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In re Hyra

Decided: April 5, 1954.


On presentment of the Ethics and Grievance Committee for Union County.

For two-year suspension -- Justices Oliphant, Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For disbarment -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher and Wachenfeld. Vanderbilt, C.J. (dissenting).

Per Curiam

In each county of the State there is appointed by this court a committee on character and fitness, R.R. 1:20-6, whose duty it is to investigate the character and fitness of all candidates for admission as attorneys-at-law of this State, resident in the respective counties. Such investigation is made at the time of the commencement of clerkship and again previous to the time of taking the bar examinations. No applicant for admission as an attorney is allowed to take the bar examination until his character and fitness committee has filed with the secretary of the Board of Bar Examiners a certificate that the applicant is of good moral character and fit for the practice of the law.

It is apparent that the various character and fitness committees are one of the most important arms of the court and their work of prime importance.

One of the purposes of a character and fitness committee is to determine from interviews and other means at their disposal whether or not in their judgment one desirous of entering into a clerkship leading to the privilege of taking the bar examination has the character, the backbone, the integrity and the moral stamina to make him a good and acceptable member of the bar. Membership in the bar is a privilege burdened with conditions. A good character is one of them and compliance with that condition is essential at the moment of admission. It is important to the applicant to know at the earliest possible date, preferably before he starts on his years of study, whether in the judgment of the court, through its character and fitness committee, he is lacking in character sufficiently to disqualify him for admission to the bar.

A full disclosure of one's personal life and his affairs should be made by every prospective candidate and it can be

generally stated that there is no place in the law for a man who cannot, or will not, tell the truth even when his own interests are involved. In the legal profession particularly there must be reverence for truth.

Each applicant for the bar examination is required to make out under oath and file a preliminary statement at the inception of his clerkship and a final statement at the termination thereof. He is also required to furnish two written character references. One of the questions on the preliminary and final statements reads as follows:

"Have you ever been concerned as a party plaintiff or defendant, or witness in any legal proceedings? If so, state fully the court, administrative office or tribunal, the character of the proceedings and your relationship to it."

The respondent here did not disclose to his preceptor, the Union County Character and Fitness Committee, nor apparently to those writing character references for him, his past criminal record which will hereafter be alluded to. He took the bar examinations on three occasions, May 1950, January 1951 and June 1951, the latter of which he successfully passed, and on each occasion answered the question hereinbefore referred to falsely. While the question does not specifically ask whether or not the applicant has ever been convicted of crime, there can be little doubt but that the respondent knew its implication.

Parenthetically, it might be well that in the future the direct question of whether or not the applicant has ever been convicted of crime should be asked.

After the fact of the respondent's prior criminal record was brought to the attention of the court, a hearing was had by the Union County Character and Fitness Committee at its direction. Mr. Hyra appeared and answered the questions put to him with frankness. He was not evasive nor did he make any attempt to alibi an answer. He gave as his reason for not having disclosed his past criminal record that if he had made such a disclosure he was fearful he would be

denied the right to take the bar examination and that that would have been a terrible blow to him.

The fact that respondent had been convicted of a crime is not the most serious aspect of this case. It is the fact of his non-disclosure thereof and his false swearing.

There can be no question but that severe disciplinary action must be taken against this respondent but the majority of the court is of the opinion that the extreme penalty, disbarment, should not be imposed upon him in view of what we consider extenuating and mitigating circumstances, not concerning his derelictions but with respect to his exemplary life both before and after the occurrences heretofore related.

The respondent, when 18 years of age -- he is now 33 -- was convicted on five allegations of burglary and larceny. Sentence was suspended and he was placed on probation. At the time he was a student at the Hillside High School, from which he graduated in June 1940. In April 1943 he was inducted into service in the United States Army. He was later commissioned and served in the Counter-Intelligence Corps and was honorably discharged from the army in April 1946. He had disclosed to the army authorities his criminal record, and before being admitted to the Counter-Intelligence Corps was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After his discharge from the Army he attended Rutgers University Law School in Newark and the John Marshall Law School in Jersey City, graduating from the latter in 1950. Following his passage of the bar examination in June 1951, he took a civil service examination for municipal court clerk of Hillside and disclosed his record to the Civil Service Commission. He passed the examination and received the appointment and at the present time is serving in that capacity. He also has taken examinations for entrance into the Federal Bureau of Investigation service and as a United States Treasury Agent, and even with his record having been disclosed he is still open to call to the latter position. Mr. Hyra is married and has two children, one aged five years and one three months of age. He has purchased a home in Hillside and practices there. At the time of his appointment

as municipal court clerk the members of the township committee had full knowledge of his criminal background. Also, while his past record is generally known in the community in which he lives, he appears to be respected and as far as is known his professional relations with clients have been without blemish.

This is the first disciplinary case of its kind which has come before us and our disposition of it must serve as a salutary warning to all future applicants for admission to the bar. With this warning those transgressing in like manner can expect nothing short of disbarment.

The judgment of the court is that the respondent be suspended from the practice of the law for a period of two years and until the further order of this court.

VANDERBILT, C.J. (dissenting).

From the earliest days in this State it has been a rule of court that "No person [shall] be admitted to such examination [to practice as an attorney at law], unless he * * * shall be of good moral character." 1 N.J.L. vi. Rule 3. The rule is not peculiar to New Jersey; it is a universal requirement, for good moral character is the first requirement of the profession, compared with which learning and diligence are of secondary importance. Accordingly we find our former Supreme Court holding:

"If it appear by the record of conviction that an applicant had been convicted of larceny, the court would not admit him to examination on a certificate of his good moral character. They would immediately upon proof of such fact strike his name from the roll after his admission. * * *

They [the court] limit the investigation to such acts as would, after his admission to the bar, be a ground for striking him from the roll. * * * The act charged involves fraud and moral turpitude. It is precisely such a charge, and rests upon such evidence as would, if committed in the course of practice, warrant the court in calling upon an attorney to show cause why his name should not be stricken from the roll." Per Chief Justice Green, the associate justices all concurring, in On Application for Attorney's License, 21 N.J.L. 345, at 346-347 (1848).

This decision reflects the strong weight of authority on the question everywhere (indeed, the decision has been quoted elsewhere; see 207 N.W. 710, 207 N.W. 970, 204 P. 950, 209 P. 488, 55 S.E. 639, 55 S.E. 643, 55 S.E. 645, 67 S.E. 601, 67 S.E. 608), and was until today the unchallenged law in this State.

As our bar grew in number and the clerkship became, with the allowance of credit for time spent in law schools, a secondary means of legal education, it became necessary here as in other states to set up in each county a committee on character and fitness (Rule 7, sec. 8 of the former Supreme Court, promulgated June 5, 1923) to:

"investigate the character and fitness of all candidates for admission as attorney at law resident in such county; no person shall be recommended for license until he shall have received the approval of the said committee."

The examinations of the applicants for admission to the bar by the committees on character and fitness have been strengthened from time to time by rule of court (see R.R. 1:20-6), but questionnaires have been used as the basis of such examinations since February 25, 1949 (former Rule 1:8-7). Each applicant must not only respond to such questionnaire under oath; he must also answer orally such inquiries as the members of the committee may propound to him in personal interviews. The work of these committees thus replaces, with reference to the primary characteristic of good moral character so indispensable to being a worthy member of a great profession, the examination which in earlier days took place before one or more of the justices of the Supreme Court. Accordingly, any representations made by an applicant to the ...

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