COLUMBUS — Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill’s former law partner has been placed under disciplinary watch for two years for improperly using the justice’s name on his office signs and business cards.
Thomas C. Brown, of Geneva, skirted an indefinite license suspension recommended by the local bar association but received harsher punishment than recommended by the court’s disciplinary board.
The high court ruled 4-3 Thursday to impose a two-year stayed suspension on Brown’s law license, allowing him to continue to practice as long as he meets the court’s requirements and doesn’t engage in any further misconduct.
O’Neill, who sat out the case, has been the only Democrat holding a statewide Ohio office since joining the court in 2013. He had initially agreed to Brown’s plan to open O’Neill & Brown Law Office in 2015. He said he didn’t realize it was improper. O’Neill is considering a run for governor next year.
O’Neill and Brown opened a law firm together in the 1980s, but they haven’t actively practiced together since at least 1997. Brown had argued they were laying the groundwork to work together again after O’Neill retires from the bench. Brown’s signs and business cards said the firm was established in 1981.
Under Ohio professional conduct rules, a firm can’t use the name of a lawyer holding public office who doesn’t currently practice there. Rules also prohibit making false and misleading claims about a firm’s members and longevity.
The court’s four-member majority said it considered factors for and against Brown in extending the disciplinary board’s recommended six-month stayed license suspension.
Working in Brown’s favor were his cooperation in the investigation and that his actions didn’t directly affect clients. Working against him were his extensive past disciplinary record and what justices called his “selfish motive” to exploit the prestige of a sitting justice.
“(We) do not believe that a fully stayed six-month suspension will adequately protect the public from future harm,” they wrote.
Justices were split on whether O’Neill’s participation in the original decision to rename the firm was a mark for or against Brown. The majority cited it as a mitigating factor in disciplining Brown, but three dissenting justices disagreed.
“In my view, there is nothing mitigating about that fact,” Justice Terrence O’Donnell said in his dissent. “Because judges are prohibited from lending their names to law firms, the fact that Brown obtained consent to use the ‘O’Neill’ name cannot be deemed mitigating; rather, this is aggravating misconduct.”
Brown has since partnered with his son and renamed the firm Brown & Brown Ltd.