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Court News Ohio

Columbus Attorney Indefinitely Suspended

The Ohio Supreme Court has placed Christopher T. Cicero of Columbus on an indefinite suspension from the practice of law for altering the charge in his own speeding case.

After receiving a speeding ticket in Columbus, Cicero obtained a blank but signed document from a Franklin County judge that Cicero then had his assistant fill out, changing his speeding charge to a headlight violation.

Cicero had previously amassed about 50 speeding tickets and had his driver’s license suspended twice. The lesser offense of an equipment violation carried no points against his license and eliminated the possibility of another driver’s license suspension.

The alteration came to light when Judge Scott VanDerKarr’s bailiff noticed that the judgment entry document that was filed did not include a required notation for a finding of guilt. When the court contacted Cicero, he refused to provide the name of the prosecutor who agreed to allow the change to a lesser charge, and the judge issued an arrest warrant for Cicero for contempt of court.

Cicero subsequently identified a prosecutor, who was working his second to last day in the office on the day of Cicero’s arraignment in March 2012. The prosecutor denied having any conversation with Cicero about amending the speeding ticket.

Cicero would not explain to the judge how the deal to amend his charge came about, and he was sent to jail for five days. Afterward, Cicero withdrew his plea to the headlight violation and pled no contest to the original speeding charge. The judge cited him for contempt and sentenced him to time served.

Cicero has been before the Supreme Court in two prior disciplinary cases – one in which he claimed he was having sex with a judge presiding over one of his cases and another in which he shared confidential information from a potential client with the head football coach at the Ohio State University.

The panel that reviewed this case for the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline noted Cicero’s pattern of misconduct and refusal to accept responsibility for his actions, among other aggravating factors, and recommended that he be indefinitely suspended.

The full board, however, recommended to the court that Cicero be prohibited permanently from practicing law for his misconduct. While Cicero did not challenge the misconduct and rule violations that the board found, he objected to the proposed sanction of disbarment.

After reviewing a number of prior disciplinary cases, the court determined that Cicero’s history of misconduct involved three different matters and did not reflect a “longstanding pattern of deceit.” In a 5-2 decision, written by Justice Judith L. French, the court concluded that an indefinite suspension was appropriate for Cicero’s misconduct, but noted that his repeated violations were “troubling.”

“By no means do we condone Cicero’s dishonest, unprofessional, and censurable conduct, which was prejudicial to the administration of justice and which adversely reflects on Cicero’s fitness to practice law,” Justice French wrote. “Nevertheless, in light of this court’s precedent and considering all of the circumstances, including the aggravating factors and lack of significant mitigating factors, we do not find that Cicero’s conduct, egregious though it may be, rises to the level for which we reserve the sanction of permanent disbarment.”

Cicero can apply to return to the practice of law in two years.

Joining the majority were Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill.

In a written dissent, unusual in disciplinary cases, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor would have disbarred Cicero. Her opinion was joined by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

In Chief Justice O’Connor’s view, the majority “does not adequately recognize the insidiousness of Cicero’s behavior.” Calling his conduct a “charade” and his long list of excuses “outlandish,” Chief Justice O’Connor also emphasized Cicero’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions and admit his wrongdoings.  “Cicero’s quiver of untruths is notable for its depth, if nothing else,” she added.

She pointed out that the prosecutor Cicero claimed had agreed to let him plea to a lesser charge did not work on traffic or criminal matters and was not assigned to any arraignment courtroom.

“Cicero’s spectacular talent for deflecting blame and minimizing misbehavior reflects his inability to conduct himself in an ethical manner,” the chief justice wrote. “That inability portends great risk to his clients and endangers the public and the legal profession.”

She disagreed with the majority perspective that Cicero be given a lesser sanction because his misconduct over the years has involved distinct matters.

“It does not matter that Cicero’s three disciplinary cases did not spring from a common source,” she wrote. “Cicero’s pattern of dishonesty, blaming others, disrespect for the legal process and for the courts, self-serving behavior, and feigned remorse is unrelenting. In fact, it is his willingness to defraud and impugn the court system in a great variety of unrelated circumstances that is the most troubling of all.”

Cicero’s actions have reinforced the worst stereotypes about the legal profession, and his misconduct warrants disbarment, she concluded.

2013-1980. Disciplinary Counsel v. Cicero, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-4639.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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