PORTLAND, Maine — Famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey said he’d had enough of the legal profession until he came to Maine, and now, rejuvenated at the age of 80, he hopes to launch an intensive one-year master’s degree program for aspiring trial lawyers that he said could attract the best legal minds in the country.
But the State of Maine Board of Bar Examiners maintains that Bailey — who was disbarred in two other states in the early 2000s — cannot be trusted as a practicing attorney in the state, and has urged the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to reverse an earlier justice’s decision to admit him to the bar here.
The state’s highest court heard arguments in Bailey’s case late Tuesday morning in Portland.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Knowlton told the Law Court that Bailey still owes the IRS nearly $4.5 million in federal taxes — an amount Bailey is seeking to reduce to around $2 million — and has “denied most of the misconduct that got him disbarred.”
Bailey’s disbarment in Florida came in 2001 after the state’s courts determined he inappropriately used a client’s assets for personal expenses, and Massachusetts followed with a reciprocal disbarment two years later.
Bailey was also accused in Florida of falsely testifying that he read a court order weeks later than he actually did, as a way of excusing his lack of compliance with the order, and of disparaging a client as a “multimillionaire druggie” in a letter to a judge, among other things.
But attorney Peter DeTroy, representing Bailey, argued Tuesday before the Supreme Judicial Court that his client was humbled by the disbarments and has shaken the “arrogance” that led to his earlier transgressions.
“For almost 45 years, he was one of the most preeminent trial lawyers in this country. What followed was a steep and precipitous decline,” DeTroy told the court. “This whole situation [surrounding the disbarment] was a dark chapter, and in that dark chapter, he didn’t act his best. But the question at the end of the day is, what is his present state?”
Over his career, Bailey earned fame for his role in numerous high-profile cases, including his 1954 advocacy for Sam Sheppard, a doctor wrongly convicted of murdering his wife in a case seen as inspiration for the “Fugitive” television show and movie. Bailey also served on the defense team for former pro football player O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted in a 1995 double murder case that was a media spectacle.
Bailey moved to Maine in 2010, passed the state bar examination in 2012 and, seven months later, was denied admission to the Maine bar by the board because of his past misconduct. Bailey then appealed that decision to a single justice of the state supreme court — in this case, Justice Donald Alexander — who first upheld the board’s denial and then, in a reversal two months later in June of 2013, ruled in Bailey’s favor.
The board then appealed Alexander’s decision to allow Bailey to practice law in Maine to the full supreme court.
Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom Tuesday, Bailey said he was “chastened” by the disbarment episode, but said his reputation is intact in Maine’s legal community.
“There was a range of distinguished character witnesses, judges and lawyers and others, who testified that they would trust me with their bank accounts,” he said.
Bailey said he wants to be allowed to practice law in Maine not only to continue working as a lawyer, but also to help launch a one-year master’s degree program for trial lawyers, mimicking programs he said are successful in Great Britain and which would attract attorneys from around the country.
He said moving to Maine helped revive his gusto for making a difference through the legal system, and suggested multiple other reforms as well, such as requiring attorneys to work as prosecutors and defenders at the same time to help balance their perspectives.
“Quite frankly, I had lost enthusiasm for practicing law until I got up to Maine and met the exceptional judges and lawyers up here,” he told reporters.
But while the justices on the state’s highest court acknowledged that much of Bailey’s tax problems could be attributed to honest bookkeeping mistakes and that many have testified to his good character since, granting him entry to the bar may be a difficult decision.
“The question isn’t necessarily whether he’ll be deceptive, but whether he’ll have poor record-keeping and lack of recollection as a practicing attorney,” Justice Jon Levy said Tuesday.
“Is it not the responsibility of the board and the court to ensure that poor record-keeping does not interfere with his ability to meet his obligations and to meet his responsibility to his clients?” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley posed.
There is no timetable under which the court must issue its decision on the case.