For reference, my background is a professional engineer and within this field we're beholden to a code of ethics that obligates certain duties paramount regardless of the law. Periodically, the ethical obligation runs contrary to the law and we're professionally obligated to navigate through the situation carefully. In that regard, more often than not, a non-engineer is usually not the best person to judge whether an engineer's actions in the performance of their professional duties was or was not ethical because they lack the requisite experience to do so. As a result, the majority of our licensing and disciplinary boards are staffed by other professional engineers, not judges or lawyers and definitely not a jury of laypersons.

To that end, my understanding is that attorneys are also held to a high ethical standard whereby they're expected to act in an ethical manner pursuant to their profession and their clients. Per this article, there are a litany of ethical allegations against Barr in his tenure as Attorney General jointly filed by multiple members of the DC Bar. The theme of the allegations are professional misconduct in failing to advocate for Barr's client, the United States; the specific allegations are:

  1. In absolving the president of criminal liability for obstructing justice upon receiving the Mueller Report last year, Mr. Barr repeatedly engaged in dishonest and deceitful conduct. His Senate defense of his determination of insufficient evidence to prove Mr. Trump’s obstruction was transparently untenable, as 1000 prosecu-tors publicly stated.
  2. In abandoning all precedent by attacking an inspector general’s report, Mr. Barr acted in alignment with the president’s narrative that the FBI’s investigation into his campaign was illegitimate. Mr. Barr rested his "beyond unusual" attack on half-truth, mischaracterization and deceptive concealment of facts.
  3. Asked in a televised interview about any FBI misconduct during the investigation of the Trump campaign, Mr. Barr abandoned the rules of his Department and of professional responsibility by publicly maligning the conduct of FBI personnel who are the subject of a criminal investigation; Mr. Barr thereby undermined the fairness of future criminal proceedings involving those individuals. He did so us-ing language that no ethical prosecutor would use in public comments about indi-viduals under investigation.
  4. In overseeing and ordering the unconstitutional attack on citizens peacefully protesting in Lafayette Square, the attorney general violated his lawyer’s oath. With the whole world watching, he demonstrated the starkest, anti-constitutional harm that a conflict of interest can cause.

The original article cites this report on US Bars' efficacy and it's not very promising. However, given that Barr's actions undermine the legal profession in a very public manner and much of the investigative work is already done, why wouldn't the DC Bar pursue disciplinary actions against William Barr?

  • It comes down personal politics; Barr has lots of friends on the DC Bar and they don't want to make waves or take his law license away, and/or they feel that disciplinary action will make the DC Bar look bad. Like any group, lawyers and the DC Bar will probably close ranks and do nothing more than make some statements about the evidence not rising to the level of disbarment. Nov 11, 2020 at 15:57
  • As a professional engineer myself, I find your idea that professional standards boards for our profession are not equally political quaint.
    – Dale M
    Nov 11, 2020 at 20:28
  • @DaleM It's probably location specific, but I generally find within the office we'll regularly argue about whether something is ethically correct more than whether something is strictly legal. The legal stuff is rarely the issue because it'll pale in comparison to the consequences from the ethical issues. Want to kill one person at a time? Hire an unethical doctor. Want to kill a township? Hire an unethical civil engineer. Nov 11, 2020 at 21:44
  • Sorry, I said “professional” when I meant “political” in my last comment.
    – Dale M
    Nov 11, 2020 at 22:02

1 Answer 1


Generally speaking, the actions of lawyers who are federal employees in furtherance of their official duties are primarily subject to the professional ethics direction of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) within the U.S. Justice Department, rather than state courts or the parallel institutions in the District of Columbia government.

To the extent that state ethics enforcements interfere with the conduct of federal lawyers in a manner that federal officials find to be compliant in the course of their officials duties, the state ethics enforcement may be pre-empted under the Supremacy Clause and out of general federalism considerations. Similarly, a federal government employee lawyer cannot be sanctioned for performing official federal government legal duties without admission to the practice of law in the state courts of the state where that lawyer is doing work, even though a private sector lawyer (e.g. for multinational corporation) could be sanctioned for doing so in some circumstances.

This analysis isn't quite so straight forwards in the case of a D.C. ethics panel v. the U.S. Justice Department OPR, because the District of Columbia government, and the Justice Department are both parts of the federal government that operate independently of each other. But, the outcome is likely to be the same. The D.C. governments answers to the people of D.C., the U.S. Justice Department answers to the President and Congress and their determinations as pertinent to national issues can't be simply overruled by the District of Columbia government.

The proper course of action would be to lodge a professional ethics complaint with the U.S. Justice Department OPR and/or with the U.S. Justice Department inspector general, both of whom are subordinate to the Attorney-General and the President, although the OPR is run by a senior civil service employee who can only be fired for good cause and doesn't have the same direct obligation to follow the Attorney-General's orders and to serve at his (or her) pleasure as many other senior U.S. Justice Department employees.

While the OPR has considerable autonomy from the AG, bringing an ethics complaint against your boss is still a dicey proposition and doesn't necessarily get adjudicated by a neutral quasi-judicial body down the line, so it isn't a very favorable forum to raise that kind of complaint, even though it is probably the correct forum in which to do so.

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