In recent days, the media has reported on an interview with John Eastman, Donald Trump’s coup counsel, in which the lawyer expressed defiance in the face of potential professional disciplinary and criminal charges for his role helping Trump attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
“I’m not backing down,” Eastman said.
It’s been nearly a year since the California bar announced it was investigating Eastman, a former faculty member at Chapman University Law School in Orange, Calif. We were among the first lawyers filing complaints in California; the first in October 2021 by the States United Democracy Center.
But since March, when the state bar’s investigation was announced, there’s been radio silence about its investigation. To our knowledge, Eastman continues to practice law using his California license.
The state bar said it began investigating Eastman in September 2021, 16 months ago.
The “goal and policy” of the State Bar of California is to “dismiss a complaint, admonish the attorney or have the State Bar Office of Trial Counsel file formal charges within 12 months after it receives a complaint.”
Participation in an attempted coup requires expeditious action. In January of 2021, a group led by Lawyers Defending American Democracy filed a disciplinary complaint against Rudolph Giuliani. Just five months later, in June, a New York court suspended his law license. Giuliani committed ethical violations in making false and misleading statements about the 2020 election to courts, lawmakers and the public.
Given the serious threat that misconduct aimed at our constitutional system poses, speed was — and is — in order.
Before the 2022 midterms, Eastman was actively prescribing what election deniers should do in November’s elections to challenge the results when they lost.
The original complaints against him arose from his role as the lawyer who championed Trump’s strategy to have then-Vice President Mike Pence, the ceremonial presiding officer in Congress’ certification session, reject or delay the certification of President Joe Biden’s election on January 6, 2021.
Eastman himself apparently knew he was giving unlawful advice. Pence has written that “Eastman had conceded . . . that rejecting electoral votes was a bad idea and any attempt to do so would be quickly overturned by a unanimous Supreme Court. This guy didn’t even believe what he was telling the president.”
Our October 2021 California disciplinary complaint against Eastman, which was signed by others including retired California judges appointed during administrations of both parties, alleged that he “violated his ethical obligations as an attorney by filing frivolous claims, making false statements and engaging in deceptive conduct.”
Last March, federal district court Judge David Carter found it likely that Trump and Eastman violated federal criminal law when they “dishonestly conspired to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021.” Support for that finding only grew when, in December, the January 6 committee referred Eastman, Trump and others to the Justice Department.
Whether or not Eastman is indicted, professional accountability is crucial. The headline on Thursday’s media interview with Eastman said that the investigations of crimes and ethical bad acts have left him “unbowed.”
The California bar must expedite its disciplinary actions against Eastman to protect the public and the integrity of the legal profession.
Norm Eisen is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, served as former President Barack Obama’s ethics czar and was special impeachment counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in 2019-2020. Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy. Christine Sun, who also contributed to this piece, is the senior vice president of legal for the States United Democracy Center.