Ohio2006 Blog

News, analysis, and comments on Ohio elections.

Thursday, November 30

Setting the Record Straight on Subodh Chandra

Last week the Cleveland Plain Dealer went overboard in its coverage of a minor episode in an important lawsuit. The important story was that the lawsuit largely succeeded in avoiding an impending catastrophe in the debut of the vague and inconsistent voter ID requirements in House Bill 3. There were still some problems at the polling places, but nothing like the disaster that loomed before a November 1st consent order and a November 14th agreed enforcement order were issued by the judge in the case. These orders defined vague terms in the statute and clarified the specific procedures to be followed, including importantly that every absentee ballot would be counted whether or not ID was submitted with the ballot and provisional ballots would be counted without further verification when they should have been cast as regular ballots. This was a huge victory for voting rights. The lawyers for the plaintiffs, including former Cleveland Law Director Subodh Chandra, deserve public praise and recognition for their achievement.

What the Plain Dealer chose to highlight (and mischaracterize) last week was a mere internal glitch in the litigation, not affecting the public or the outcome of the case. A lawyer (Chandra) did something that annoyed the judge -- he sent an email to all 88 county boards of elections, forwarding copies of court documents and urging compliance with the court's orders -- but after a hearing the judge agreed that no rules or laws were violated and the lawyer deserves no punishment of any kind. It should have been a non-story, a passing mention at best.

Instead, the Plain Dealer trumpeted the incident in two news stories, AND in its "Cheers and Jeers" feature. The first story told how the lawyer faced a contempt hearing the next day. The next day's headline was not "Judge Exonerates Lawyer" but "Judge Upbraids Lawyer," focusing on the judge's expression of displeasure at the hearing and ignoring his actual order that vacated the contempt motion and imposed no sanction of any kind. Two days later the paper gave Chandra a "Jeer," saying that Chandra sent an e-mail to the boards "on how to count provisional ballots," failing to mention that he was not making up his own rules but forwarding official documents and the court orders, and that he told the boards in the email to consult their own lawyers on the matter, and that he simultaneously sent the email to lawyers for the state. The "Jeer" also said that Chandra "was lucky he got no more than a lecture." Lucky? With no factual basis at all, the paper implied that Chandra did something illegal (or at least grievously improper) and deserved punishment that he was fortunate to avoid.

Some readers will think this is not a big deal and I should just let it drop, but I strongly disagree. Lawyers who champion the rights of individuals against the power of the state are engaged in the noblest and bravest task in the whole field of law. They challenge the most powerful of all adversaries in the pursuit of justice, and they deserve our utmost respect. All too frequently, however, there is a pushback against the few who are willing to take on this role. They are troublemakers, they "push too hard," they cause embarrassment to public officials, they make it harder for bureaucrats to take the easy way over the right way. So it bothers me a great deal when a lawyer who achieved much in the protection of voters' rights is portrayed as a malefactor instead of a hero.

I can't make the newspaper retract the coverage I don't like, but I can at least do my part to set the record straight:
(1) Chandra violated no attorney disciplinary rule. The lawyers for Blackwell put this ridiculousness in their contempt motion, but they had dropped it by the time of the actual hearing.

(2) The boards of elections weren't parties to the litigation, so it wasn't a case of a lawyer communicating directly to persons already represented by another lawyer. Opinion 92-7 of the Ohio Supreme Court Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline specifically says that lawyers can communicate with governmental entities unless and until a government attorney is involved in the particular matter. Only the Franklin County Board of Elections had been specifically represented by lawyers in this situation, and Chandra sent the email relating to that board to those lawyers instead of to the board.

(3) In a different voting rights case at about the same time, Chandra had communicated with all 88 boards of election with the explicit approval of government counsel (in fact, that's how he got the email addresses).

(4) Chandra committed no contempt of court. Contempt is so broadly defined that it basically consists of whatever a judge declares it to be, and in this instance the judge declared that no contempt occurred. While the judge did scold Chandra for bad judgment in going directly to the boards instead of through the court in this instance, he also praised Chandra's performance in the case and his abilities as a lawyer.
All I'm saying is, please -- let us cease with this impugning of a champion of our fundamental rights, and let us afford him instead the honor and praise that he deserves.


