Peel v. Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of Illinois/Concurrence Marshall

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Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, concurring in the judgment.

Petitioner's letterhead is neither actually nor inherently misleading. I therefore concur in the plurality's holding that Illinois may not prohibit petitioner from holding himself out as a civil trial specialist certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA). I believe, though, that petitioner's letterhead statement is potentially misleading. Accordingly, I would hold that Illinois may enact regulations other than a total ban to ensure that the public is not misled by such representations. Because Illinois' present regulation is unconstitutional as applied to petitioner, however, the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court must be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

The scope of permissible regulation depends on the nature of the commercial speech in question. States may prohibit actually or inherently misleading commercial speech entirely. In re R.M.J., 455 U.S. 191, 203, 102 S.Ct. 929, 937, 71 L.Ed.2d 64 (1982). They may not, however, ban potentially misleading commercial speech if narrower limitations could be crafted to ensure that the information is presented in a nonmisleading manner. Ibid.

I agree with the plurality that petitioner's reference to his NBTA certification as a civil trial specialist is not actually misleading. Ante, at 105-106. The record contains no evidence that any recipient of petitioner's stationery actually has been misled by the statement. I also believe that petitioner's letterhead statement is not inherently misleading such that it may be banned outright. The Court has upheld such a ban only when the particular method by which the information is imparted to consumers is inherently conducive to deception and coercion. In Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Assn., 436 U.S. 447, 98 S.Ct. 1912, 56 L.Ed.2d 444 (1978), the Court upheld a prophylactic ban on a lawyer's in-person solicitation of clients for pecuniary gain because such solicitation "is inherently conducive to overreaching and other forms of misconduct." Id., at 464, 98 S.Ct., at 1923. A statement on a letterhead, however, does not raise the same concerns as face-to-face barratry because the recipient of a letter does not have "a badgering advocate breathing down his neck" and can take time to reflect on the information provided to him. Shapero v. Kentucky Bar Assn., 486 U.S. 466, 475-476, 108 S.Ct. 1916, 1922-1923, 100 L.Ed.2d 475 (1988). The Court has also suggested that commercial speech that is devoid of intrinsic meaning may be inherently misleading, especially if such speech historically has been used to deceive the public. In re R.M.J., supra, 455 U.S., at 202, 102 S.Ct., at 937 (citing Friedman v. Rogers, 440 U.S. 1, 99 S.Ct. 887, 59 L.Ed.2d 100 (1979), which upheld a ban on the use of trade names by optometrists). The statement about petitioner's NBTA certification does not fit this category, as it does impart some information and as the State has made no showing that similar claims have been used to deceive. Illinois therefore may not prohibit petitioner from including the statement in his letterhead.

The statement is nonetheless potentially misleading. The name "National Board of Trial Advocacy" could create the misimpression that the NBTA is an agency of the Federal Government. Although most lawyers undoubtedly know that the Federal Government does not regulate lawyers, most nonlawyers probably do not; thus, the word "National" in the NBTA's name does not dispel the potential implication that the NBTA is a governmental agency. Furthermore, the juxtaposition on petitioner's letterhead of the phrase "Certified Civil Trial Specialist By the National Board of Trial Advocacy" with "Licensed: Illinois, Missouri, Arizona" could lead even lawyers to believe that the NBTA, though not a governmental agency, is somehow sanctioned by the States listed on the letterhead. Cf. post, at 123 (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting).

The plurality's assertion that the letterhead is unlikely to mislead a person to think that the NBTA is in some way affiliated with the Government is founded on the assumption that people understand that licenses are issued by governmental authorities, whereas certificates are issued by private organizations. Ante, at 103-104. But the dictionary definition of "certificate" relied on by the plurality in fact suggests that "certified" will often be understood as connoting governmental authorization:

"[A] document issued by a school, a state agency, or a professional organization certifying that one has satisfactorily completed a course of studies, has passed a qualifying examination, or has attained professional standing in a given field and may officially practice or hold a position in that field." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 367 (1986 ed.) (emphases added). See also ibid. (defining "certify" as, inter alia, "license").

