Posted: Dec. 6, 2005
RICH ABBOTT: THE PREQUEL
By Celia Cohen
Richard L. Abbott, a Hockessin attorney whose brand of extreme lawyering got him a judicial lecture on civility last week, was disciplined in 2003 for disparaging a judge, Delaware Grapevine has learned.
Abbott was placed on private probation, the lightest punishment a lawyer can get, so light that the name of anyone on it is kept confidential by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the arm of the Delaware Supreme Court responsible for policing attorneys' conduct.
The probation, which lasted two years, was expunged automatically when it ended, and Abbott denies its existence. "It's not true. It's just not true," he said Tuesday.
Abbott landed on probation for belittling Chancellor William B. Chandler III after losing a case he filed for a citizens' group against a Wal-Mart center in Smyrna and complaining to the Delaware State News, "Whatever Wal-Mart wants, Wal-Mart gets. I think the court was afraid of angering state officials who want the project to happen."
It was a telling example of Abbott's no-fear advocacy, a buzz-saw argumentativeness that has characterized not only his legal work but his time on the New Castle County Council, which ended in 2002 in a Republican primary race that is now central to the federal indictment against Thomas P. Gordon and Sherry L. Freebery.
Just last week, Abbott was ordered by Superior Court Judge Jan R. Jurden to resubmit a filing she found overly sarcastic, not least because he described a county board, as she put it, as "the functional equivalent of an appointed 'group of monkeys.'"
Abbott was unhappy to be asked about the private probation. He says it has been unearthed because of who is he and whom he frequently represents -- Frank Acierno, a developer who seems to spend as much time litigating against the county as building there.
"There's a lot of people out there who want to harm me because I buck the system," he said, explaining that the attacks come "when you're dealing with a client who is fairly adjudged a public figure and you yourself are a public figure."
As for the disciplinary action, Abbott said, "It's false. You can't prove it. I would not advise you to print it."
While the name of a lawyer on private probation remains confidential, the punishment itself is public, listed under "Private Sanctions" in the Digest of Lawyer Discipline, available on the Supreme Court's Web site.
The circumstances of "Private Probation, Board Case No. 15, 2003" concern a lawyer under scrutiny because of a rule that prohibits "[making] a statement in reckless disregard as to its truth concerning the integrity of a judge."
It recounts in general terms what the lawyer, who is called a "respondent" in disciplinary proceedings, did:
"The respondent made certain statements to the press that suggested that the court's decision was made on a basis other than on the merits of the case and the legal arguments that were presented to the court. The respondent's statements implied that the court had acted out of concern or fear of personal or political repercussions . . . [and] were not supported by any evidence, documentary or otherwise."
The account noted that the private probation, once expunged, cannot be cited in a new disciplinary proceeding. Judge Jurden suggested there may be one because of Abbott's "monkey" brief, which she said "may implicate" a rule against undignified or discourteous conduct degrading to a court.
If it does, Abbott's record will be clean, as though the punishment never existed, just as he says.