In re Brittain, 2017 Vt. 31 (Vt., 2017) (May 5, 2017).
Brittain, a member in good standing of the bar of Wisconsin, the United States District Court in Wisconsin, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court from the state bar’s character and fitness committee’s determination that Brittain lacked the good moral character needed for admission to the Vermont bar.
During his years as a Wisconsin public defender, Brittain was vocal in his views on juvenile justice policy, earning him a suspension for insubordination. He later resigned to open his own practice, during the course of which he had several heated run-ins with judges. Brittain was admonished to refrain from providing personal comments to a jury and for criticizing an assistant district attorney before a jury. Trial judges did not find persuasive Brittain’s denial of any intent to attack his opponent nor did they credit his claim to assert his own First Amendment rights.
Brittain had contentious encounters with Transportation Security Administration officials. He experienced financial difficulty when insurance proceeds were insufficient to cover the costs of damage to his condominium.
Brittain did not oppose the Wisconsin bar’s public reprimand.
The Vermont committee found that nothing suggested that Brittain to be dishonest or to be deficient in his professional activities, nor could the committee find fault with his bankruptcy, which was precipitated by a natural disaster.
The committee did find that the four contempt citations issued by three separate judges, as well as Brittain’s stipulation to two violations of the rules of professional conduct evidenced a “disturbingly self-destructive patter of behavior…” through which a lack of respect for others was evidenced in his conflicts with airport security and employment authorities.
The Supreme Court found Brittain’s conduct cumulatively deficient in moral character, although each incident alone would not support that finding. Moreover, Brittain did not appear to comprehend courtroom decorum nor accept responsibility nor present evidence of rehabilitation. The court found that should Brittain continue on his path that danger to the public would be likely, rendering bar admission inappropriate.
One judge dissented, noting that Brittain had never caused harm to clients, had received only the mildest of reprimands, and had acknowledgement his responsibilities. Another state had determined that Brittain had grown in insight and responsibility.
Passionate advocacy ought not be conflated with poor character, the dissent cautioned. In this case reversal of the committee’s findings would be his choice, the judge noted.