Has state attorney general candidate Reagan Dunn exaggerated his credentials as a lawyer, specifically his time spent practicing civil law?
It’s a question that arose during the first televised debate in June between Republican Dunn and his opponent, Democrat Bob Ferguson. The Stranger newspaper wrote about the issue, concluding that Dunn misrepresented his legal experience, and wrote that The Seattle Times was biased if it didn’t report on Dunn’s credentials in a similar way.
We looked into the matter in the summer, talked to three legal ethics experts –- including one The Stranger quoted –- and decided Dunn’s statements weren’t significantly misleading or unethical. Therefore we didn’t publish our findings. But The Stranger revived its claim Wednesday about a Times’ bias, tying it to ads The Seattle Times Co. is running to support Rob McKenna, GOP candidate for governor.
So, here’s what we found. You be the judge.
At the June debate, Dunn was stressing his experience in criminal law as a former federal prosecutor when Ferguson noted that the vast majority of the work in the attorney general’s office is in civil law. Ferguson said he had more civil experience than Dunn.
Dunn shot back: “I worked in a complex civil practice as well from 1997 until 2001, at a respected firm, Inslee Best Doezie and Ryder” in Bellevue.
Ferguson challenged that statement, saying Dunn “worked as a full-time lawyer in private practice for less than two years.”
“You’re absolutely wrong Mr. Ferguson about the length of civil practice, it’s more like three-and-a-half years,” Dunn said. “You practiced for four-and-a-half years. You’ve got a year.”
Dunn did work at the Bellevue firm from June 1997 until January 2001, but he was a law student for a good chunk of that time and worked as a clerk and so-called Rule 9 intern.
He said he was hired as a full time lawyer in September 1998, pending passage of the bar exam, which he accomplished in October. He was admitted to the state bar in January 1999 and worked as a full-time lawyer in Bellevue for just under two years, January 1999 until January 2001.
When questioned in a post-debate interview, Dunn provided a timeline of his legal experience and clarified that he accumulated three-and-a-half years of civil experience by counting more than a year’s work he did later at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., that focused mostly on civil law.
Back in the summer, David Goldstein of The Stranger quoted a legal ethics expert, Seattle University Professor John Strait, as saying Dunn’s statement on his civil experience was “materially misleading” because one should not describe experience as a Rule 9 intern as “practicing law,” which suggests one is already admitted by the bar to practice law.
But Strait told the Times he would’ve expressed a different view had he known about Dunn’s contention that he did civil work, as well as criminal work, at DOJ. (Goldstein wrote that Dunn did not respond to his request for comment, leading Goldstein to assume “no doubt he must count his part-time non-lawyer” experience toward his years in civil practice.)
“If in his three-and-half years of practice he was including time in the Department of Justice, then it’s not a misleading statement. But that’s not the way it was presented to me” by Goldstein, Strait said.
Two other legal ethics experts – Professor Rob Aronson at the University of Washington and Professor Steve Gillers at New York University – had similar views.
Both had no problem with Dunn’s first statement because he didn’t say he was a lawyer in Bellevue from 1997 until 2001; rather he said he “worked” there.
“It’s literally true and within the bounds of the tolerable in political races,” Gillers said. It could be a serious problem, Gillers added, if Dunn said the same to a judge, who would expect greater precision.
“But in a public statement, outside law practice, and especially in a political contest,” Gillers said such a statement was not unethical.
Aronson said Dunn’s explanation about civil work at DOJ could have been a convenient post-debate rationale – but it’s still not unethical. “And, although, I suspect his DOJ justification was an after-the-fact ‘save,’ I do not believe he crossed the line of legally unethical conduct.”