Fiery brief irks high court

The Virginia Supreme Court has called in Roanoke lawyer Stan Barnhill to discuss a filing that sharply criticized the court for a ruling against one of his clients.

By Michael Sluss, The Roanoke Times – May 20, 2006

RICHMOND — A prominent Roanoke lawyer has been called on the carpet by the Virginia Supreme Court for filing a petition that harshly criticizes the court’s ruling against one of his clients.

Stan Barnhill, an attorney with the firm of Woods Rogers, has been ordered to appear before the court next month for a hearing to determine whether the justices should impose sanctions against him. The court could suspend Barnhill from practicing before the state’s highest judicial body for a fixed period, according to an order issued earlier this month.

Barnhill, who represents The Roanoke Times in legal proceedings, already has filed a brief expressing his “deepest apology and sincerest regret” for the tone of his March 27 petition to the court. He acknowledged that he made “a grave mistake and serious error in judgment” and that he offended the seven-member court. He declined to comment on the matter on Friday.

In the petition, Barnhill requested a rehearing of a case involving a lawsuit filed by the victim of a 2003 shooting outside a Holiday Inn Express in Northwest Roanoke. The Supreme Court on March 3 partly reversed the ruling of a judge on the Roanoke Circuit Court and concluded that the victim, Ryan Toboada, has a right to sue the motel for not protecting its customers in a crime-plagued area. Justice Lawrence Koontz of Salem wrote the opinion, which the court unanimously supported.

Barnhill represented the motel’s owner, Daly Seven Inc. of Danville. In his 11-page petition for rehearing, he challenged the legal reasoning behind the court’s ruling and used potent language and imagery in his argument.

“George Orwell’s fertile imagination could not supply a clearer distortion of the plain meaning of the language to reach such an absurd result,” Barnhill wrote.

Barnhill also wrote in the petition that his client has “little expectation” that the court “will revisit the lack of wisdom in its pronouncements.”

“Ryan Toboada may be the unfortunate victim of a crazed criminal assailant who emerged from the dark to attack him,” Barnhill wrote. “But Daly Seven will be the victim of a dark and ill-conceived jurisprudence.”

In a rule to show cause order issued May 1, the Supreme Court indicated that Barnhill’s assertions “raise significant questions as to whether the petition was filed in ‘good faith’ and for a proper purpose.” The court set a June 6 hearing for Barnhill.

Virginia Beach lawyer Steven Emmert, who publishes the online Virginia Appellate News & Analysis, said it is “extremely unusual” for the state’s highest court to take such action against a lawyer.

Barnhill filed a brief Wednesday expressing regret for the “inappropriate rhetoric” he used in his petition. The brief states that the court order “has had a profound and personal impact” on him.

“He has embarrassed not only himself but also his partners and their law firm, which he deeply regrets,” Barnhill’s brief states.

The brief also indicates that Barnhill filed the incendiary petition without following his firm’s policy of having it reviewed by another lawyer. Had he done so, the brief states, the petition “would not have been filed as it was.”

Barnhill asked that Daly Seven be allowed to withdraw the petition for rehearing and decide whether to file another one in its place. Barnhill no longer will participate in the case, according to the brief.

Barnhill’s brief calls the episode “an aberration in the practice of a lawyer who has engaged in extensive professional service.”

Barnhill noted that he has served on the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board, the Sixth District Ethics Committee, and the Virginia State Bar. He also has served on the board of the Legal Aid Society of the Roanoke Valley.

Emmert called Barnhill’s response to the court order “the best thing he could have done.”

“I believe the court will view this as a good-faith effort of contrition,” Emmert said. “There is no question that the mere existence of the show cause order is a sanction to him.”