NMSC Indefinitely Suspends Attorney for Failing to Provide Competent and Diligent Representation

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The New Mexico Supreme Court released an opinion yesterday in In re Padilla, a disciplinary board matter. In New Mexico, attorneys are governed by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Two of the most basic obligation under the rules are the obligation to be both diligent and competent when representing clients. Here, the Court found that Padilla failed to live up to those requirements.

Background

Padilla represented a defendant who had been accused of various sex crimes against a minor. The defendant was convicted on all counts. His convictions were later vacated after the court of appeals determined Padilla’s representation was ineffective assistance of counsel, and a new trial was ordered. Subsequently, the disciplinary board investigated Padilla for professional conduct.

The facts were undisputed. Padilla had failed to familiarize himself with one of the areas of law at issue in the case. He had failed to investigate evidence that could have exonerated his client. He had elicited damaging testimony from one of the witnesses and failed to cure it. And he had failed to investigate a report that could have been used to his client’s advantage. Trial is all about evidence–both how to use it, and the law regarding its use–and Padilla fell short in both regards.

The Opinion

The New Mexico Supreme Court had a number of functions other than simple appellate review. One of these is to review recommendations for attorney discipline from the Disciplinary Board. Under Rule 17-316, the Court reviews recommendations by the Board to suspend or disbar an attorney.

Like many opinions on disciplinary board matters, this opinion (1) is fairly straightforward and (2) is a good reminder of the professional obligations that we as attorneys operate under. Rather than go into detail on what Padilla did wrong here, I’d like to focus on what this opinion reminds us that we as attorneys are required to do right.

Two of the ethical obligations at issue here, competence and diligence, are closely related, and the Court analyzes them together. For example, attorneys have a duty to “apprise themselves of the current state of applicable legal standards pertinent to a given case.” In other words, we are expected to know what the relevant law is. It is almost too obvious to say that an attorney who does not know the law is not competent. Perhaps slightly less obvious is that it requires diligence not only to learn the law in the first instance, but to stay abreast of developments in the law. The law is, after all, always changing, and indeed sometimes it is our job to change it.

The duties of competence and diligence also give rise to a duty to investigate. Here, Padilla was aware of potentially exculpatory information regarding another individual’s relationship with the victim. But he took no steps to investigate it. He also failed to follow up on information available to him and potentially admissible that the victim had possibly never been abused at all. The Court observed that the failure to investigate these matters was neither competent nor diligent. In fact, the Court went so far as to suggest that Padilla’s repeated failures violations of the rules requiring competence and diligence undermined public of confidence in all attorneys.

In addition to, and based on, the violations of the competence and diligence rules, the Court found that Padilla had violated a rule prohibiting attorneys from engaging in “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.” Padilla’s other violations had denied his client the right to a fair trial and deprived him of due process. The Rules of Professional Conduct protect not just clients, but also “the profession and administration of justice.” As a result, the Court ordered Padilla to be suspended for six months, followed by six months of supervised probation, after which he could seek to be reinstated.

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