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Panel Recommends Disbarment for 'Country Lawyer'
Attorney Dennis Hawver had to defend his license in front of a disciplinary panel for how he handled a capital murder case. Hawver described his law practice as a 'country practice' when he testified in November, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal.

Hawver told the panel, consisting of three people, that his practice in 'rural' Jefferson County is made up of 40 percent criminal cases and 60 percent of civil cases. He said the cases are in his county of residence and surrounding counties.

The business card for Hawver says, "Your country lawyer." There is a picture of a tree in a grassy field on the business card. Hawver practice in Hawaii for 10 years too.

Phillip D. Cheatham Jr. was convicted of the shooting deaths of two women and the wounding of a third woman. Cheatham was defended by Hawver in the December 2003 crime that took place in a house in Topeka.

Cheatham was convicted of the crime in 2005 and sentenced to death and to prison terms of more than 78 years. The Kansas Supreme Court overturned Cheatham's conviction and death sentence in 2005 because of Hawver's ineffective assistance of counsel. The retrial for Cheatham is pending.

The presiding officer of the panel, Philip D. Ridenour, said that country lawyers might not always be prepared to handle complex cases such as a capital murder case. Ridenour said that country lawyers do know their clients very well, but they sometimes might lack training and skills to defend a client who is in danger of a death sentence.

Ridenour wrote a 'concurring note' in the 27-page final hearing report. He wrote, "I have practiced law as a country lawyer in one of the most rural areas of the state of Kansas for more years than Mr. Hawver has been a lawyer. We country lawyers live among our clients and come to know them well, to understand their backgrounds, experiences, concerns and aspirations, values and beliefs."

Ridenour continued with a mention of his 40 years of experience, saying that no outside firm or lawyer could expect to provide "my clients the same informed quality of advice on the sorts of legal issues that routinely arise."

"But the converse is also true," Ridenour wrote. "As a country lawyer, I am unqualified and do not have the time or the resources to handle questions that arise in complex legal issues I have never dealt (with) or never had the necessity to research."

Ridenour noted that he is required to decline representation of a client for a legal issue if he does not have the qualifications to handle the case.

"Untold additional hours of time of Kansas judges and lawyers have been and continue to be required to try to remedy the harm done by Mr. Hawver," Ridenour wrote. "Mr. Hawver had a professional duty to decline the representation; he failed to do so, and that failure constituted a violation of the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct."

The final hearing report was issued on March 14 by the panel of the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys. Two of the members of the panel urged the justices to disbar Hawver and the third suggested that Hawver be suspended indefinitely from practicing law.

Hawver's conduct was found to have "caused actual injury to the administration of justice. As a result of the respondent's misconduct, a capital murder case has been remanded for a second trial."

The panel also concluded that Hawver "was not competent to represent Cheatham."


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