CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.
We granted certiorari to review the judgment of the Court of Appeals suspending petitioner from practice in all courts of the Eighth Circuit for six months.
In March 1983, petitioner Robert Snyder was appointed by the Federal District Court for the District of North Dakota to represent a defendant under the Criminal Justice Act. After petitioner completed the assignment, he submitted a claim for $1,898.55 for services and expenses. The claim was reduced by the District Court of $1,796.05.
Under the Criminal Justice Act, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals was required to review and approve expenditures for compensation in excess of $1,000.
The secretary of the Chief Judge of the Circuit again returned the application, stating that the proffered documentation was unacceptable. Petitioner then discussed the matter with Helen Monteith, the District Court Judge's secretary, who suggested he write a letter expressing his view. Petitioner
The District Court Judge viewed this letter as one seeking changes in the process for providing fees, and discussed these concerns with petitioner. The District Court Judge then forwarded the letter to the Chief Judge of the Circuit. The Chief Judge in turn wrote to the District Judge, stating that he considered petitioner's letter.
The Chief Judge expressed concern both about petitioner's failure to "follow the guidelines and [refusal] to cooperate with the court," and questioned whether, "in view of the letter"
After talking with petitioner, the District Court Judge responded to the Chief Judge as follows:
The Chief Judge then issued an order for petitioner to show cause why he should not be suspended for his "refusal to carry out his obligations as a practicing lawyer and officer of [the] court" because of his refusal to accept assignments under the Criminal Justice Act. Id., at 22. Nowhere in the order was there any reference to any disrespect in petitioner's letter of October 6, 1983.
Petitioner requested a hearing on the show cause order. In his response to the order, petitioner focused exclusively on whether he was required to represent indigents under the Criminal Justice Act. He contended that the Act did not compel lawyers to represent indigents, and he noted that many of the lawyers in his District had declined to serve.
At the hearing, the Court of Appeals focused on whether petitioner's letter of October 6, 1983, was disrespectful, an issue not mentioned in the show cause order. At one point, Judge Arnold asked: "I am asking you, sir, if you are prepared to apologize to the court for the tone of your letter?" Id., at 40. Petitioner answered: "That is not the basis that I am being brought forth before the court today." Ibid. When the issue again arose, petitioner protested: "But, it seems to me we're getting far afield here. The question is, can I be suspended from this court for my request to be removed from the panel of attorneys." Id., at 42.
Petitioner was again offered an opportunity to apologize for his letter, but he declined. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Chief Judge stated:
Following the hearing, petitioner wrote a letter to the court, agreeing to "enthusiastically obey [the] mandates" of any new plan for the implementation of the Criminal Justice Act in North Dakota, and to "make every good faith effort possible" to comply with the court's guidelines regarding compensation
The Chief Judge then wrote to Snyder, stating among other things:
Petitioner responded to the Chief Judge:
After receipt of this letter, petitioner was suspended from the practice of law in the federal courts in the Eighth Circuit for six months. 734 F.2d 334 (1984). The opinion stated
The opinion specifically stated that petitioner's offer to serve in Criminal Justice Act cases in the future if the panel was equitably structured had "considerable merit." Id., at 339.
Petitioner moved for rehearing en banc. In support of his motion, he presented an affidavit from the District Judge's secretary — the addressee of the October 6 letter — stating that she had encouraged him to send the letter. He also submitted an affidavit from the District Judge, which read in part:
The petition for rehearing en banc was denied.
The en banc court opinion stayed the order of suspension for 10 days, but provided that the stay would be lifted if petitioner failed to apologize. He did not apologize, and the order of suspension took effect.
We granted certiorari, 469 U.S. 1156 (1985). We reverse.
