F. Lee Bailey, the famed defense attorney who sought to make a comeback in Maine after being disbarred more than a decade ago, lost his bid to practice law on a split decision Thursday by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
The court denied Bailey in a 4-2 decision, saying the lawyer who helped to win acquittals for celebrity defendants O.J. Simpson and Dr. Sam Sheppard had “failed to demonstrate that he is sufficiently rehabilitated by proving that it is highly probable that he recognizes the wrongfulness and seriousness of most of the misconduct he committed.”
The court overturned a previous decision by a single judge on the Supreme Judicial Court. Justice Donald Alexander had found that Bailey re-established the good character he needed to be admitted to the Maine bar.
Bailey said the decision ends his quest to return to practicing law.
“Maine has spoken,” he said. “I gave it the best shot I could.”
Bailey, now 80, said he will continue working as a consultant, which he has been doing since moving to Maine.
“I’m disappointed because I put 2½ years of my life in this, and it’s been kind of in limbo, waiting to see what to do with the rest of my life,” Bailey said. “It’s not the end of the world. I had planned to move to make a life in Maine without any reference to returning to the bar.”
Over the course of his career, Bailey represented clients who captured national attention, from newspaper heiress-turned-bank robber Patty Hearst to Albert DeSalvo, the suspected “Boston Strangler,” to Army Capt. Ernest Medina in his 1971 court-martial for the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.
Bailey’s career reached a bitter end in 2001, when the Florida Supreme Court found unanimously that he had mishandled stock forfeited by a drug-smuggling client. That disbarment was followed by a reciprocal disbarment in Massachusetts in 2003.
The complaints were brought against Bailey in 1999 by the Florida Bar, after Bailey’s defense of Claude Duboc from 1994 to 1996.
Bailey said the money earned from about $6 million in stocks owned by Duboc belonged to him as payment for his services. The Florida Bar contended that Bailey knew he was given control of the stocks with the understanding that they ultimately would be turned over to the federal government.
When Bailey moved to Yarmouth in 2010, he said he had no intention of returning to the profession that had made him a familiar face on television screens and magazine covers around the world.
But he changed his mind and passed the bar exam after being encouraged by his girlfriend and partner at Bailey & Elliott Consulting, Debbie Elliott, and by lawyers who were his friends.
Maine’s Board of Bar Examiners rejected Bailey’s application in a 5-4 decision in November 2012, saying he had not demonstrated “by clear and convincing evidence that he possesses the requisite good character and fitness necessary for admission to the Maine bar.”
Bailey appealed that decision for a single Supreme Judicial Court justice to review, and earned Alexander’s support. The Board of Bar Examiners then appealed Alexander’s decision to the full Supreme Judicial Court.
In the majority opinion, written by Justice Jon Levy, the four justices found from the written record that Bailey had only partially accepted responsibility for his actions years ago and continued to minimize his wrongdoing in other instances.
“Considered as a whole, the record evidence was insufficient to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that Bailey recognizes the wrongfulness and seriousness of his misconduct,” wrote Levy, who was joined by justices Andrew Mead, Ellen Gorman and Joseph Jabar.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and acting retired Justice Robert Clifford dissented, saying the four judges were wrong in overturning Alexander’s conclusions because Alexander had listened to witness testimony, while the full court had only reviewed paper records.
“Although, given Bailey’s testimony explaining or rationalizing his past behavior, the justices in the majority might not have found as the single justice did if any of them had sat as the trial justice, the function of an appellate court is not to re-weigh the evidence and substitute its findings for those of the fact-finder,” said the dissenting opinion, written by Saufley.
A lawyer for the Board of Bar Examiners, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Knowlton, responded by email to a request for comment on Thursday’s decision, saying the court’s “careful and thorough opinion in this case speaks for itself.”
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: