Supreme Court suspends the wrong lawyer — how did that happen?

On Tuesday, Will Baude pointed out an unusual, unsigned order coming out the Supreme Court: “Due to mistaken identity, the order suspending Christopher Patrick Sullivan of Boston, Massachusetts from the practice of law in this Court, dated May 15, 2017, is vacated.”

The AP’s Mark Sherman soon followed up.  It seems that the Court intended to suspend Christopher P. Sullivan, a Vermont attorney who is now in prison for DUI hit-and-run.  Instead, it targeted another Christopher P. Sullivan, a prominent Boston attorney who is president-elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association.  Everyone seems to agree that it was an honest mistake, that was resolved quickly.  As the Boston Herald explained yesterday: “If you live in New England and have an Irish name, chances are someone else has it, too.”

But how did this happen, especially for an organization that, as Mark Sherman noted, “sometimes debates the placement of a comma”?

The AP story has a few more details:

The court receives discipline notices from courts around the country and compares those lists to the roster of lawyers who can practice in front of the justices. When there’s a match, the court initiates its own disbarment proceeding, which begins with a suspension and an order to explain why the lawyer should not be kicked out of the Supreme Court bar.

It seems that New York disciplined the Vermont attorney following his DUI conviction, and sent the notice to the Supreme Court. The clerk’s office matched the notice to a Christopher P. Sullivan who had graduated from Fordham Law School, without recognizing that (at least) two men fit that description.  The wrong attorney was therefore suspended.

In the end, the mistake was essentially harmless, albeit embarrassing.  But it does highlight the intra-organizational networks connecting state courts and the Supreme Court–dense networks of information sharing that rarely come into the public consciousness.  Sharing information requires thoughtful organizational processing and decision-making.  Most of the time, that processing is sufficiently smooth that it never captures our attention.  This episode gives us a small glimpse into the quietly complex working of court administration.

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