Tennessee Supreme Court Rejects Chattanooga Attorney's Petition For Reinstatement

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Tennessee Supreme Court today rejected the petition for reinstatement filed by a Chattanooga attorney whose law license has been suspended since 1998.

In 1997, attorney Nathan E. Brooks faced serious discipline for complaints filed against him by multiple clients. In 1998, he agreed to a two-year suspension of his law license, to pay restitution on 12 complaints filed against him, and to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

In 2002, Mr. Brooks sought reinstatement of his law license. His request for reinstatement was denied because he had never paid the costs and restitution he agreed to pay as part of the settlement of his disciplinary charges. Mr. Brooks appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, arguing that he was indigent and could not afford to pay the restitution and costs he had agreed to pay, and that requiring him to pay them violated his constitutional right to due process. In 2004, the Tennessee Supreme Court rejected his appeal.

Some 13 years later, Mr. Brooks filed another petition to reinstate his law license. Tennessee rules require any attorney seeking reinstatement of his law license to make an advance deposit for the costs of the reinstatement proceedings.  Mr. Brooks did not pay the advance deposit, so his petition was denied.

Mr. Brooks again appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, arguing that he was indigent and unable to pay the advance cost deposit. He again argued that not allowing him to have his law license reinstated without paying the advance cost deposit was a denial of his right to due process.

The Tennessee Supreme Court again rejected Mr. Brooks’ appeal. As to his due process argument, the Court explained that Mr. Brooks has no “right” to practice law; in Tennessee, the practice of law is a privilege and not a right.

The Court noted that all Tennessee lawyers pay a significant annual fee to cover the cost of investigating and prosecuting disciplinary charges against lawyers.  Here, faced with possible disbarment, Mr. Brooks negotiated a conditional guilty plea to multiple serious charges. Requiring him to pay—in advance—a deposit on costs associated with his request for reinstatement “reflects the Court’s reasoned decision to place the financial burden of Mr. Brooks’ reinstatement proceedings where it belongs, on him.” The Court held that Mr. Brooks was not denied due process by requiring him to pay the cost of reinstatement proceedings his misconduct necessitated.

Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a separate opinion concurring in part and not joining in part. Justice Lee concurred in the Court’s decision that Mr. Brooks’ petition should be dismissed for failure to pay the advance cost deposit and that there was no merit to Mr. Brooks’ due process claim. Justice Lee did not join in the Court’s procedural due process analysis, finding that because Mr. Brooks had not adequately raised a procedural due process claim, the Court’s discussion of that claim was unnecessary.

To read the majority opinion in Nathan E. Brooks v. Board of Professional Responsibility, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the separate opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.


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