Monday, June 14, 2021

In re Paul Mahoney (Cal. Ct. App. - June 11, 2021)

I've been sick for a bit, so backed up on reading opinions for a while.  Fortunately, I recovered to read this one, written jointly by Justices Bedsworth, Aronson and Goethals.

It's super unique.  It holds an attorney in direct contempt for making silly -- and baseless -- accusations that the trial court was politically biased and that otherwise impugned its integrity.  The consequences imposed were slight (a $2,000 fine), but the opinion goes on at length to explain just how unusual it is for an appellate attorney to be so off the rails and how bizarre it was that, instead of being contrite, the lawyer continued the craziness in response to the OSC re: contempt.  The opinion says a lot about what it means to be a professional and how to act civilly yet forcefully.  There's nothing new in that concept, of course, and most lawyers understand it implicitly.  Sometimes, however, it's good to write that stuff down, and the panel does so here incredibly well.

So I've got zero problem with the opinion, whether its tone, content or result.

Though I can I add just one thing?

I get it.  The attorney here -- Paul M. Mahoney from Claremont -- definitely went way overboard.  He wrote a (crappy) petition for rehearing that didn't cite a single statute or opinion and instead waxed poetic about how "[o]ur society has been going down the tubes for a long time, but when you see it in so black and white as in the opinion in this case, it makes you wonder whether or not we have a fair and/or equitable legal system or whether the system is mirrored by [sic] ignored by the actions of people like Tom Girardi."  So basically, a rant, and a baseless and silly one at that.  For that, yeah, you should get sanctioned.  As well as probably publicly shamed a little bit.  Because, geeze, if you don't know by now not to do stuff like that, that's really quite incredible, and you're doing a terrible job for not only your current client, but probably for all (or almost all) of your other clients as well.

So, again, I've got no problem with what happens here.

But the thing that nonetheless just wants me to push back just a tiny bit here from the overall message of the opinion is the fact that the attorney here, Mr. Mahoney, is pretty clearly reasonably old.  As the opinion itself mentions, Mr. Mahoney has "52 years of practice," and was admitted to the bar in 1969.  Which in turn means he's at least around 75 years or so old.  Now, I get it, that's not an excuse; indeed, after a half-century of practice, presumably one knows -- or at least should know -- how not to write a crazy, off-the-rails petition for rehearing.  I suspect that Mr. Mahoney has written plenty of non-crazy motions and petitions in the past.  The fact that you eventually get a little long in the tooth doesn't exempt you from your responsibility to do your job well if you elect to continue to do it.  Indeed, it means you should know better than to do otherwise.

At the same time, though, the guy's old.  Reasonably old.  Not crazy, 110-and-counting old.  But older for sure.  And maybe, as I creep up in age myself, I'm just increasingly empathetic with the trials and tribulations that sometimes accompany not being "young" any long.  Or, more likely, I've just seen more often how advancing age sometimes causes people -- great people, wonderful people -- to slowly lose a bit over time.  Including, sometimes, a bit -- or even more than a bit -- of their judgment and discretion.

When a 30-year old authors a petition like Mr. Mahoney's, the only excuse is perhaps youthful exuberance and inexperience.  When a 40-year old writes the same thing, there's not much excuse at all.  But when a 75-year old writes the same thing, unless that's the type of thing he's for which he's known, there's part of me that wants to treat him (relatively) kindly.  To understand that, maybe, just maybe, he wasn't always like that what he's become (and done) isn't necessarily entirely the product of who he is internally.  It's perhaps a consequence, in part, of where he is in life.

Now, I get it; a nontrivial number of the justices on the Court of Appeal -- including on the panel -- are 70+ themselves, and in great mental shape.  So I can definitely see why one might take a fairy hardcore position on this thing notwithstanding Mr. Mahoney's age.  And, again, being 75 or so isn't an excuse; it's simply an explanation.  The best that I think it'd do for the guy is simply to perhaps make it more understandable (and thus less categorically culpable) how someone who's otherwise an entirely reasonable and competent fellow might end up where Mr. Mahoney unfortunately finds himself.

So maybe the guy's age just merits some sympathy, or at least understanding.

Which maybe even, in truth, the panel had.  They called the guy up for a hearing.  It sounds from the opinion like they were at least trying to get the guy to understand what he did wrong.  The opinion says: "Nor did Attorney Mahoney recant at the hearing. We tried to nudge him toward a more temperate position but were unsuccessful. Every time he seemed ready to moderate his stance, he would change direction and return to it."

Which sort of happens sometimes, right?  You get a crotchety old guy up there, and try to explain what he's done wrong, and there's part of him that gets it, but he's ultimately just incapable of making the transition to actual understanding.  That's not inconsistent at all with the dynamic that I think might be at least at part in play here.

As a society, we're aging.  People live longer (thankfully).  People work longer -- thankfully (for the most part).  With that, you get both the upsides as well as accompanying downsides.  The downsides may in part include confronting petitions, on very rare occasions, like this one.

I'm sure that age isn't a complete explanation.  The increasingly partisan nature of social discourse certainly probably contributes as well.  Nor does any of this justify Mr. Mahoney's conduct; indeed, if age and hyperpartisanship are partially to blame, then the need for opinions like this one might be even greater than usual, since we might expect additional instances of things like this in the future.  Good to try to cut it off at the outset.  Or at least try.

I say all this only because I might have included a line or two in the opinion that tried to temper the tone of the thing with just a tiny bit of sympathy.  'Cause sometimes people simply aren't at their best.  Through circumstances that aren't an excuse, but that are nonetheless understandable.

In the end, I just hope that Mr. Mahoney retires.  I'm sure it's been a great run.  But sometimes, it's time to move on.  Maybe the opinion helps out with that.  Though I'm sure Mr. Mahoney and his family (if any) would have infinitely preferred a more graceful conclusion to his half-century-plus legal career.

An opinion definitely worth reading.  As well as circumstances definitely worth pondering.