The North Carolina State Bar, the state agency that regulates attorneys, has asked a judge to dismiss Raleigh attorney Gene Boyce’s complaint asking the State Bar to address allegations of professional misconduct by Attorney General Roy Cooper. Wake County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, who is handling the case, has scheduled a hearing for May 6 to consider the complaint.

Boyce’s complaint said that as an attorney he has an obligation to report the professional misconduct of other attorneys to the State Bar. According to the complaint — filed in January in Wake County Superior Court — Boyce has notified the State Bar on multiple occasions about Cooper’s alleged misconduct, but the State Bar has not responded. Boyce also argued that the State Bar has a conflict of interest in the matter because Cooper serves as the attorney for the State Bar.

On March 14, the State Bar filed a motion to dismiss Boyce’s complaint. Boyce subsequently filed a response outlining reasons his complaint should be heard in court.

Boyce has asked the court for a declaratory judgment forcing the State Bar to acknowledge Boyce’s claims of Cooper’s misconduct; declaring that the State Bar has a conflict of interest in the matter; and referring the dispute to an alternative agency for investigation, findings of fact, and discipline if appropriate.

The dispute began in 2000, when Cooper was the Democratic Party’s nominee for attorney general and his main opponent was Republican Dan Boyce, Gene’s son.

Cooper won that race and has been attorney general since 2001. Cooper won the March Democratic primary for governor and will face Gov. Pat McCrory in November.

Boyce claims that during the 2000 campaign, Cooper knowingly made false statements in political ads that harmed the reputation of Boyce and his law partners. A trial court judge dismissed the lawsuit, but appellate courts ruled in Boyce’s favor on several occasions, and in 2014 the matter was scheduled to go to trial.

The dispute appeared to be over in April 2014 when Cooper issued a written apology to Boyce for statements Cooper’s political campaign made in the political ads. The parties signed an agreement ending the civil action, but Boyce’s complaint says that Cooper’s conduct is a separate issue that the State Bar must address.

Boyce has been practicing law since 1956. He served as assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, working with U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C. on the investigation of President Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign.

Motion to dismiss

The State Bar claimed Boyce doesn’t have “a legally cognizable interest in the controversy and lacks standing to pursue his alleged claim as a matter of law.”

In addition, even if Boyce had standing, the declaratory judgment he seeks was not an appropriate vehicle to compel action from a state agency.

Finally, the State Bar claimed that Boyce’s lawsuit against Cooper “was fully resolved and is final. Accordingly, all questions of civil law liability related to his alleged private injury are moot.”

Boyce’s response, submitted March 28, said his complaint concerns the ethical duties of the State Bar and the statutory principles of “conflict of interest.” He said a declaratory judgment is appropriate in this situation.

He said, as a dues-paying member of the State Bar, he has a sincere interest in seeing the agency perform its duties, and that the State Bar encourages attorneys to report evidence of misconduct by other attorneys.

Boyce also noted, as he did in his initial complaint, that the State Bar has set a precedent in dealing with the alleged misconduct of an attorney who posed a conflict of interest for the State Bar. Faison Hicks, who is a special deputy attorney general in Cooper’s office and has served as a counsel for the State Bar, signed documents claiming he had attended continuing legal education programs sponsored by the State Bar but in fact did not attend all the classes.

The State Bar lodged a grievance, claiming that Hicks engaged in dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Normally, the State Bar would handle an investigation and discipline if necessary. But because of Hicks’ relationship with the State Bar, it asked the staff of the Georgia State Bar to investigate the matter, and Stephens agreed to handle any discipline. Stephens ruled that Hicks engaged in professional misconduct and issued a public reprimand.

Boyce argued that with this precedent in place, the State Bar should consider choosing independent entities to decide this dispute involving Cooper.