Facing the harshest professional discipline of his career, Stephen Yagman was taking an uncharacteristic course.
He was keeping his mouth shut.
Such circumspection was a change of pace for the veteran Venice civil rights lawyer, whose proclivity for outrageous comments landed him in trouble in the first place.
This, after all, is the man who once called former Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher a "weasel" and a "white-bread, Establishment, uptown guy who doesn't want to sully his mitts on police brutality except from his ivory tower."
He's the one who accused U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of having mental disorders, branded state Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas a racist and an anti-Semite, described former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley as an Uncle Tom and called former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates the personification of the devil.
His current troubles started after he accused a federal judge, William D. Keller, of being anti-Semitic, drunk on the bench, dishonest and "one of the worst judges in the United States."
On Friday, a special federal court disciplinary committee recommended that Yagman be suspended from practicing in federal court in Los Angeles for 15 months because he "impugned the integrity" of the court.
Lawyers for the committee also recommended that as a precondition of being allowed to practice again Yagman should be required to pass the 90-minute Professional Responsibility Examination administered by the State Bar of California for all suspended and disbarred lawyers seeking reinstatement.
Late Friday, the normally voluble Yagman deferred all comment to his lawyer, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark. "The recommendation of 15 months is grossly excessive," Clark said. "Our main interest is in establishing to the benefit of justice that Steve Yagman's conduct is not a violation of any professional canon."
Yagman has 14 days to respond to the proposed suspension.
If imposed, it could have a severe impact on the 49-year-old attorney, who practices almost exclusively in federal court in Los Angeles, a courthouse whose jurisdiction covers seven Southern California counties from Riverside to San Luis Obispo. He specializes in representing people who contend that they have been victims of police misconduct and is considered one of the most successful attorneys of that type in the state.
The 12-member disciplinary committee recommended the suspension after a ruling by a panel of three Los Angeles federal judges, who issued a decision May 18 condemning Yagman's remarks about their colleague.
"The panel finds no evidence that Judge Keller is in fact anti-Semitic or that (Yagman) had a reasonable basis for making such accusations," wrote Judges John G. Davies, Edward Rafeedie and David W. Williams.
The judges--who will rule on Yagman's penalty after hearing his response--also said that the attorney "has made no effort to explain his accusations that Judge Keller is dishonest or drunk on the bench," and that, considering the absence of supporting evidence, they assumed the charges to be false.
After that ruling, the unrepentant Yagman went on the attack again, calling former President Ronald Reagan, who appointed Davies and Rafeedie, "odious," and labeling former President Richard Nixon, who appointed Williams, "a proven anti-Semite."
The latest Yagman ripostes were cited as a kind of footnote to the whole affair in a brief filed by disciplinary committee attorney Graham E. Berry. Berry pointed to the comments as an example of Yagman's attempts "to wrap himself in a mantle of moral superiority while falsely asserting that his critics condemn him not for his misconduct, but for his sociopolitical beliefs and affiliations."
Nearly a decade ago, Real imposed a $250,000 sanction on Yagman that later was reversed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Yagman also was suspended from practice by the State Bar for six months in 1989 for being "hostile, forceful and aggressive" with his clients and ordered him to undergo psychiatric counseling.
The latest Yagman flap has prompted controversy in the legal community.
Several lawyers, including Gerald L. Chaleff, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., criticized the efforts to punish Yagman. "I have a problem with the basic premise of penalizing him," Chaleff said. "While I do not condone Mr. Yagman's language, he certainly has a right to state his opinion."
Criminal lawyer Harland W. Braun, one of the few other Los Angeles attorneys who will publicly take on federal judges, was more critical. "The idea that someone is being disciplined for impugning the integrity of a public official is ridiculous, because that is the . . . core principle of the 1st Amendment--that a citizen has a right to criticize a public official."
But New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, who specializes in legal ethics issues, said Yagman ought to be sanctioned. "While I consider myself a strong 1st Amendment adherent, I have no sympathy for this criticism (Yagman's comments on Keller)--wild ad hominem charges."
Gillers said cases of this type are on the rise and reflect increasing concern "about the loss of civility in litigation."
For his part, Yagman managed to keep quiet all of Friday, but by midday Saturday, he just couldn't resist saying something. He left the following message on a reporter's answering machine:
"When one does what one believes to be right, and others attack based on that, it's OK."