The lawyer who leaked to McClatchy confidential documents on a family detention agreement was shown leniency in a hearing Monday that could have ended his legal career.
Bryan Johnson, a New York lawyer, is a former consultant to immigration attorneys negotiating with government officials over the fate of detained mothers and children. He was ordered to appear in court by U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee of the Central District of California after Johnson had allegedly violated a confidentiality agreement for a second time.
Gee had threatened to hold Johnson, 30, in contempt and report him to the State Bar of New York, which could have disbarred him. Instead, she sentenced Johnson to 75 hours of community service with a certified public institution as well as completing two legal ethics courses within the next six months.
Before the judge ruled, Johnson issued a personal apology to the court, admitting his error and claiming no disrespect to the court, telling Gee, “My clients come to me after a difficult journey.” He said, “I have failed my clients.”
Gee told Johnson, “This is not about me,” and described Johnson’s actions as “shocking and shameful.” She added that confidentiality agreements “are not little pieces of paper you can disregard. I can’t possibly see why disclosing (the contents of the family detention agreement) could help your clients one bit. You either keep your promise or don’t make a promise. Hopefully this has been a teachable moment.”
The hearing, along with Johnson’s actions, imply the level of passions involved in the family detention legal case.
Johnson, an immigration attorney, was fired from his unpaid consulting job after leaking to McClatchy a copy of the court’s confidential draft ruling, which said the Obama administration’s use of family detention in immigration defied parts of a 1997 settlement on migrant children.
Johnson also leaked to McClatchy a copy of a proposed settlement by lawyers for mothers held by U.S. immigration officials. Johnson, who chose not to speak after the hearing, previously explained that his actions were taken only in defense of his clients.
The Obama administration currently holds about 1,900 parents and children in family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania. Most of the detainees have fled from Central America.
Several letters from Johnson’s colleagues asked the court for leniency, saying it would hurt Johnson’s clients – mostly migrant mothers and kids he represents for little or no cost – as much as it would hurt the career of the young lawyer, who was admitted to the bar in 2011 and described as a sometimes over-eager campaigner for his clients’ cause.
Johnson’s attorney, David Kaloyanides, agreed with the judge.
“Officers of the court are held to a higher standard,” he said. “And the best thing overall was to be lenient. She could have been much more severe, but imposed something that will benefit him in the long term.”
But despite the letters of support from colleagues, Kaloyanides said Johnson actions have still cost him. “We’ve already seen some professional hesitancy in dealing with him. Bryan is very passionate, but needs to be careful.”