Teacher guide: Gentile V. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U. S. 1030 (1991) legal background

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TEACHER GUIDE: Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030 (1991)

Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada raised the question of what limits a state could place on attorney pretrial statements. The Supreme Court had dealt with the issue of pretrial publicity in two important earlier cases. In Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966) the Court held that the defendant failed to receive a fair trial because the judge had not acted to protect him from the prejudicial effects of widespread media coverage.
In Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, the Court dealt with another high-profile case. In that case, however, the trial judge had imposed a gag order on the press barring the publication of accounts of the defendant’s confession. The Court held that despite the importance of the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury, such a broad prior restraint violated the First Amendment.
The documentary, a transcript of which is available on the Voices of Law website, consists of interviews with the following people involved with the case:

  • Dominic Gentile: Las Vegas criminal defense attorney

  • Michael Tigar: Attorney for Dominic Gentile before the U.S. Supreme Court

  • Ed Koch: Las Vegas reporter

  • Al Tobin: Las Vegas reporter

  • Dennis Kennedy: Attorney and Chair of the State Bar of Nevada’s Disciplinary Committee

  • Robert Klonoff: Attorney for the State Bar of Nevada before the U.S. Supreme Court

Part 1 (beginning to 4:13): The sting operation

Reporters Koch and Tobin describe a Las Vegas police sting operation in which police officers pose as drug dealers. As part of the operation, the officers had rented a safe deposit box in which they had placed travelers’ checks and cocaine to convince their targets of their authenticity. The money and drugs are stolen; the officers immediately fall under suspicion, but the police later announce that the officers had passed a polygraph test and their prime suspect is now the vault owner, Grady Sanders.

Part 2 (4:13 to 9:59): Dom Gentile and the press conference

Facing indictment, Sanders retains criminal defense attorney Dominic Gentile. The indictment alleges that Sanders has stolen not only the money and drugs from the sting operation, but also items from other boxholders. Gentile receives information about some of the potential witnesses against Sanders; he investigates them and learns that some of them have criminal backgrounds. Gentile decides to hold a press conference to stem the tide of negative publicity about his client, but before he does so he researches the applicable ethics rules. He determines that the conference will take place so far in advance of the trial that his comments cannot prejudice a potential jury pool. At the conference, he declares that the police are the most likely perpetrators of the thefts, naming one officer in particular, and that they are using his client as a scapegoat.

Part 3 (9:59 to 15:26): The disciplinary proceedings

An article about Gentile’s press conference in the next day’s paper catches the eye of a Nevada Supreme Court Justice, who believes that Gentile’s comments violate legal ethics rules. Sanders is acquitted at trial, but the State Bar of Nevada summons Gentile to appear at a hearing to determine whether the press conference violated Nevada’s Ethics Rule 177, which prohibits lawyers from discussing the credibility of witnesses or the guilt or innocence of a defendant. Kennedy, who chairs the panel, believes that Gentile clearly violated the rule. The panel imposes a private reprimand on Gentile.

Part 4 (15:26 to 19:31): The appeals and oral arguments

Although his punishment is mild, Gentile vows to fight the sanction because of the effect it could have on his reputation. The Nevada Supreme Court upholds the State Bar’s decision, and Gentile retains Tigar to take his case to the United States Supreme Court. Tigar argues that the proper standard for determining whether a lawyer’s statements are inappropriate is whether they pose a “clear and present danger” to the fair administration of justice. Klonoff, who represents the State Bar of Nevada, responds that the Court should determine only whether such statements show a “substantial likelihood” that a fair trial would be impossible.

Two simple approaches to using the documentary are to show the entire case video in class or to assign students to watch it outside of class. The documentary concludes when the Supreme Court grants review, leaving discussion of the Court’s opinion for the classroom; we have found that the documentary is most effective when viewed before reading the opinion, because students are better prepared to analyze and discuss the factual setting and the legal issues in the case when they have heard from the parties involved.

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