Petitioner challenges his suspension from practice on the grounds (a) that his October 6, 1983, letter to the District Judge's secretary was protected by the First Amendment, (b) that he was denied due process with respect to the notice of the charge on which he was suspended, and (c) that his challenged letter was not disrespectful or contemptuous. We avoid constitutional issues when resolution of such issues is not necessary for disposition of a case. Accordingly, we consider first whether petitioner's conduct and expressions
Courts have long recognized an inherent authority to suspend or disbar lawyers. Ex parte Garland, 4 Wall. 333, 378-379 (1867); Ex parte Burr, 9 Wheat. 529, 531 (1824). This inherent power derives from the lawyer's role as an officer of the court which granted admission. Theard v. United States, 354 U.S. 278, 281 (1957). The standard for disciplining attorneys practicing before the courts of appeals
The phrase "conduct unbecoming a member of the bar" must be read in light of the "complex code of behavior" to which attorneys are subject. In re Bithoney, 486 F.2d 319, 324 (CA1 1973). Essentially, this reflects the burdens inherent in the attorney's dual obligations to clients and to the system of justice. Justice Cardozo once observed:
As an officer of the court, a member of the bar enjoys singular powers that others do not possess; by virtue of admission, members of the bar share a kind of monopoly granted only to lawyers. Admission creates a license not only to advise and counsel clients but also to appear in court and try cases; as an officer of the court, a lawyer can cause persons to drop their private affairs and be called as witnesses in court, and for depositions and other pretrial processes that, while subject to the ultimate control of the court, may be conducted outside courtrooms. The license granted by the court requires members of the bar to conduct themselves in a manner
Read in light of the traditional duties imposed on an attorney, it is clear that "conduct unbecoming a member of the bar" is conduct contrary to professional standards that shows an unfitness to discharge continuing obligations to clients or the courts, or conduct inimical to the administration of justice. More specific guidance is provided by case law, applicable court rules, and "the lore of the profession," as embodied in codes of professional conduct.
Apparently relying on an attorney's obligation to avoid conduct that is "prejudicial to the administration of justice,"
We must examine the record in light of Rule 46 to determine whether the Court of Appeals' action is supported by the evidence. In the letter, petitioner declined to submit further documentation in support of his fee request, refused to accept further assignments under the Criminal Justice Act, and criticized the administration of the Act. Petitioner's refusal to submit further documentation in support of his fee request could afford a basis for declining to award a fee; however, the submission of adequate documentation was only a prerequisite to the collection of his fee, not an affirmative obligation required by his duties to a client or the court. Nor, as the Court of Appeals ultimately concluded, was petitioner legally obligated under the terms of the local plan to accept Criminal Justice Act cases.
We do not consider a lawyer's criticism of the administration of the Act or criticism of inequities in assignments under the Act as cause for discipline or suspension. The letter was addressed to a court employee charged with administrative responsibilities, and concerned a practical matter in the administration of the Act. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that petitioner brought to light concerns about the administration of the plan that had "merit," 734 F. 2d, at 339, and the court instituted a study of the administration of the Criminal Justice Act as a result of petitioner's complaint. Officers of the court may appropriately express criticism on such matters.
The record indicates the Court of Appeals was concerned about the tone of the letter; petitioner concedes that the tone of his letter was "harsh," and, indeed it can be read as illmannered.
Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is
JUSTICE BLACKMUN took no part in the decision of this case.
Frank E. Bazler and Albert L. Bell filed a brief for the Ohio State Bar Association as amicus curiae.
Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 46 does not appear to give authority to the Court of Appeals to suspend attorneys from practicing in the District Court. As the panel opinion itself indicates, the admission of attorneys to practice before the District Court is placed, as an initial matter, before the District Court itself. The applicable Rule of the District Court indicates that a suspension from practice before the Court of Appeals creates only a rebuttable presumption that suspension from the District Court is in order. The Rule appears to entitle the attorney to a show cause hearing before the District Court. Rule 2(e)(2), United States District Court for the District of North Dakota, reprinted in Federal Local Rules for Civil and Admiralty Proceedings (1984). A District Court decision would be subject to review by the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals was entitled, however, to charge petitioner with the knowledge of and the duty to conform to the state code of professional responsibility. The uniform first step for admission to any federal court is admission to a state court. The federal court is entitled to rely on the attorney's knowledge of the state code of professional conduct applicable in that state court; the provision that suspension in any other court of record creates a basis for a show cause hearing indicates that Rule 46 anticipates continued compliance with the state code of conduct.