A Potential Change to the Permanent Disbarment Rule of State v. Wilson?

In re Wade, 250 N.J. 581 (2022). In In re Wilson, 81 N.J. 451 (1979), the Supreme Court established a bright line rule that attorneys who knowingly misappropriate client funds will be permanently disbarred. Unlike in most other jurisdictions, there is no opportunity to reapply for admission to the New Jersey Bar.

Today, in an opinion by Chief Justice Rabner that commanded a 6-0 vote (Judge Fuentes did not participate), the Court disbarred the respondent attorney under the Wilson rule. The attorney admitted having knowingly misappropriated client funds, and since the overall record clearly and convincingly demonstrated that that had occurred, disbarment followed even though no client was harmed. Mitigating circumstances that respondent argued should have exempted her from disbarment, such as her exemplary “service to the community and good reputation,” and the fact that she had “overcome tremendous personal obstacles . . . to become a pillar of her church and local community and what appeared to be an excellent member of the New Jersey bar,” did not alter the result.

Respondent had asked the Court to reconsider the Wilson rule. The Court declined to do so. However, Chief Justice Rabner stated that the Court believed “it is time to reevaluate the current approach to permanent disbarment” (emphasis by Chief Justice Rabner. Respondent’s own circumstances served as an impetus for that.

Accordingly, the Court announced that it would “establish a broad-based committee to analyze whether disbarment for knowing misappropriation should continue to be permanent, or whether New Jersey should join the majority of jurisdictions that allow for reinstatement.” The committee would include “lawyers and members of the public who are not attorneys” and would be asked to “present recommendations on an expedited basis. The committee’s report will be made available for public comment before the Court decides whether and how to act.”

Chief Justice Rabner emphasized that “[f]oremost in our mind is the need to protect the public, to retain its confidence in the legal profession, and to promote the integrity of the bar.” But if the Court ultimately revises the current approach to permanent disbarment, “Ms. Wade and others would be able to reapply for admission in accordance with a new court rule.”

The remainder of the Chief Justice’s opinion was given over to a history of the Wilson rule, as well as discussion of the regime that preceded Wilson. The Court also offered a lengthy analysis of how other jurisdictions handle the issue presented in this case. The opinion is well worth reading in full, as it sets the table for the review that the new committee will undertake.