“We briefly adress the arguments presented in the petition, as well as the ethical concerns posed by counsel’s behavior in this litigation.” That’s how the Fifth Circuit ended its opening paragraph in Johnson v. Lumpkin, No. 22-70005 (5th Cir. Aug. 11, 2023), The lesson: ignoring adverse binding authorities will not help you win. It’s more likely to make a bad situation worse.
In Johnson, a petitioner for habeas corpus raised arguments that were foreclosed by several decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Fifth Circuit. One of those binding Fifth Circuit decisions involved the same lawyers making the same arguments: Buntion v. Lumpkin, 982 F.3d 945 (5th Cir. 2020). According to the panel’s original opinion, the district court denied habeas and ordered the petitioner’s counsel to show cause why they should not be sanctions under Rule 11 “for making arguments that have been ‘consistently rejected by the Fifth Circuit for decades.’” Counsel responded by moving to recuse the district judge. As you’d expect, the district judge denied that motion. Johnson then petitioned the Fifth Circuit for a certificate of appealability on the denial of habeas and appealed denial of his recusal motion. A panel of the Fifth Circuit denied the certificate and affirmed the denial of recusal. Johnson v. Lumpkin, No. 22-70005 (5th Cir. July 18, 2023).
Unfazed, Johnson applied for rehearing en banc. That effort did not succeed in obtaining rehearing; instead it drew another panel opinion chastizing counsel for ignoring multiple adverse binding authorities. It didn’t help that the same lawyers had done the same thing three years ago in Buntion. The panel pointed out that, while it’s okay to seek overruling of binding authority, it’s not okay to ignore it:
To be sure, ethical rules and rules of civil procedure allow counsel to advocate for a modification in the law. But when doing so, counsel is unquestionably obligated to recognize contrary authority. See Mod. R. Prof. Cond. 3.3(a)(2) (“A lawyer shall not knowingly . . . fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel.”); Tex. Disciplinary R. Prof. Cond. 3.03(a)(2) (same).
Johnson’s attorneys failed to do so. Both before the district court and on appeal, counsel failed to cite any of the binding precedents listed above. Nor could they reasonable argue that there were not aware of these precedents. Indeed, the same lawyers raised the exact same arguments just three years ago in Buntion v. Lumpkin. The district court was well within its discretion to consider whether counsel’s lack of candor warranted sanctions.
Nor was the panel impressed—at least not in the right way—by Johnson’s petition for en banc rehearing, which the panel found to misstate its original opinion:
Especially given that counsel are already testing the limits of their duties of good faith and candor, we would have expected them to show better judgment in discerning whether to file a petition for rehearing en banc—especially one that badly misstates the opinion’s conclusion. A good-faith reading of the court’s opinion clearly shows that it does not hold what counsel says it holds. Petitions for rehearing en banc are an “extraordinary procedure” that should be used only to bring the court’s attention to an issue of “exceptional public importance” or one that “directly conflicts” with onpoint Supreme Court or prior Fifth Circuit precedent. 5th Cir. R. 35 I.O.P. Given the deficiencies discussed above, Johnson’s petition does not rise to that level. Counsel are strongly encouraged to confine future arguments to the limits imposed by applicable ethical rules.
The lesson here isn’t new. You can argue in good faith that binding precedents should be overruled. But to do that, you first must confront those binding precedents head-on. Ignoring them is a way to lose both the case and your credibility.