Indeed, this interpretation accords with many States' practice of certifying legal specialists, see post, at 124 (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting), and other professionals. For instance, many States prescribe requirements for, and "certify" public accountants as, "Certified Public Accountants." See, e.g., Ill.Rev.Stat., ch. 111, ¶ 5500.01 et seq. (1987 and Supp.1988). See also Webster's, supra, at 367 (defining "certified public accountant" as "an accountant usu[ally] in professional public practice who has met the requirements of a state law and has been granted a state certificate"). The phrase "Certified Civil Trial Specialist By the National Board of Trial Advocacy," without further explanation, is thus potentially misleading, at least when placed in proximity to petitioner's listing of his licenses to practice law in three States. Cf. Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626, 652, 105 S.Ct. 2265, 2282, 85 L.Ed.2d 652 (1985) (holding that attorney advertisement promising "if there is no recovery, no legal fees are owed by our clients" was potentially misleading because "members of the public are often unaware of the technical meanings of such terms as 'fees' and 'costs'-terms that, in ordinary usage, might well be virtually interchangeable").

In addition, the reference to petitioner's certification as a civil trial specialist may cause people to think that petitioner is necessarily a better trial lawyer than attorneys without the certification. Cf. post, at 123 (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting). We have recognized that "advertising claims as to the quality of services . . . are not susceptible of measurement or verification; accordingly, such claims may be so likely to be misleading as to warrant restriction." Bates v. State Bar of Ariz., 433 U.S. 350, 383-384, 97 S.Ct. 2691, 2708-2709, 53 L.Ed.2d 810 (1977). The plurality discounts the misleading nature of the reference in two ways. First, it asserts that the reference to NBTA certification is not an opinion, but a verifiable fact, and that the requirements for certification are also verifiable facts. Ante, at 101. Second, it suggests that any inference of superiority that a consumer draws from the reference is justified, ibid., apparently because it believes that anyone who passes the NBTA's " 'rigorous and exacting' " standards possesses exceptional qualifications, ante, at 95 (quoting In re Johnson, 341 N.W.2d 282, 283 (Minn.1983)). Whereas certification as a specialist by a "bogus" organization without "objective and consistently applied standards relevant to practice in a particular area of law" might be misleading, the plurality argues, ante, at 109, NBTA certification suggests no "greater degree of professional qualification than reasonably may be inferred from an evaluation of its rigorous requirements," ante, at 102.

Although these characteristics may buttress the plurality's conclusion that petitioner's letterhead statement is not inherently misleading, they do not prevent that statement from being potentially misleading. Facts as well as opinions can be misleading when they are presented without adequate information. Even if, as the plurality suggests, NBTA-certified lawyers are generally more highly qualified for trial work than the average attorney, petitioner's statement is still potentially misleading because a person reasonably could draw a different inference from it. A person could think, for instance, that "Certified Civil Trial Specialist" means that petitioner has an unusually high success rate in civil trials. Alternatively, a person could think that all lawyers are considered by the NBTA for certification as a specialist, so that petitioner is necessarily a better trial lawyer than every lawyer not so certified. Neither inference, needless to say, would be true.

The potential for misunderstanding might be less if the NBTA were a commonly recognized organization and the public had a general understanding of its requirements. The record contains no evidence, however, that the NBTA or, more importantly, its certification requirements are widely known.

This Court examined a statement similar to petitioner's in In re R.M.J. There, an attorney had been disciplined by the state bar for advertising, among other things, that he was "Admitted to Practice Before THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT." 455 U.S., at 197, 102 S.Ct., at 934. We found that "this relatively uninformative fact . . . could be misleading to the general public unfamiliar with the requirements of admission to the Bar of this Court." Id., at 205, 102 S.Ct., at 938. We held that the State's total ban on such information was unconstitutional, however, in part because the state court had made no finding that the information was misleading; nor had the State attempted a less restrictive means of preventing deception, such as "requir[ing] a statement explaining the nature of the Supreme Court Bar." Id., at 206, 102 S.Ct., at 939. Nevertheless, our acknowledgment that the statement was potentially misleading and our suggestion that the State could require the attorney to provide additional information are instructive.

