OpinionEditorial

Should a liar be a lawyer? The Stephen Glass case.

Crime, Law and JusticeNewspaper and Magazine

Call it "Shattered Glass: The Sequel." At a hearing this week, the California Supreme Court will be asked by the state Committee of Bar Examiners to deny a law license to Stephen Glass, the serial fabricator who as a twentysomething aspiring journalist disgraced the New Republic magazine and inspired a film. The court should grant Glass the license and allow him to hang up his shingle.

A review panel found "overwhelming evidence" that the Georgetown law graduate, who passed bar examinations in California and New York and who is now in his 40s, has rehabilitated himself. But the bar examiners insist that his conduct "has not been exemplary when balanced against the magnitude of his acts of deceit." He thus lacks the "positive moral character" required of members of the bar.

There's no question that Glass committed journalistic malpractice on an epic scale. Between 1996 and 1998, he churned out dozens of wholly or partly fictitious articles. And that's not all. To deflect suspicion, he falsified notes and created a fake website and business cards. In its brief, the Committee of Bar Examiners describes Glass' deceptions in excruciating detail, and for good measure imputes racism to him. (The examiners claim that one article portrayed African American taxi drivers as "lazy and lecherous.")

But even if we concede all that, Glass' misconduct took place long ago, he has apologized to his victims and rebuilt his life. He was supported in his application by 22 character witnesses, including four law professors, two judges and 10 attorneys.

The bar examiners argue that Glass' rehabilitation has been half-hearted and self-serving. They note that he didn't repay the magazines he deceived or use the proceeds of an autobiographical novel to endow a program in journalistic ethics. They also claim that, in an application to be admitted to the New York bar, he mischaracterized the extent to which he cooperated with magazines to identify falsehoods in his articles.

These objections amount to nitpicking. The examiners' opposition to a law license for Glass seems driven more by their (understandable) outrage at what they call "one of the greatest journalistic frauds in history." We share their disapproval, but we also believe that if prospective lawyers are to be screened for "moral character" (as opposed to merely abiding by the law), then the serious efforts they've made to rehabilitate themselves ought to be part of the calculation. The Supreme Court should let prospective clients decide whether Glass' long-ago journalistic sins disqualify him from representing them.

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