86-F-107 - Vacated*

*Vacated by the Board of Professional Responsibility on September 11, 2015 due to changes in the law or rules.

FORMAL ETHICS OPINION 86-F-107


A bar association, on behalf of its membership of approximately 60 attorneys,
including 12 attorneys directly involved in the inquiry, requests an ethics opinion
concerning the ethical obligations of practicing attorneys elected, appointed or
employed by city or county governments, or public agencies or officials; and the
ethical obligations of their associates.


Four members of the bar hold public offices of city alderman, city judge, city attorney and city
prosecutor. One member of the bar represents the county sheriff's department in civil suits
against the department. The city alderman is an elective office and the attorney elected to that
office is a partner in a law firm of four lawyers. The city judge is elected by the city council and
is associated with another lawyer in a professional corporation, and rents office space to another
lawyer. The city attorney is appointed by the mayor and is a sole practitioner. The city
prosecutor is appointed by the mayor and is associated in the practice of law with another lawyer.
The attorney for the county sheriff's department is selected and employed by the county sheriff
and is associated in the practice of law with another lawyer.
The city court by private act has concurrent jurisdiction with the county general sessions court.
Misdemeanor cases are adjudicated, on waiver, in the city court by the city judge. Felony cases
and misdemeanor cases not waived may be bound over to the county grand jury after a
preliminary hearing by the city judge. Convictions of minor traffic offenses and misdemeanors
in the city court may be appealed to the circuit court.
City employees discharged for cause may request a hearing before the city council. Members of
the city council (aldermen) may only exercise their elective powers while the council as a whole
is duly assembled.
Tennessee Formal Ethics Opinion 85-F-88 states that an attorney may not breach his fiduciary
duty as a public official in the representation of private interests against the public body he
represents and therefore the speaker of the Senate and Lieutenant Governor of the State may not
represent claimants in an action for damages against the State. The opinion cites and adopts the
"New Jersey Rule," as follows:
...an attorney may not represent both a governmental body and a
private client merely because disclosure was made and they are
agreeable that he represents both interests...Where the public
interest is involved, he may not represent conflicting interests even
with consent of all concerned...
...the Supreme Court wishes to publicize its view of the
responsibility of a member of the Bar when he is attorney for a
municipality or other public agency and
86-F-107 Page 2
also represents private clients whose interests come before or are
affected by it. In such circumstances the Supreme Court considers
that the attorney has the affirmative ethical responsibility
immediately and fully to disclose his conflict of interest, to
withdraw completely from representing both the municipality or
agency and the private client with respect to such matter, and to
recommend to the municipality or agency that it retain independent
counsel. Where the public interest is involved, disclosure alone is
not sufficient since the attorney
may not represent conflicting interests even with the consent of all
concerned...
...It is fundamental that no attorney who holds a public office
should suffer anyone to attempt to gain an advantage by virtue of
his official status and hence it would be improper for an attorney so
situated to accept a retainer if he is aware that the prospective
client has that objective in mind...
...Nonetheless the subject of land development is one in which the
likelihood of transactions with a municipality and the room for
public misunderstanding are so great that a member of the bar
should not represent a developer operating in a municipality in
which the member of the bar is the municipal attorney or the holder
of any other municipal office of apparent influence. We all know
from practical experience that the very nature of the work of the
developer involves a probability of some municipal action, such as
zoning applications, land subdivisions, building permits,
compliance with the building code, etc....
...It is accordingly our view that such dual representation is
forbidden even though the attorney does not advise either the
municipality or the private client with respect to matters
concerning them. The fact of such dual representation itself is
contrary to the public interest...
