In a landmark decision by the Washington State Supreme Court, a person’s legal status in the country cannot be brought up by attorneys in civil cases, allowing immigrants to pursue legal claims without fear of reprisals from federal authorities. This is a major victory for any undocumented individuals seeking to make a valid legal claim, and a victory for the justice system as whole.
In the past, any participant in a civil case could expect to have their legal status potentially brought to the attention of federal authorities, a practice designed to intimidate a claimant into dropping a valid claim. This practice was damaging not only to the person making the claim, but also to the judicial process as a whole, because it interfered with the proper functioning of the legal system.
Currently, the Washington State Rules of Professional Conduct, which every attorney in the state must follow, says that no attorney can engage in conduct that will manifest prejudice or bias on the basis of sex, race, age, creed, religion, color, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or marital status. Now, the concept of “legal status” will be added to this list.
To quote from Rule 4.4 – Respect for Rights of Third Persons from the Rules of Professional Conduct:
“Issues involving immigration status carry a significant danger of interfering with the proper functioning of the justice system. When a lawyer is representing a client in a civil matter, a lawyer’s communication to a party or a witness that the lawyer will report that person to immigration authorities, or a lawyer’s report of that person to immigration authorities, furthers no substantial purpose of the civil adjudicative system if the lawyer’s purpose it to intimidate, coerce, or obstruct that person.”
This new rule does not affect criminal cases but does affect civil claims including personal injury claims, wrongful death claims, and medical malpractice claims. Now, under this new rule, no attorney can use a person’s legal status in the United States as a weapon to silence a claimant, to intimidate them into dropping a case, or to influence a jury. There can be no mention of legal status in open court, and no communications with federal authorities on the topic.
The Latino/a Bar Association of Washington has been lobbying for this rule change since 2007, after following numerous cases where legal status was used to influence or intimidate a party to a case. This practice had a profound effect on the Latino community, and significantly limited access to a fair and equal justice system. The rule goes into effect on September 1, 2013. After, any attorney who attempts to use a person’s immigration status as a factor in a civil case may face sanctions from the Washington State Bar Association. And any person with a valid claim can pursue justice without fear of reprisals from the federal government.