F. Lee Bailey can practice law in Maine, justice says in reversal of prior ruling

Posted June 07, 2013, at 6:51 p.m.
Last modified June 09, 2013, at 4:10 p.m.
F. Lee Bailey
F. Lee Bailey

PORTLAND, Maine — F. Lee Bailey got an early 80th birthday gift Friday when a Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice ruled the Yarmouth resident can obtain a license to practice law in Maine without settling his tax problems.

Bailey, who was born June 10, 1933, in Massachusetts, said Saturday that he is eager to practice law in Maine. The famed-criminal defense attorney also said he would accept court-appointed cases and represent indigent defendants in Maine.

If the Maine Board of Bar Examiners does not appeal Justice Donald Alexander’s decision, Bailey could begin his legal career again as soon as he takes the oath administered to all Maine attorneys.

Bailey has not practiced law since the early 2000s, when he was disbarred in Florida and Massachusetts. He moved to Maine in 2010.

“I had lost the taste for the law in other states,” he said Saturday. “When I moved here, I got to know members of the legal community. I have an abiding affection for the lawyers and judges in Maine.”

Bailey also said his health is good, his mind still sharp and he’d like to mentor younger lawyers. In March, Bailey told a southern Maine newspaper that he still has some “good cross-examination left in me.”

Despite his disbarment, Bailey has continued to lecture and write about the law. Later this week, the textbook, “Excellence in Cross-Examination,” which Bailey co-authored with his former law partner Kenneth Fishman, now a judge in Massachusetts, will be released by West Publishing.

Justice Alexander in April denied Bailey’s appeal of a decision by the Board of Bar Examiners that prevented him from practicing law in the state. The judge said in his 57-page decision dated April 18 that he would reconsider if Bailey offers a plan to repay the nearly $2 million he owes in back taxes to the federal government.

In his five-page decision issued Friday, Alexander granted a motion filed by Bailey’s Portland attorney Peter DeTroy to reconsider his previous decision. Alexander heard arguments on the motion Thursday at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.

The justice agreed that precedent had been set by the 1992 case cited by DeTroy which showed that a woman who had been disbarred in Georgia was admitted to the Maine bar even though she had been convicted of stealing more than $400,000 in Georgia. She had not paid back any of the money stolen from her clients when allowed to obtain a license to practice law in Maine, Alexander wrote.

“A general survey of the state precedent on the debt payment issue suggests that the existence of a debt, by itself, may not result in a finding of lack of good moral character,” the justice said in Friday’s ruling. “Rather, findings of failure of proof of good moral character tend to be based on misconduct regarding effort — or lack of effort — to pay the debt, or misconduct referencing the debt payment obligation in the bar admission process.”

Bailey passed the Maine Bar Examination in February 2012. In November, the State of Maine Board of Bar Examiners ruled 5-4 that “Mr. Bailey has not met his burden of demonstrating by clear and convincing evidence that he possesses the requisite good character and fitness necessary for admission to the Maine Bar.”

Bailey appealed that decision to the state supreme court.

“There is no issue of intentional tax evasion,” Alexander wrote in his first decision. “However, large financial obligations may cloud one’s judgment as to what is in the best interest of clients and what is best practice for compliance with professional and ethical obligations. Thus, large debts are a cause for fitness concerns in bar admission practice.”

DeTroy said in April that litigation is pending concerning Bailey’s tax debt.

Bailey, a practicing litigator for six decades, was on the defense team for Dr. Sam Sheppard; heiress Patty Hearst; Albert DeSalvo, who claimed he was the Boston Strangler; and O.J. Simpson.

He also has been working with a Maine group trying to exonerate Dennis Dechaine in the 1988 murder and kidnapping of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in Bowdoin.

Bailey was licensed to practice law in Massachusetts and Florida, according to a previously published report. In the early 2000s, he was disbarred in both states after a Florida Supreme Court ruling on seven counts of attorney misconduct that stemmed from his handling of a case involving an accused marijuana dealer.

The famed lawyer spent 44 days in federal prison before he was released after repaying millions of dollars worth of stock in a pharmaceutical company he had transferred from his former client’s assets.

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