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Ethics Opinion

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RI-1

January 28, 1989

SYLLABUS

    A lawyer who is a part-time referee may represent clients in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as referee, provided that all parties consent.

    A part-time referee may not hear matters in which the referee participated personally and substantially as a lawyer.

    A part-time referee is disqualified from hearing matters presented by the referee's law firm.

    References: MRPC 1.11, 1.12; MCR 2.003.

TEXT

A lawyer asks whether (1) the lawyer partners of a part-time domestic relations referee may represent an individual in matters pending before the referee; (2) a lawyer may act in matters in which the lawyer participated as referee; and (3) a referee may act in matters in which the referee participated as a lawyer.

The Committee notes that the appointed position of referee is part-time and continued private practice of law is contemplated. Thus the Committee must consider the implications of part-time practice when interpreting the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct. Further, the circuit served by the referee is relatively small, and there is only one referee.

The position of domestic relations referee is a public office which is quasi-judicial in nature. A referee is responsible for making factual determinations, recommendations and rulings with respect to support, custody and visitation disputes. The issues may arise in domestic relations proceedings both before and after the entry of a judgment of divorce. The propriety of conduct by the lawyer/referee and other members of the firm must be measured against the ethical considerations which are applicable to both judicial officers and attorneys in private practice.

With respect to subsequent representation of individuals who were parties to matters coming before the referee, MRPC 1.12 states in part:

    "(a) . . . a lawyer shall not represent anyone in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a judge or other adjunctive officer . . . unless all of the parties to the proceeding consent after consultation.

    ". . .

    "(c) . . . no lawyer in a firm with which that lawyer is associated may knowingly undertake or continue representation in the matter, unless:

      "(1) the disqualified lawyer is screened from any participation in the matter and is apportioned no part of the fee therefrom; and

      "(2) written notice is promptly given to the appropriate tribunal to enable it to ascertain compliance with the provisions of the rule . . . ."

Thus, a lawyer who is a part-time referee may represent clients in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated as referee, provided that all parties consent after consultation, and the firm may represent an individual in a matter in which the referee participated if the lawyer/referee is screened from participation and written notice is given to the tribunal.

MRPC 1.11(c)(1) states in part:

    "(c) Except as law may otherwise expressly permit, a lawyer serving as a public officer or employee shall not:

      "(1) participate in a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially while in private practice or nongovernmental employment, unless under applicable law no one is, or by lawful delegation may be, authorized to act in the lawyer's stead in the matter, . . . ."

Serving the lawyer/referee does not meet the exception, he may not hear matters in which he participated as lawyer. This is the same result reached under Michigan Court Rule 2.003(B) "Disqualification of Judges" which states in part:

    "(B) A judge is disqualified when the judge cannot impartially hear a case, including a proceeding in which the judge:

      ". . .

      "(3) . . . has been consulted or employed as an attorney in the matter in controversy and all parties consent after consultation,

      "(4) . . . was a partner of a party, attorney for a party, or a member of a law firm representing a party within the preceding two years . . . ."

When performing as referee, the lawyer/referee is a judicial officer and is considered subject to the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct and judicial disqualification rules. See also MCR 9.201(2). Under MCR 2.003(B)(4) the referee is disqualified in a proceeding in which he was a member of the law firm of a party within the preceding two years. The Committee is aware that application of this rule to part-time practice situations results in a permanent bar to the referee hearing matters presented by the referee's law firm.

In summary, a lawyer who is part-time referee may represent clients in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated as referee, provided that all parties consent; a part-time referee may not hear matters in which the referee participated as a lawyer; and a part-time referee is disqualified from hearing matters presented by the referee's firm.

 
     

 

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