- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Americans count on the justices to be nearly infallible, but the Supreme Court this year has made two embarrassing stumbles by kicking the wrong lawyers out of the high court’s bar.

In both cases, the court said, it was a matter of mistaken identity. A lawyer with virtually the same name had gotten into trouble, and the court took action — only they had the wrong guy.

The bungles came to light when the court had to revoke its original order.

Court-watchers said that kind of mistake is “exceedingly rare.” Indeed, a review by The Washington Times found past instances in 1988, 1991, 1995 and 1997. But it appears to have been decades since the last goof-up, so notching two in the same year was striking.

In one instance the court in May announced it was suspending Christopher Patrick Sullivan from the bar, and demanded he “show cause” why he shouldn’t be disbarred altogether. Weeks later, the justices asked for a mulligan.

“Due to mistaken identity, the order suspending Christopher Patrick Sullivan of Boston, Massachusetts from the practice of law in this Court, dated May 15, 2017, is vacated,” the court said.

The person they thought they were punishing was Christopher Paul Sullivan, a New York lawyer convicted for a 2013 drunken-driving slaying of a 71-year-old woman.

To make matters more embarrassing, the Mr. Sullivan they wrongly suspended was the president-elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

Mr. Sullivan’s firm, Robins Kaplan LLP, contacted the Supreme Court clerk to tell them they had the wrong guy.

“The Clerk’s Office was then able to confirm that the Christopher P. Sullivan who was disbarred in New York is a different person from the individual who was the subject of the show cause order, and that the Mr. Sullivan who was disbarred in New York is not a member of the Supreme Court Bar,” said Kathleen Arberg, a court spokesperson. “As a result, the Court issued the order today discharging the earlier order.”

Amy Howe, a Supreme Court expert and SCOTUSblog writer, said at the time it is “quite rare.”

“The Supreme Court does not normally do its own attorney discipline; these suspensions and expulsions from the Supreme Court bar generally rest on a lawyer being suspended or expelled from the state bar to which he belongs,” Ms. Howe said.

In the Sullivan case, the New York Bar notified the Supreme Court that it had ousted a Christopher P. Sullivan. The high court searched its records and found a lawyer with that name on its own bar lists.

“It’s not necessarily surprising given certain common names and the size of the Supreme Court bar,” said Ilya Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Cato Institute’s Supreme Court Review.

In fact, the Supreme Court bar consists of 299,630 members.

The court was unable to say how often it’s made disciplinary mistaken identity botches, but The Times review found just a handful of cases in records dating back to the 1980s.

Court watchers say the high court receives discipline notices from courts across the country for lawyers who have run into trouble, and then cross-references the names to see if any are members of the Supreme Court bar.

Last month the court had to correct yet another mistake over James A. Robbins — who, it turns out, was also suspended in that same May 15 order that wrongly suspended Mr. Sullivan.

The court had confused Mr. Robbins, who lives in California, with a New York lawyer by the same name who had been disbarred from the State of New York for attempting to cover up the fact he had lost his client’s will. That lawyer had never actually been admitted to the Supreme Court bar.

It took the court six months to realize its error. It reinstated him to good standing in November, again citing “mistaken identity” for the bungle.

Like the Sullivan case, Mr. Robbins’ suspension had factors that made it even more embarrassing: He used to work on the business side of the court, back in the 1980s, The Associated Press reported.

“They suspended me?” a surprised Mr. Robbins told The Associated Press.

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