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In the 1990s a young reporter named Stephen Glass rose to fame, first for the captivating stories he wrote for major American publications, and then for the fact that much of that storytelling turned out to be fabricated. Stephen Glass is now back in the news. He's facing off against the California Bar over whether he has the moral character to practice law in that state. Emily Green reports that Glass' bid has now made its way to California's highest court.
EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Stephen Glass was no ordinary liar. As a reporter in his early 20's, he spun fantastical, oddball stories for prestigious magazines - the New Republic, Rolling Stone, and Harpers. He quoted anonymous sources who described civil rights leader Vernon Jordan as lecherous, described the drunken antics of young Republicans, and claimed a customer service representative called him a Jewish slur.
These were lies. In all, Glass fabricated, in whole or in part, 42 stories.
His deceit was so shocking that Hollywood made a movie about it, "Shattered Glass," starring Hayden Christianson as Glass and Peter Saarsgard as his editor, Chuck Lane.
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PETER SAARSGARD: (as Chuck Lane) Come on, anyone can make a mistake.
HAYDEN CHRISTIANSON: (as Stephen Glass) You know, this is not right, Chuck. OK, I feel really attacked. And you're my editor and you're supposed to support me and you're taking their word against mine. You're supposed to support me.
GREEN: Glass went to incredible lengths to cover up his fabrications. He created phony business cards, a fake website, and had his brother impersonate a source. It wasn't until 2009 - long after he was fired from The New Republic - that he provided a full list of all his articles that contained lies. But in oral argument before the California Supreme Court, Glass' lawyer, Jon Eisenberg, pleaded with the justices to have faith in his client.
JON EISENBERG: The question is not whether he was a liar 15 years ago. We know he was. The question is: Is he a liar today. And the record demonstrates, as well as any record could ever demonstrate, that he is not a liar today.
GREEN: Twenty-two witnesses testified as to Glass's integrity today, among them, his psychiatrists, his employer of nine years, two judges whom he worked for, and even the owner of The New Republic. He's simply a different man, they said. But the justices of the California Supreme Court cracked the moral whip. Why hadn't he done more to make amends for his wrongs?
Justice Kathryn Werdegar.
KATHRYN WERDEGAR: How about just undertaking a crusade through books, and appearances, and lectures and adjunct professorships, to tell the tale of moral failure and moral redemption?
GEOFFRREY HAZARD: You're asking a kind of a hyper Christian redemption out of him, and I just don't think that's proper for a court to set a standard that high.
GREEN: Geoffrey Hazard teaches ethics at University of California Hastings College of the Law.
HAZARD: The question is was his integrity bad before, of course. Can integrity be restored? I think it can. And if it can, I think this is a case where it was.
GREEN: Of course, lawyers don't exactly have the best reputation as it is. Everyone, it seems, has a story about an unethical lawyer. And the legal community has allowed a lot of people with questionable backgrounds to practice law, including convicted felons. Some of them have turned into great success stories. But in professions, like law and journalism, where one's word is golden, liars may be more scorned than criminals.
STEPHEN GILLERS: I don't have enough confidence that he is no longer a liar, that he can be trusted to tell the truth when he talks to judges, to adversaries and his own clients.
GREEN: New York University legal ethics Professor Stephen Gillers had been a fan of Glass' articles.
GILLERS: There are some people whose conduct is so fundamentally at odds with what we expect of members of the bar, that it would insult the bar to admit them to practice. And he's one of them.
GREEN: The New York State Bar rejected Glass on moral character grounds nine years ago. And based on oral argument, it looks likely the California Supreme Court will do the same. A decision in the case is expected by early next year.
For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in San Francisco.
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