News Stream

Foreign convictions don’t automatically trigger discipline

Photo by Andrew Magill

A South Korean criminal conviction for theft cannot trigger a mandatory license suspension for an attorney convicted of criminal theft, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled June 20. The court found that the conviction could nevertheless be considered in criminal cases if a judicial body determines it would be fair to consider it (In re Jinhee Kim Wilde).

In 2009, attorney Jinhee Kim Wilde was convicted in a South Korean court after she stole $1,100 from a fellow passenger on a flight to Incheon. When news of that conviction eventually came to the attention of the Washington Bar, it filed an order to temporarily suspend Wilde’s license under a rule that allowed for the mandatory suspension of a licensee in the case of a criminal conviction prior to the filing of formal discipline charges.

Wilde objected, arguing that her South Korean conviction, imposed by a court in a foreign country without the same constitutional protections afforded defendants in the United States, did not count as a criminal conviction for the purposes of the suspension rule. Wilde was suspended anyway, and formal proceedings seeking her disbarment were initiated.

“The omission from [the rules] of any provisions whatsoever regarding foreign convictions is glaring,” the court wrote. 

After a Maryland court dismissed charges against Wilde that had been brought in that state, Washington’s Board of Professional Responsibility recommended to the Court of Appeals that Wilde’s suspension be lifted for the reasons she had argued, based on its interpretation that the bar rule, which referred to convictions either in a D.C. court or a “court outside the District of Columbia or in any federal court,” applied only to convictions from domestic courts.

The recommendation by the board pitted it against the Bar Counsel, who argued that an inability to use foreign conviction for discipline purposes would put it in the difficult situation of having to discipline attorneys convicted in foreign countries by opening a new case and collecting evidence from abroad.

The court, in an opinion written by Judge Belson, agreed with Wilde. “In light of the many considerations that would arise in connection with application of [the rule] to foreign convictions, it must be concluded that in completing the formidable task of adopting rules for the disciplinary proceedings for the newly created Bar of the District of Columbia, . . . this court did not consider this matter, and did not include convictions in the courts of foreign nations within the reach of [the rule].” So Wilde could not have her license suspended on the basis of her conviction alone.

In an effort to fully settle the law, the court said that although the conviction could not be given mandatory effect , it could nonetheless be considered in an original case brought by the Bar Counsel. In such cases, the Bar Counsel would now have to prove that the use of the conviction would be fair, given the form of judicial proceedings in the country from which it originated.