Secrecy prevails at Bar Association
Published: March 13, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The sequence of events surrounding a recent push to reform the territory's indigent-defense-appointment system has brought to light a spirit of secrecy atop the V.I. Bar Association.
Association President Ernest Morris Jr. recently issued a press release after the association's board of governors took a vote on reforming the system.
In the release and in a subsequent interview, Morris expressed displeasure that the proposal "was prematurely released to the media before the Board of Governors had an opportunity to consider it." The release also included an admonishment that "the Bylaws of the Virgin Islands Bar Association do not grant any committee chairperson the authority to act or speak on behalf of the membership."
The statement was issued about 10 days after St. Croix attorney Edward Barry was quoted in a Daily News story regarding a proposal to reform the V.I. Superior Court's rules governing court-appointed attorneys for indigent defendants. At the time, Barry was in charge of a committee tasked with drafting potential reforms to those rules.
Responding Tuesday to questions about the positions stated in the release and the interview, Morris explained that he believes the Bar Association's protocol trumps considerations of public interest in matters before the board of governors.
"There's nothing wrong with public scrutiny as long as it goes through the proper channels," Morris said. "Really it's just a matter of protocol. We don't want people delivering messages on behalf of the Bar Association who aren't authorized to."
Morris compared the protections from disclosure afforded to the Bar Association's committee process to the protections for attorneys' work product.
"It's called protocol," he said. "It's not about the public knowing about it. The information to be disseminated would have been disseminated at the time when it should have become public. That's the way prudent organizations operate."
Barry, on the other hand, described Morris' edict as a "gag order" and said he felt Morris was taking unfair shots at him for speaking openly about an issue of clear public importance.
"I think it's essential that the public knows about it and that attorneys know about it," Barry said.
Barry said the Bar Association sent him a "scolding letter" for making "unflattering" public comments about the committee's work and the problems it was trying to address. Barry said he temporarily agreed to stop speaking about the issue "to reduce any sideshows or distractions" ahead of the board of governors' vote on the proposal at the end of February.
Barry was removed from the chairmanship shortly after the vote.
"I'd like to give Mr. Morris a little CLE on the First Amendment here," Barry said referring to continuing legal education. "The good news for him is, he can say whatever he wants. The bad news is, so can I."
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.