Proposal could give hope to disbarred lawyers in N.J.

Posted: December 16, 2001

It's been more than a decade since Vince Rigolosi lost his license to practice law in New Jersey, but the thought of it still haunts him.

The allegations of his involvement in a bribe on behalf of the son of a reputed mob boss - and his trial and acquittal on those charges - were "a living nightmare." But nothing prepared him for the jolt of being disbarred after his acquittal.

"The thought that I could never practice law again, it was devastating," Rigolosi said.

Now Rigolosi, 69, of Cliffside Park in Bergen County, and others like him who have been stripped of their licenses to practice law in New Jersey - one of the strictest states in the nation on attorney discipline - stand a chance of returning to their former livelihoods.

In a recent proposal submitted to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the state Bar Association has recommended allowing disbarred lawyers to return to practice.

There is no specific law in New Jersey making disbarment permanent, but with few exceptions lawyers who have lost their licenses have never been able to return to the bar.

"We realize that New Jersey's system is looked upon as one of the models of fairness . . . and effective in punishing misconduct," said Daniel M. Waldman, president of the state bar association. "But our concern is one of fairness.

"I think the reason we made the recommendation is that there are those cases out there that we believe shouldn't result in a lifelong removal of one's law license," Waldman said.

Waldman and others said their proposal includes a recommendation to allow disbarred lawyers to reapply for reinstatement after five years - a practice allowed in most other states, including Pennsylvania. New Jersey is only one of 10 states that enforce permanent disbarment.

If the association's proposal is accepted, disbarred lawyers would be granted hearings to present evidence of their rehabilitation.

The burden of proof, Waldman said, would lie solely on the disbarred lawyers, who would also have to pass a professional responsibility exam.

A state Supreme Court committee would review the applications, evaluate such elements as the severity of the lawyer's misconduct and his or her conduct since disbarment, and make a recommendation for or against reinstatement.

The ultimate decision-maker, Waldman said, would be the Supreme Court.

"We're not suggesting that everyone should be able to come back," said Harold Rubenstein, executive director of the bar association. "Some misconduct is too egregious."

David E. Johnson Jr., director of the Office of Attorney Ethics for the New Jersey Supreme Court, said the association's proposal creates a troubling perception: that of "real disbarment" and "fake disbarment."

That, he said, would erode public confidence in the disciplinary system.

Johnson also said that even in New Jersey, with its strict discipline rules, it is not easy to get disbarred. Misconduct punishable by disbarment, for instance, includes misappropriating money and being convicted of a criminal offense.

Allowing lawyers to reapply would imply that the court made a mistake the first time around. "But in truth, [Supreme Court justices] don't disbar lightly."

Veteran criminal defense lawyer Mike Pinsky said he believed disbarred lawyers, like other professionals who have lost their licenses, should have the opportunity at least to reapply.

"People do change," said Pinsky, who practices in South Jersey. "And the court still will have the power to say no."

Lawyers can appeal their disbarment, but the actual number of those who go through with it is very low - most likely because case law on the issue suggests it is futile.

In the last 100 years, only three lawyers have been reinstated to the New Jersey bar; the last case was in 1972.

But Rigolosi, who practiced law for more than 25 years before he was disbarred, was one of the few who appealed his disbarment to the Supreme Court, in 1994.

Not surprisingly, he lost.

When the court originally voted to disbar Rigolosi in 1987, it had ruled that his conduct had been severely flawed and that he should not be permitted to practice again.

Though he has moved on professionally, getting involved in real estate and business, Rigolosi said he remains shocked by his disbarment.

After all, he said, he was acquitted at trial.

"The public," Rigolosi said, "found me innocent."

He added: "I would give it all up tomorrow to return to what my first love is - and that's the law."

Angela Couloumbis' e-mail address is acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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