At 1:37 PM, Blogger Jill said...

Fantastic post - couldn't agree more. Will link to it in post later today or tomorrow. Thanks for writing this, Jeff. This part is particularly apt, given what's gone on with the OhioSenDems and filling the vacancies:

"Lawyers who champion the rights of individuals against the power of the state are engaged in the noblest and bravest task in the whole field of law. They challenge the most powerful of all adversaries in the pursuit of justice, and they deserve our utmost respect. All too frequently, however, there is a pushback against the few who are willing to take on this role. They are troublemakers, they "push too hard," they cause embarassment to public officials, they make it harder for bureacrats to take the easy way over the right way."

At 2:27 PM, Blogger redhorse said...

true, true, true.

Perhaps what the PD can't stand is that Chandra is smart, willing to take on the status quo, and a Democrat. Three big strikes there, seemingly.

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Yellow Dog Sammy said...

I received the following comment by email from Bill Sloat, who wrote the first item in the PD about Subodh Chandra's contempt hearing:

"I think your post on the Chandra mini-flap was thoughtful. I disagree, however, with your assertion that The Plain Dealer overplayed his short-lived dustup with Judge Marbley. When I wrote the original Openers' item, it was a handful of short paragraphs, upated later with information from his side. Mr. Chandra's talented defense team, I should note, filled 17 pages of legal stationery with an explanation, justification and apology to the judge, opposing counsel and (for some reason that I didn't quite understand) Mr. Ken Blackwell. Seventeen pages of legal talent grinding out prose for what you dismiss as less than zero?

"The whole incident got caught up in the great gears of the U.S. court system for a few days before it was spat out. Yes, Mr. Chandra undoubtedly was performing admirably in his mind for his clients. But he hit a bump while acting zealously in their cause. As for me, I never thought he was anything less than an honorable lawyer; but as an honorable journalist I had to write about his bump."

Until his early retirement (via a buyout) yesterday, Bill was the one-person Cincinnati bureau for the PD. I was fortunate to meet Bill on my jaunt down to Cincinnati in late July for the hatchet-burying joint press conference by Paul Hackett and Sherrod Brown. He's a classy guy and a great reporter. His exit from the paper was covered in the trade journal Media Life Magazine and was greeted with praise and regret by The Whistleblower.

As for Bill's comment, he persuades me that the incident deserved some mention, but I still feel like headline and tone of the second story, and especially the "Jeer," were way over the top. (For the record, Bill had nothing to do with those.)

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 9:25 PM, Blogger redhorse said...

Mr. Sloat defends his own actions, which, so far as I can tell, were never in question. Absolutely true, the story should have been covered.

However, the issue, at least for me, is the tone of the coverage. Using words like "upbraid" when Chandra was eventually warned taint opinion (and yes, I know, the paginator most likely wrote that line).

Perpetuating the story in their Cheers & Jeers is also questionable. Was it really such a big story, that after two articles and internet coverage, it deserved yet another blast?

There's a clear difference b/n reportage and gloating.

At 11:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reporters always have a thin skin and hate to have their work questioned. Although I think this guy is a good reporter, his response is a classic example of a typical reporter's thin skin. They can take shots to everyone but watch out when someone takes a shot at them.

At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to say that nearly everything I ever wrote appeared under my byline. It was theoretically possible that at least 1 million people could read the print version of any story (not including what appeared online), and as far as I know there was nothing to stop readers from complaining -- or raising hell -- if they didn't like what they saw. There was a big audience out there, and I didn't have a ''thin skin" at all. I loved the callers, even those who were pissed off. Anybody could contact me (or e-mail) and they often did because my phone numbers were in the book. I often learned a lot from what they had to say. I never tried to hide or be defensive, and I have to say (this is going on offense now) that the vast, vast, vast majority of reporters and editors I worked with over the years at the Akron Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer felt exactly the same way.

Again, I think the criticism of the newspaper's coverage of Mr. Chandra's minor scrape with Judge Marbley is fair comment. What eludes me is the "anonymous" commenter's remark that reporters themselves are typically defensive about their work. I think he or she has made an assumption.

- Bill Sloat

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