The 6th District Court of Appeals yesterday reversed a contempt order that a Lucas County Common Pleas judge placed on an attorney for refusing to provide documents about how much a client paid him.
But the state appellate court upheld Judge Charles Doneghy's order for an in-chambers inspection of the documents to determine what information could be given to county prosecutors.
Neither the attorney, John Potts, or prosecutors see the decision as a victory. Each plans to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. The case is the first of its kind in the county, and possibly in the state.
“I am, of course, gratified that the contempt finding has been reversed, but it would certainly be my intention to seek a stay of the order requiring me to produce the documents for an in-camera inspection,” Mr. Potts said.
The case stems from a request made in 2000 by prosecutors for fee information from Mr. Potts concerning his client, Donald Lentz of Camden Street, who is awaiting trial on six counts of money laundering. Prosecutors with the organized crime task force allege Mr. Lentz bought and refurbished cars with money earned from selling cocaine.
But Mr. Potts, a lawyer for 24 years, balked at the judge's order for an in-chamber review to determine any evidentiary value because he believed complying would assist prosecutors in trying to build a case against his client.
In December, 2000, Judge Doneghy ordered Mr. Potts to serve 10 days in jail but stayed the sentence pending the appeal.
The three-judge appellate panel ruled that the information sought by prosecutors is not protected under the client-attorney privilege and could be reviewed by the judge. However, the appellate court said the judge went too far in holding the attorney in contempt.
Mr. Potts said the court's decision that Judge Doneghy can review the information could have far-reaching implications and needs to be examined by the state's highest court.
“I feel that it is my ethical obligation as an attorney that is owed to my client. The issue is of such significance and importance that it affects all attorneys or anyone who might be a client of an attorney,” he said.
Thomas Matuszak, an assistant county prosecutor, said his office is considering an appeal of the court's ruling to vacate the contempt order.
“The trial judge, in a very difficult situation, rose above the concerns of local practice and procedure and dealt with some very contentious issues of law and made the right decision,” Mr. Matuszak said.
“There are some questions about the legal analysis that the court of appeals used. There are a number of legal issues with which I ardently disagree,” he said.