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Delay Announced In Special Ethics Rules For Government Attorneys

December 7, 2022

By Terri Jo Neff |

The task force charged with recommending special ethics rules for attorneys who work for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and other public entities across the state will miss its December 2022 report deadline, according to Arizona Supreme Court records. 

The Task Force on Ethics Rules Governing the State Attorney General, County Attorneys, and Other Public Lawyers was established by Chief Justice Robert Brutinel in February following high profile ethics complaints filed by the Arizona Board of Regents and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs against Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

Although the task force has met eight times, members requested additional time to prepare its ethics recommendations. As a result, Brutinel recently signed an order setting a new deadline of June 2023.

In Arizona, the attorney general is mandated by statute to provide certain legal advice as well as representation to various state agencies, state officials, and state employees. The same principle applies to the state’s fifteen county attorneys.

Brutinel’s creation of the Public Lawyers Task Force acknowledged there are  particular ethical concerns a government lawyer may face when representing a public body, elected official, or even a government employee that other attorneys do not have to address. Similar considerations can arise for private practice attorneys who are retained to provide legal counsel to a government client.

Many of those considerations came to a head in 2020 when Brnovich and his staff attorneys were accused by Hobbs of failing to abide by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct. In another instance, Brnovich actually sued his own client, the Arizona Board of Regents, who in turn contacted the Arizona State Bar.  

The ethics complaints against Brnovich’s staff were dismissed by the State Bar, although the attorney general himself agreed to a diversion resolution. The situation, however, drew renewed attention to the dual ethical obligations government lawyers have, particularly when required by state law to represent a specific client.

Former Maricopa County Attorney and current Justice Bill Montgomery was appointed by Brutinel to chair the task force. Among the issues the members are expected to address are:

  • the process to follow if a government or public lawyer believes there is a conflict of interest in representing a public client;
  • how to handle situations in which the government lawyer does not approve of, or cannot ethically fulfill, a specific course of action desired by a client;
  • how the terms and conditions of legal representation should be documented between an attorney and a government client, and who calls the shots if the client is more than one person.  

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