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Trump lawyer's Jan. 6 actions 'threatened our democracy,' State Bar attorney says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Pro-Trump attorney John Eastman is about to lose the right to practice law. After the 2020 election, Eastman worked with the Trump team to push claims of voter fraud in court, and he pressured Vice President Mike Pence to block Biden's win in the Electoral College. This week, a judge in California found that Eastman broke legal ethics rules and should be disbarred. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has been covering this case and how the legal profession is wrestling with how Donald Trump's lawyers behaved. Hey, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so first, just bring us up to speed on how the judge made her decision here.

DREISBACH: Yeah. So when you boil it all down, Judge Yvette Roland found that Eastman cited supposed evidence of election fraud that either he did not verify or that he knew or really should have known was bogus. And she found that Eastman's plan for Pence to block the certification of the election amounted to an - a conspiracy to illegally obstruct the government. Duncan Carling led the California State Bar's trial team in its case against Eastman. And here's what he told me about why Eastman should be disbarred.

DUNCAN CARLING: This case really involves the most important duties of attorneys. You know, Mr. Eastman was really misusing his law license in a way that frankly threatened our democracy.

CHANG: And what was Eastman's defense to all that?

DREISBACH: Well, he still argues that the 2020 election was marred by fraud in some way, which Judge Roland completely rejected. Eastman also said that the legality of the plan involving Pence was up for debate. This is a political persecution. Here he is on Steve Bannon's podcast yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BANNON'S WAR ROOM")

JOHN EASTMAN: People have gotten so blinded by their visceral hatred of Donald Trump that they can't even see straight about legitimate legal arguments.

DREISBACH: Eastman says he also plans to appeal this decision. Now, I talked about this with George Cardona. He's the chief trial counsel for the State Bar of California, and I asked him about Eastman's criticism.

GEORGE CARDONA: I think the court took pains in its opinion to recognize that you are allowed to engage in zealous advocacy on behalf of your clients, whatever your political views. But what you're not allowed is to cross the line from zealous advocacy to making misstatements of fact or misstatements of law.

CHANG: And Eastman - I mean, he's not the only Trump lawyer facing discipline related to January 6, right? Where does his case fit in with the larger picture here?

DREISBACH: Yeah. Legal authorities have investigated whether several Trump lawyers broke ethics rules related to their work on the 2020 election - Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Jeffrey Clark, Jenna Ellis, for example. And legal ethics experts say these cases can play a role in deterring lawyers from using their law licenses to, in effect, break the law. Duncan Carling from the State Bar told me that the case against John Eastman involved really ordinary issues in a way, whether lawyers tell the truth in court and elsewhere, but in an extraordinary circumstance, a contested presidential election.

CARLING: The attempt that he made to reverse the outcome of the election would have plunged our nation into a constitutional crisis had he succeeded. So we were certainly mindful of the stakes that - what had been involved here. You know, whether or not this is something we're likely to see again I don't know. But it was obviously a very important case to us.

DREISBACH: By the way, we also know that special counsel Jack Smith has been paying attention to Eastman's disbarment. His office ordered transcripts of Eastman's testimony. I asked the State Bar about their contacts with the special counsel, but they declined to talk about it.

CHANG: OK, so Eastman is going to appeal, and the judge's decision was just a recommendation. So what happens next?

DREISBACH: Well, there's an appeals process. Ultimately, the California Supreme Court has the final say. But in the meantime, Eastman will not be allowed to practice law. Eastman said in a statement to NPR that this is unfair. He's also facing criminal charges in Georgia related to the 2020 election, pleaded not guilty. And he's worried he won't be able to pay for his defense if he loses his livelihood working as an attorney.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Dreisbach. Thank you so much, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.