Because a claim of certification by the NBTA as a civil trial specialist is potentially misleading, States may enact measures other than a total ban to prevent deception or confusion. This Court has suggested that States may, for example, require "some limited supplementation, by way of warning or disclaimer or the like, . . . so as to assure that the consumer is not misled." Bates, supra, 433 U.S., at 384, 97 S.Ct., at 2709. Accord, In re R.M.J., supra, 455 U.S., at 203, 102 S.Ct., at 937 ("[T]he remedy in the first instance is not necessarily a prohibition but preferably a requirement of disclaimers or explanation"). The Court's decisions in Shapero and Zauderer provide helpful guidance in this area. In Shapero, the Court held that States may not categorically prohibit lawyers from soliciting business for pecuniary gain by sending personalized letters to potential clients known to face particular legal problems. 486 U.S., at 476, 108 S.Ct., at 1923. The Court said that States could, however, enact less restrictive measures to prevent deception and abuse, such as requiring that a personalized letter bear a label identifying it as an advertisement or a statement informing the recipient how to report an inaccurate or misleading letter. Id., at 477-478, 108 S.Ct., at 1923-1924. In Zauderer, the Court held that a State could not ban newspaper advertisements containing legal advice or illustrations because the State had failed to show that it could not combat potential abuses by means short of a blanket ban. 471 U.S., at 644, 648-649, 105 S.Ct., at 2278, 2280-2281. But the Court held that the State could require attorneys advertising contingent-fee services to disclose that clients would have to pay costs even if their lawsuits were unsuccessful to prevent the possibility that people would erroneously think that they would not owe their attorneys any money if they lost their cases. Id., at 650-653, 105 S.Ct., at 2281-2283.

Following the logic of those cases, a State could require a lawyer claiming certification by the NBTA as a civil trial specialist to provide additional information in order to prevent that claim from being misleading. [1] The State might, for example, require a disclaimer stating that the NBTA is a private organization not affiliated with, or sanctioned by, the State or Federal Government. The State also could require information about the NBTA's requirements for certification as a specialist so that any inferences drawn by consumers about the quality of services offered by an NBTA-certified attorney would be based on more complete knowledge of the meaning of NBTA certification. Each State, of course, may decide for itself, within the constraints of the First Amendment, how best to prevent such claims from being misleading. [2]


^1  Justice O'CONNOR suggests that any regulation short of a total ban on claims such as petitioner's would require "case-by-case review" of each certification claim and would be unduly burdensome on the State. Post, at 125. On the contrary, a State could easily establish generally applicable regulations setting forth what types of information must accompany a claim of certification or specialty. The state agency in charge of enforcing those regulations could then investigate and adjudicate alleged violations of the regulations, just as such agencies do under existing disciplinary rules. No advance approval of every claim would be required.

In any event, this Court's primary task in cases such as this is to determine whether a state law or regulation unduly burdens the speaker's exercise of First Amendment rights, not whether respect for those rights would be unduly burdensome for the State. Because Illinois can prevent petitioner's claim from being misleading without banning that claim entirely, the State's total ban is unconstitutional as applied in this case. Cf. post, at 2297 (WHITE, J., dissenting). The burden is on the State to enact a constitutional regulation, not on petitioner to guess in advance what he would have to do to comply with such a regulation.

^2  The precise amount of information necessary to avoid misunderstandings need not be decided here. The poles of the spectrum of disclosure requirements, however, are clear. A State may require an attorney to provide more than just the fact of his certification as a civil trial specialist by the NBTA. But a State may not require an attorney to include in his letterhead an exhaustive, detailed recounting of the NBTA's certification requirements because more limited disclosure would suffice to prevent the possibility that people would be misled. Cf. Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626, 663-664, 105 S.Ct. 2265, 2288-2289, 85 L.Ed.2d 652 (1985) (BRENNAN, J., concurring in part, concurring in judgment in part, and dissenting in part) ("[C]ompelling the publication of detailed fee information that would fill far more space than the advertisement itself . . . would chill the publication of protected commercial speech and would be entirely out of proportion to the State's legitimate interest in preventing potential deception").

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).