While not relevant to most attorneys in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the recent controversial immigration law in Alabama raises a very interesting question regarding the intersection of attorney ethics and legal responsibility. It is not clear whether it is an unintended consequence, but Sections 5 and 6 of the law make it a crime for an “officer of the court” to adopt a practice “that limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws by limiting communication” with immigration officials. This wording has led attorneys to question whether they can be subject to criminal or civil action for protecting client confidences regarding immigration status. The law authorizes any U.S. citizen to file a civil claim against an officer of the court who violates the section, and creates a penalty of between $1,000 and $5,000 for each day of violation.
The U.S. Department of Justice has warned Alabama about its implementation of the law, and several key provisions of the law have already been blocked. However, most of the law has been upheld by the courts so far. Until the law is overturned, Alabama lawyers are in the uncomfortable position of weighing their ethical obligations to their clients against the potential for criminal or civil action against them.
-Josh J.T. Byrne, Esquire (HT to BCB)