Disgraced ex-journalist Stephen Glass seeks right to be a California lawyer
By Howard Mintz
In the journalism world, Stephen Glass was a true villain, perhaps the most renowned fabricator in the profession’s history.
Dozens of his stories in magazines such as the New Republic and Rolling Stone in the late 1990s were proven to be bogus. His level of journalistic deceit became such a national scandal that Hollywood made a movie about his fall, “Shattered Glass.”
But in the 15 years since Glass was caught in his fraud, he has pursued another profession that depends on honesty. And now his own fable of redemption, if it is to be believed, has set a jarring question before the California Supreme Court: Can someone who once built a career on lies be licensed to be a lawyer in this state?
The court on Wednesday will tackle that issue when it considers Glass’ bid for admission to the State Bar, the final stage in an odyssey that began when he enrolled in law school while practicing his journalism charade more than a decade ago.
Not surprisingly, Glass’ quest has stirred mixed reactions.
The Bar opposes granting a license, arguing that he does not meet the “moral character” standards required of lawyers. But two State Bar court decisions have sided with his right to a license, and supporters — from two Washington, D.C., judges to one of the New Republic editors he most defrauded — have vouched for his reformation.
“I have absolutely no doubt he learned a horrible lesson and I have 100 percent confidence this won’t happen again,” said Susan Low Bloch, a Georgetown University law professor who has known Glass since he took her law class in 1997.
Legal ethicists are divided over his case.
“If Glass had been somebody nobody had ever heard of, he would have been admitted years ago,” said Richard Zitrin, a Hastings College of the Law legal ethics expert.
Counters Carol Langford, who teaches legal ethics at UC Berkeley law school: “The Supreme Court is going to have to really think about this one. The Bar has a lot of good arguments to make. I don’t think it’s just about appearance. It’s also saying, ‘We have to set a standard.’ ”
Glass, who now lives in a Los Angeles suburb and is a paralegal at a law firm, has declined interviews. Jon Eisenberg, his lawyer, also declined to comment.
But in court papers, Glass insists he has changed, the result of years of therapy and other self-improvements since he had to admit concocting material in national stories, such as a George magazine profile of Vernon Jordan, a close friend of former President Bill Clinton.
Glass’ supporters argue that as a 41-year-old man well regarded by his law firm, he should no longer pay for the mistakes of a 25-year-old journalist.
“Second chances are an American story,” Glass’ lawyers told the state Supreme Court. “This case is such a story — one of redemption.”
State Bar lawyers, however, say Glass has not done enough to repent for journalistic sins that “tarnished the entire journalism profession,” and they question his sincerity about changing his ways. They note that concerns about Glass’ character kept him from being admitted to the New York Bar in 2004.
“When considering someone with (Glass’) remarkable record of fraud and deceit, the State Bar of California should demand nothing less than exemplary behavior over a sustained period of time,” Bar lawyers say in court documents. “This standard is necessary in a case like this, where an applicant’s past misdeeds compromise the very foundation of the legal profession — common honesty.”
But Glass’ supporters say he has shown remorse and that he has steered clear of trouble for a long time. He has worked for a Los Angeles personal injury firm for more than a half-dozen years without incident, and his boss, Paul Zuckerman, has vouched for him in the Supreme Court and State Bar.
In his Bar testimony, Zuckerman recalled immediately deleting Glass’ résumé when his job application recounted his journalism troubles but then changed his mind.
Now, Zuckerman testified, he considers Glass “my touchstone, my benchmark for honest and proper conduct” in the law firm.
And Martin Peretz, former editor-in-chief of the New Republic when Glass worked there, favors granting the law license, even though the scandal hit his magazine hardest.
“I don’t think what Steve committed, and his journey after, should condemn him to be exiled from respectable, ethical society,” Peretz testified in Bar Court. “I think (Glass) has a great deal of responsibility for (his misconduct), and he has acknowledged it, and he’s suffered for it.”