STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some lawyers face scrutiny for supporting Donald Trump's drive to overturn a democratic election. Some lawyers made two kinds of statements after Trump's election defeat in 2020. They did not lie in court, where they would face legal consequences for lies. They only lied to you, making wild claims in press conferences. But some lawyers also made statements in court that were false enough that they face questions now. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A measure of accountability may be coming for lawyers who tried to overturn the 2020 election results. This week in Michigan, some of them appeared for a hearing about whether they should face sanctions. The city of Detroit called their lawsuit sloppy, careless and an embarrassment to the legal profession. Over six hours, the judge grilled those lawyers close to Trump about who did what in the case and how much they vetted the claims.
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PREET BHARARA: And what's at the heart of that is what everyone refers to as the big lie - right? - that somehow Joe Biden did not win the election. Donald Trump won the election.
JOHNSON: That's Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan. He was speaking at a panel sponsored by New York University's law school. Bharara says the rules for lawyers are pretty straightforward.
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BHARARA: You make a misstatement in court - first of all, don't do that. And if you do, correct it immediately. There's nothing worse.
JOHNSON: But at the hearing in Michigan, some of the attorneys adopted a different approach. One of them, Attorney Lin Wood, said he didn't read the complaint before it was filed. Another lawyer with ties to Trump, Sidney Powell, said she took, quote, "full responsibility for the paperwork." Powell told the judge she'd practiced law with the highest standards. Meanwhile, authorities in New York recently suspended the law license of Rudy Giuliani, the former personal lawyer to President Trump. They said Giuliani had communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public while trying to overturn the results of the election. Giuliani wants a hearing where his lawyers say they think he'll be reinstated.
GEORGE CONWAY: When you assert something, you have to be able to back it up. You can't make things up.
JOHNSON: That's George Conway, a lawyer who regularly criticized Trump and attorneys who worked for him. Conway famously turned down a top job in the Trump Justice Department.
CONWAY: It was probably the best decision I ever made not to go into this particular administration.
JOHNSON: But Conway says many of those lawyers deserve thanks for refusing to advance phony theories about election fraud this year.
CONWAY: The upper echelons of the Justice Department in the waning weeks of the administration basically refused to do what Trump had wanted them to do. And they entered into essentially a bureaucratic suicide pact.
JOHNSON: An agreement that if Trump tried to fire the head of the DOJ over the 2020 election cases, they'd all quit in protest. Trump backed down. There are lawyers who think the legal profession needs to do a lot more. Sherrilyn Ifill directs the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
SHERRILYN IFILL: It was the normalization of behavior that was so far outside the realm. What happens when a lawyer takes a position that we know is untrue?
JOHNSON: Lawyers aren't supposed to lie in court or to lawmakers. But Ifill says elite institutions mostly didn't rise up when that happened.
IFILL: The American Law Institute, the American Bar Association, various and sundry other societies within our profession that are supposed to hold these values - they were largely silent.
JOHNSON: She's calling for a full accounting of how lawyers lost their way, an independent commission to hold hearings.
IFILL: And I just think it's important if we are to reset that our profession is prepared to confront itself and to make decisions about who we want to be, who we are and what it's going to require, which may be uncomfortable, to ensure that we hold our character.
JOHNSON: So far, there's no public sign lawyers are willing to do that kind of self-examination. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: You hear Carrie on NPR News.
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