COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A former law partner of Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill faces a six-month provisional suspension for using the justice’s name on office signs and business cards — and the local bar association argued Wednesday for even tougher punishment.
O’Neill, a Democrat considering a run for governor, initially agreed to the plan by Thomas C. Brown, of Geneva, to open O’Neill & Brown Law Office in 2015. He said he didn’t realize at the time that it was improper.
Ohio professional conduct rules prohibit a firm from using the name of a lawyer who holds public office in its title when the lawyer in office isn’t currently practicing there. Rules also prohibit making false and misleading claims about a firm’s members and longevity.
During Wednesday’s oral arguments, Justice Terrence O’Donnell expressed shock that a lawyer would claim to be doing business with a sitting judge.
“It’s so uncommon as to be difficult to relate to someone thinking they could do something like that,” he said.
O’Neill recused himself in the case. Judge J. Timothy McCormack of the 8th District Court of Appeals sat in his place.
O’Neill joined the high court in 2013. He and Brown opened a law firm together in the 1980s. They haven’t actively practiced together since at least 1997. Brown says they were laying the groundwork to work together again after O’Neill retires from the bench. Brown’s signs and business cards said the firm was established in 1981.
The Ashtabula County Bar Association argued for Brown to be indefinitely suspended, arguing that he persisted in using materials bearing O’Neill’s name after he had agreed not to and after testifying during earlier disciplinary proceedings on the matter that the practice had stopped. Brown also has a past disciplinary record.
The bar association opened an investigation into Brown’s firm in July 2015 and filed its disciplinary complaint that November. After a meeting with the association’s lawyer, O’Neill told Brown to remove his name from the sign.
Harold Specht, attorney for the bar association, said Brown was distributing “O’Neill & Brown” business cards even after promised not to and swore he’d stopped. Brown says he accidentally gave someone an old business card from his wallet.
The court’s disciplinary board has recommended a six-month suspension that would be stayed, allowing Brown to continue practicing law as long as he engages in no further misconduct. The panel recommended against the indefinite suspension sought by the bar, saying there was no clear and convincing evidence Brown knowingly lied.
Brown waived his chance to address justices Wednesday by not filing objections or a response to the bar association’s claims.
Specht said, “He offered absolutely nothing in mitigation ever.”
Brown said in a telephone interview that he has partnered with his son and renamed the firm Brown & Brown Ltd. He said new signage was delayed because he was waiting for his son to pass the bar.