Federal appeals court Judge Alex Kozinski, an outspoken critic of prosecutors who commit misconduct, took on a California criminal defense lawyer Monday for being “a hazard to clients” and “a menace to the profession and to the courts.”
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Bakersfield lawyer Gregory H. Mitts was grossly negligent in his representation of Rowan Brooks, an inmate challenging his murder conviction.
The court said Mitts filed Brooks' appeal late and then failed to respond to a court order asking for an explanation. Mitts also failed to inform his client of the order, despite persistent inquiries from Brooks, the court said.
“Mitts’ behavior was not mere negligence, but rather virtual abandonment -- ‘neglect so gross that it is inexcusable,’” the panel said.
The 9th Circuit ordered the district court to reconsider the case.
In a concurrence, Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, made a veiled appeal to the California bar to discipline the defense lawyer.
“Mitts’ actions consumed countless hours of this court’s and the district court’s time in dealing with his obstinate incompetence,” Kozinski wrote.
“If Mitts was so lackadaisical in Brooks’s case, we can only imagine what problems he’s caused, or is likely to cause, other clients,” the judge continued. “Potential clients, who will put their lives in Mitts’ hands, as Brooks did, are entitled to know that this lawyer ignores client inquiries, misses jurisdictional deadlines and does not own up to his mistakes.”
Kozinski said he was unaware of any disciplinary action pending against Mitts.
“The State Bar of California may not yet be aware of Mitts’ behavior,” Kozinski wrote. “Perhaps now it will be.”
Kozinski has long called for courts to publish the names of errant prosecutors and defense attorneys so lawyer disciplinary organizations will be alerted.
Mitts could not be reached for comment.
On his website, Mitts said he had been practicing in Kern County since 1977 and asserted that he had received certificates from the Bakersfield Californian for being “Best Attorney” in 2005 and “Favorite Attorney” in 2006.
“When you are in trouble with law enforcement, you want an attorney that you can rely upon and who you feel really cares about you and your case,” Mitts wrote on his site. "I am that kind of attorney.”
State bar records show Mitts has never been publicly disciplined but was suspended in 2001 for failing to pay his bar dues and to take required continuing legal education courses.
Brooks was convicted of killing his wife, Stella Fern Fox, in 2004. At the time, Brooks was having an affair with another woman, whom he married after Fox’s death.