sent to jail right along with those poor clients whom they represented.
I have seen murder trials. I have seen people show up for court drunk, literally off their ass.
I have never seen anything like the lawyering of Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen during his attempt to execute a subpoena, later declared invalid, or his subsequent actions to antagonize the state’s highest court, and discredit the justice system.
Though it’s now more than two years distant, I remember reading and re-reading several letters produced by his office and his right-hand henchwoman Kris Hansen, then lieutenant attorney general, which openly defied the state’s highest court. Remember, even though the Montana Supreme Court had made several rulings, including declaring that a legislative subpoena was invalid, Knudsen openly, stubbornly and contemptuously refused to obey it, and threatened the entire court.
At the time, I spoke to more than a dozen attorneys I know and trust, checking my own experience against theirs, asking, “Is this normal,” or “Have you ever seen anything like this,” or even, “In law school did they cover this?”
The resounding and unanimous answer was always: Absolutely not.
I wondered if any formal action would ever come from such brazen and hostile conduct. I questioned whether such an extreme case might unintentionally inspire the next generation of politicians who masquerade as lawyers to not just ignore the orders of the Supreme Court, but to willfully reject them in a similar public way.
Regardless of your political persuasion, if we don’t all play by a few commonly accepted rules, like the principles of separation of powers and judicial review, then the entire system starts crumbling pretty quickly. Put another way: Imagine if everyone could just make up their own supreme rules while driving.
One other important thing that I have learned about the courts and the justice system is that their time is not the same time as journalists’ or even the public’s. For those of us who produce content several times a day, a week can be a long time, a month an eternity. But for courts, due process equals time.
On Tuesday, though, my questions about Knudsen’s egregious behavior were finally answered: The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed 41 charges of professional misconduct against Montana’s attorney general, largely centering on his interactions with the Supreme Court and his open, public and repeated defiance of court orders, including a “Hail-Mary” attempt to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
While these are not criminal charges, they could be career-ending for Knudsen as a lawyer. A possible consequence is disbarment, and being an attorney in good standing is part of the state’s Constitutional requirements for the attorney general’s office.
The most egregious of these 41 charges includes refusing to return illegally collected evidence for months, even though he and his office were ordered to do so. The charges also include willfully and repeatedly refusing lawful orders. Surely, Knudsen’s office would have a hard time justifying such behavior from any defendant it faces: What happens if convicted felons simply refused to serve time in jail? Or if child molesters wanted to live in buildings that also housed a daycare?
Again, the rules are there for a reason and can’t be arbitrary or optional depending upon how much political clout you perceive you have.
Maybe it’s time for the legislature to rethink naming the state’s Highway Patrol headquarters after Kris Hansen. As gauche as it may be speaking ill of the dead, the lawmakers’ zeal to canonize a former state lawmaker should be weighed against her actions as Knudsen’s deputy. Keep in mind: She encouraged and participated in these stubborn refusals to disobey court orders. It’s not exactly a good look for the state highway patrol to be headquartered in a building that is named after a person who openly refused a lawful order.
Reading through the 35-page document, it’s clear the Office of Disciplinary Counsel is concerned with the corrosive effect Knudsen’s actions have had: It sends the message that court orders, which Knudsen’s office relies upon daily, can be disregarded – or even worse, mocked.
Repeatedly, the charges against Knudsen contain a damning array of violations of court rules, and the document is littered with sentences that would be surprising in almost any other context, for example: “Such statements are contemptuous, undignified, discourteous, and/or disrespectful and constitute a knowing disobedience of an obligation under the rules of a tribunal.”
But phrases like that don’t just appear once in the disciplinary charges, they are legion.
And, if as the document says, Knudsen’s action had the corrosive effect of undermining and discrediting the judiciary, these formal charges reaffirm that the state’s court system will not tolerate abuse, even if it comes from the alleged top lawyer in the state. In other words, no person is above the law.
More importantly, those who practice law would do well to remember that they are not the law.
After reading through the entire disciplinary document against Knudsen, I kept on hearing the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And on Tuesday, Montana bent.