The "New Jersey Rule" was first adopted by the Board in Tennessee Formal Ethics Opinion 81-
F-4 in considering the propriety of an attorney-public official representing a private client in a
proceeding involving the public body he is elected to represent. Subsequent Formal Ethics
Opinions have adopted the reasoning of the "New Jersey Rule." Formal Ethics Opinion 81-F-23
states that it is improper for a city attorney to defend a person prosecuted in Criminal Court by
the City Police Department. Formal Ethics Opinion 83-F-41 states that it is improper to
represent persons prosecuted by the county Sheriff's office when the attorney's associate is county
attorney. Formal Ethics Opinion 83-F-53 states that it is improper for a county attorney to
counsel the county in preparation of the county budget and also represent the sheriff and/or
deputy sheriffs to increase their budget or salaries. Formal Ethics Opinion 83-F-57 states it is
improper to represent a criminal defendant 86-F-107 Page 3
in state court on charges resulting from investigation and prosecution by the city police when the
attorney's associate is city attorney. Formal Opinion 83-F-58 states that it is improper for a judge
of the county juvenile court to represent the county school board in an action against the county
commissioner relative to the proper funding of the county school board.
Ethics Opinion 1182 of the American Bar Association states that Disciplinary Rule 8-101(A)(2)
of the Code of Professional Responsibility proscribes a lawyer's using his public position to
influence, or attempting to influence, a tribunal to act in favor of himself or of a client. The
opinion reasons:
...a lawyer appearing before an administrative board, the
compensation of whose members are fixed by the legislature or the
appointment of whose members are either subject to approval by
the legislature or elected by the legislature, is in a strong or
powerful position `to use his public position to influence, or
attempt to influence' the administrative board to act in his favor.
His very appearance before such a board may be circumstantial
evidence of such influence or attempt to influence...
The vicarious disqualification rule embodied in Disciplinary Rule 5-105(D) of the Code of
Professional Responsibility provides that if an attorney is disqualified from employment and
representation in a particular matter then any partner, associate or any other attorney affiliated
with him is also disqualified from such employment.
The bar association has made specific inquiries the answers to which are set forth hereinbelow:
A. May the lawyer elected to the position of City Alderman, or his
partners:
(1) Practice in the City Court? No
(2) practice in County Criminal Court where City
Police officers are witnesses? No.
(3) Practice in County Civil Courts where City
Police officers are witnesses? No.
B. May the lawyer appointed to the position of City
Judge, his partner or his associate:
(1) Practice in County Criminal or Civil
courts where City police officers are
witnesses? Yes, but only in cases in which
he had no substantial responsibility as
City Judge.
C. May the lawyer appointed to the position of City
Attorney:
(1) Practice in the City Court? No.
(2) Practice in County Criminal Court where
City police officers are witnesses? No.
86-F-107 Page 4
(3) Practice in County Civil Courts where
City police officers are witnesses? No.
(4) Engage in business dealings with the City through
a corporate entity of which he is the majority
stockholder? No.
D. May the lawyer appointed to the position of City Court
Prosecutor:
(1) Practice in County Criminal Court where City
police officers are witnesses? No.
(2) Practice in County Civil Courts where City police
officers are witnesses? No.
(3) Represent defendants who are prosecuted by
prosecutors other than City policemen witnesses
in County Criminal Court? Yes.
E. May the lawyer associated with the City Prosecutor:
(1) practice in the City Court? No.
(2) Practice in County Criminal Court where City
police officers are witnesses? No.
(3) Practice in County Civil Courts where City
police officers are witnesses? No.
(4) Represent defendants who are prosecuted by
prosecutors other than City policemen witnesses
in County Criminal Court? Yes.
F. May the lawyer representing the County Sheriff, or
his partner, in cases in which the Sheriff or his
deputies are not parties:
(1) Practice in any Criminal Court where the
Sheriff or his deputies are witnesses? No.
(2) practice in any Civil Court where the Sheriff
or his officers are witnesses? No.
This 26th day of September , 1986.
ETHICS COMMITTEE:
Jerry C. Colley
William R. Willis
Cecil D. Branstetter
APPROVED AND ADOPTED BY THE BOARD