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AG Todd Rokita faces professional misconduct charges; legal experts weigh in

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Posted at 5:30 PM, Sep 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-22 17:30:59-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Attorney General Todd Rokita could be disciplined for his comments to a Fox News host and others concerning an investigation into a doctor who performed an abortion on a 10-year-old girl last year.

The Indiana Supreme Court's Disciplinary Commission on Monday charged Rokita with violating rules of professional conduct stemming from an interview he gave to Fox News host Jesse Watters and other public statements he made in the summer of 2022 about IU Health Dr. Caitlin Bernard.

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All attorneys agree to abide by ethical standards when they are granted a law license. Lawyers accused of violating these rules go through a legal process that is very close to a trial, two legal experts told WRTV.

Don Lundberg served as the executive director of Indiana's Disciplinary Commission for 18 years before he left in 2010. He said a disciplinary case begins when the commission files charges, as they did in Rokita's case on Monday.

The disciplinary process

"There has been no finding of wrongdoing by Attorney General Rokita," Lundberg told WRTV. "There is now the beginning of a legal proceeding that will result at the end of the day in a decision in this case, ultimately by the Indiana Supreme Court, on whether Attorney General Rokita violated one or more rules of professional conduct."

Lundberg said that most disciplinary cases are resolved with some kind of settlement, where the accused lawyer might agree he or she broke the rules and accepts a punishment.

If there's no settlement, Lundberg said the Supreme Court appoints a hearing officer who will conduct a proceeding that is very much like a trial.

"The hearing officer's job is to hear the evidence and to make recommended findings to the Supreme Court," Lundberg said. "And the Supreme Court then ultimately has the jurisdiction and the authority to make a final decision in the case."

Possible punishments

Lawyers found to have violated the ethical rules may get a reprimand, a license suspension or even disbarment.

Lundberg said disbarment typically only happens to attorneys who commit very serious offenses, like rampantly stealing from clients or committing other crimes. Disbarment is not likely in Rokita's case, he said.

"I don't think I'm sticking my neck out by saying even on the worst day for Attorney General Rokita, it's not a disbarment case," Lundberg said.

The Disciplinary Commission says Roikita violated professional conduct rules when he spoke publicly about the investigation into Bernard several months before his office filed administrative charges against her medical license.

By state law, the commission said those investigations must be kept confidential until the charges are officially filed.

Rokita talked about the case in July 2022; he filed charges against Bernard in November 2022.

In May, the Indiana Licensing Board found that Bernard violated privacy laws when she spoke to the media about the 10-year-old's abortion. The board gave the doctor a written reprimand and ordered her to pay a $3,000 fine.

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Dr. Caitlin Bernard

Immense power

Indiana University McKinney School of Law Professor Margaret Tarkington said the rule against speaking about this case is important because the attorney general has the power to destroy lives and reputations simply by accusing people of misconduct.

"A prosecutor wields immense power. It is the power of the state literally to take away your life, liberty and property," Tarkington said. "In this case, they can take away your license. That is all the work that you've done to go to medical school. Your whole career can just be taken away."

Tarkington, an expert in professional responsibility, said restrictions on what prosecutors can say about a defendant "100% Constitutional."

"(Restrictions) do not violate free speech because they work together to actually make our justice system fair," Tarkington said. "They're part of the mechanism for making sure that the state doesn't deprive you of life, liberty and property without due process of law."

Months to resolve

It's impossible to tell how long Rokita's discipline case might take. Lundberg said there will likely be many months of hearings, with more motions and documents filed in court by Rokita and the commission.

"I would say in my experience, if this thing went beginning to end in a year, that would be fast," Lundberg said.

Rokita is now the second Indiana Attorney General to face discipline in recent years.

Rokita's predecessor, Curtis Hill, had his law license suspended for 30 days in 2020 for misconduct stemming from charges he groped several women at a Downtown bar.

Hill's discipline case was filed in March 2019 and was resolved 14 months later in May 2020.

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Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill talks about filing a lawsuit against Equifax for a 2017 data breach.

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at or on Twitter: @vicryc.

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