- Special Sections
- Public Notices
Sometimes, you gotta look that gift horse in the mouth.
While the legal profession has given Carrollton resident Stan Billingsley plenty of “gifts” – including a stint in the Kentucky Legislature and a career as a lawyer and a judge in district and circuit courts – he has taken a critical look at the state’s legal ethics system through a thinly veiled parody of an existing case in his new book, “Alice vs. Wonderland: A Chilling Tale of the Abuse of Power in the Name of Lawyers’ Ethics.”
The book, which Billingsley clearly states is a work of fiction based on existing laws in Kentucky, follows the main character, Jack Kenton, who is charged with an ethics violation after writing a letter that criticizes the legislature regarding a specific decision.
Kenton is based on Billingsley’s friend and former colleague, John Berry Jr., a retired lawyer and former senator in Henry County, who also is the brother of writer Wendell Berry.
“John is a man of great moral fiber and courage,” Billingsley said Tuesday in an interview in his home office. From their Seventh Street home in Carrollton, he and his wife, Gwen, operate LawReader.com, a website they started in 1999 to provide information for lawyers on laws and legal issues in Kentucky and nationwide.
Billingsley provides the background of John Berry’s plight: In 2007, Berry attended a public hearing in which Senate President David Williams was facing ethics charges by the Legislative Ethics Commission – a commission to which Williams, as senate president, appoints two members.
Williams had been charged with soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists – something Kentucky state law strictly forbids its legislators to do.
After a public portion of the hearing, the commissioners met in executive session – excluding the public and anyone not connected to the investigation, except for Williams. During the closed session, the commission voted to exonerate Williams of the charge, based on his defense that his staff had mistakenly invited the lobbyists to a fund-raising event and that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing.
“It was a strange legal ruling that inspired Berry to write a letter,” Billingsley said. The letter “was a rational, calm discussion of how, legally, [the commissioners] were incorrect, stating that the practice of excluding the public from the hearing causes some people to conclude it was improper.”
Soon after, Berry was cited by the Kentucky Bar Association for violating Rule 3130, which, Billingsley said, prohibits an attorney from “falsely questioning the integrity or qualitifications for office of a judge or public legal officers.”
The KBA investigated this matter for 18 months, and Billingsley said Berry was never called to testify, nor even given the name of who filed charges against him or what the charges actually were.
Billingsley said, in the end, Berry received a “warning letter” that was placed in his file with KBA, which, if a year passed and Berry had no more trouble, would be expunged.
Basically, Berry was being told to stay quiet, “chilling his right to free speech,” Billingsley said.
When he’d heard the whole story, Billingsley said he realized he’d found the topic for a novel he’d been wanting to write for 30 years. “I set up the outline and filled in the blanks,” he said. “It took seven months to write and another six to edit.”
And now, his work of fact-based fiction is available for sale at LawReader.com and, locally, at Cornerstone Floral and Gift Shop on Highland Avenue in Carrollton.
The story was a perfect fit for using the well-known tale of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” for making the parody, and for making the point that Berry’s basic right to free speech had been trampled.
What’s worse, however, is how truth can be stranger than even “Alice in Wonderland.”
The book ends with Billingsley’s prediction that the U.S. District Court would rule against the Kentucky Bar Association’s actions in favor of Berry. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Berry had sued the KBA over its action against him.
Rather, on Tuesday, Billingsley said he got word just that morning that District Court Judge Danny Reeves had ruled in favor of the KBA.
“At the moment, it’s a stark and chilling message to every attorney licensed in Kentucky,” Billingsley said. “This violates our basic core beliefs of what our judicial system should be. People may think this only has to do with lawyers, but it affects everybody. When you take away a lawyer’s rights, you limit the ability of an attorney to represent you. It’s a dangerous, dangerous direction to go in.”
In fact, that direction could lead us right down the “Rabbit Hole” – a draconian fictional document in Billingsley’s book that decimates lawyers’ rights and gives the book’s Ministry of Ethics the ability to control all aspects of an attorney’s professional and personal life.
So, as a retired lawyer and judge who still holds an active license to practice law in Kentucky, should Billingsley be worried that writing this book – which also outlines a number of other “dangerous loopholes” in Kentucky’s ethics laws – could cause him legal problems down the road, too?
Billingsley said he’s smart enough to realize that speaking out – even through a work of fiction – may cause him to lose his license. But, he’s prepared to take that chance – particularly because, as a retiree, losing his license would not cause him economic ruin as it could for young practicing attorneys who might speak out.
Besides, he has received a lot of support from others in the legal profession. “I’ve gotten letters, e-mails and compliments from attorneys saying ‘Thank God someone’s speaking out for us,’ ” Billingsley said. “This has encouraged me to keep writing about this.”
And the decision made this week, which no doubt will be appealed by Berry and the ACLU, certainly has cleared the path for a sequel.