14.12.2014 Author: Janet Phelan

Got Free Speech? Not if you are an attorney…

13740735The Illinois Registration and Disciplinary Commission has just issued a recommendation for a three year suspension of the license to practice law of yet another activist attorney.

The prosecution of attorney JoAnne Denison by the IARDC goes to the heart of the amalgamation of the legal system in the US into one streamlined cruise missile. The weaponization of the legal system has been part and parcel of the general attack on the Bill of Rights and Constitutional protections which have resulted in such actions as President Obama placing kill orders on American citizens and the removal of citizenship from independent journalists.

Joanne Denison’s case is one which deserves enormous media attention (which it has not yet received) as well as howls of indignation (a bit muted, those). For the recommendation to suspend Denison’s license did not occur due to any act she committed as an attorney. She was not tried for misrepresenting a client, misappropriating funds or even courtroom misbehavior.

Rather, Denison was on trial for running a blog about corruption in probate court. The blog, marygsykes.com, focuses on a particular adult guardianship case in Cook County Court in Illinois and is critical of a number of highly placed individuals in the Cook County legal system. According to the opening statements by IARDC attorney Melissa Smart, attorneys don’t have the same First Amendment rights that the rest of us do. Stated attorney Smart:

“This case is not about the Constitution or the First Amendment. You will see, precedent is abundantly clear, as an officer of the court, Ms. Denison cannot just say whatever she wants about judges and judicial officers because attorneys are held to a higher standard. We are held to a different standard.”

Last time I checked, the First  Amendment to the US constitution stated that free speech in the United States was a God-given right. I didn’t see anything about attorneys, doctors, journalists or any other profession having restrictions on those rights to free speech.

The attempt by attorney Smart to imply that these restrictions exist reveals a rather disturbing mindset, somewhat military in essence, wherein calling out a commanding officer can get you thrown in the brig.

In her opening statement, attorney Melissa Smart likened Denison’s blog to “yelling fire in a crowded theatre.” This was an inaccurate reference to a qualification placed on free speech by Schenck vs. The United States, in which falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre was barred.

But to yell fire when there is indeed a conflagration has never been an issue. This is, in fact, how lives may be saved and people alerted to a danger.

And if there is corruption in the courts, who better than an attorney to blow the whistle?

The question then arises, is Denison telling the truth or is she “falsely” shouting fire?

The panel sitting in judgment on JoAnne Denison did not allow her to answer this question. As the statements made in Denison’s blog pertained to the guardianship of Mary G. Sykes, Denison attempted repeatedly during the course of her hearing to bring up instances where the actions of the attorneys and the judges assigned to the Sykes case were taken in absence of due process and without jurisdiction. The IARDC panel Chairman Sang-Yul Lee consistently refused to allow Denison to present this evidence, instead telling her that she was attempting to “re-litigate” the Sykes case.

Denison’s star witness, Gloria Jean Sykes, the daughter of Mary Sykes, was also kept from testifying. After a brief appearance on the witness stand, the panel decided that Gloria could only testify if she turned over thousands of emails between her and Denison, emails which were considered to be privileged in terms of attorney client confidentiality, and which did not, in fact, add anything to the panel’s determination, as the case against Denison pertained to what was up on the blog, in plain view.

Of interest is that the very IARDC attorneys pursuing Denison appear to have violated one of their pivotal obligations as members of a state commission. The Illinois Governmental Ethics Act mandates that those working for government in Illinois must file yearly financial disclosure forms. This is done to ensure that members of government are not receiving inappropriate monies that may influence their actions.

Neither the head of the IARDC, Jerome Larkin, nor any of the attorneys prosecuting Denison, have filed financial disclosures. The IARDC press officer and deputy administrator, attorney Jim Grogan, has refused to comment on this. As it turns out, Grogan has not filed financial disclosures, either.

The problems going on in adult guardianship proceedings in the probate courts are rarely discussed in the mainstream press. A number of grassroots groups have sprung up attempting to address stated abuses to the elderly and disabled, who are those most impacted by adult guardianships. The list of abuses range from theft of assets to failure to adhere to jurisdiction to outright murder.

The National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse  lists the rights one loses when one goes under an adult guardianship. These include:

  • the right to contract, including the right to choose a lawyer;
  • the right to control their assets and make financial decisions;
  •  the right to remain in their own home and protect it from sale;
  •  the right to protect and enjoy their personal property;
  •  the right to choose where to live;
  •  the right to accept or refuse medical treatment, including psychotropic drugs;
  •  the right to decide their social environments and contacts;
  •  the right to assure prompt payment of taxes and liabilities;
  •  the right to vote;
  • the right to drive;
  • the right to marry; and
  • the right to complain.

Denison has partnered up with activist attorney Ken Ditkowsky, whose recent suspension from the Illinois State Bar for asking for a DOJ investigation into the abuses going on in adult guardianships have made him something of a folk hero in the guardianship reform community. Ditkowsky is a regular contributor to Denison’s blog.

The recommendation for Denison’s suspension must be affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court. Denison has stated that she will not stop blogging. She says she intends “…To do the same thing, monitor probate court, blog about it, help victims and direct them to free/low cost probate attorneys, write articles and books for pro se’ers in probate.

“The reality is, says Denison, “they can’t stop my blog or writing articles.  They can only say that I am suspended from practicing state law so I can’t go to court and I cannot give personal legal opinions for probate victims.”

Another Illinois attorney, ‘Lanre Amu, was suspended by the ARDC for filing complaints about several  judges. In Amu’s Certiorari, requesting judicial review by  the Supreme Court  and filed just this past week, he writes: “The Hearing Board also found as aggravation Respondent’s claim that the IARDC was biased. How is that aggravation? When telling the truth becomes “aggravation” to be punished, are we not really punishing the “free speech” right to speak the truth?”

The ARDC could not be reached for comment.

Janet C. Phelan, investigative journalist and human rights defender that has traveled pretty extensively over the Asian region, an author of a tell-all book EXILE, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook


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