Ethics and the Law: Forked Tongue


The phrase “speaks with a forked tongue” means to deliberately say one thing and mean another—or to be hypocritical or act in a duplicitous manner. In the longstanding tradition of many Native American tribes, “speaking with a forked tongue” has meant lying, and a person was no longer considered worthy of trust once he had been shown to speak with a forked tongue. This phrase was also adopted by Americans around the time of the Revolution, and may be found in abundant references from the early 19th century—often reporting on American officers who sought to convince the tribal leaders with whom they negotiated that they “spoke with a straight and not with a forked tongue” (as for example, President Andrew Jackson told the Creek Nation in 1829). According to one 1859 account, the native proverb that the “white man spoke with a forked tongue” originated as a result of the French tactic of the 1690s, in their war with the Iroquois, of inviting their enemies to attend a Peace Conference only to slaughter or capture them.


A recent call from one of our members concerned prosecutors he was dealing with who he believed were lying. The caller also had to deal with a client making demands that he file frivolous motions. Word was sent out to our committee members, and several excellent suggestions were made to the lawyer.

The past month we have received many calls about difficult clients or clients who make unrealistic demands.

I would direct the attorney to 1.02: A lawyer has to abide only as to plea to be entered, whether to waive jury, and whether client testifies. Comment 1 explains that while clients have ultimate authority to determine the objectives, they are subject to the lawyer’s professional obligations—which includes not bringing a baseless or meritless motion.

When dealing with difficult clients, remember to document all calls and correspondence. Always get a waiver of the attorney/client privilege before talking with family members or friends of your client. Many calls have come in where the caller is complaining that the court-appointed lawyer will not talk to the mother or other concerned family members. Unless there is some real reason not to talk to your client’s family, get your client to sign a waiver. An example follows.

You ever get that feeling that something you’re doing might be . . .  unethical? Stop right there! There’s an app for that—or, rather, a TCDLA committee. The Ethics Committee will get back to you within 24 hours. Save the number in your phone: (512)646-2734 or 888-ETHICS4 (888-384-4274). Reminder: Don’t post ethical dilemmas on the listserve or on social media, as you never know who’s looking.

Several years ago, while preparing a sentencing memo for a felony case, I asked my client to bring all his diplomas, letters of recommendation, and resume so I could put it in the memo. The memo was filed and included in the documents the client brought to me. The client was granted probation partly based on the contents of the memorandum I presented to the court. Ten years later, when the client and his sisters were fighting over assets in their mother’s estate, the probate lawyer got a copy of the memo I had filed and was able to prove all the diplomas from college were fake. Be wary when presenting documents without checking them out yourself. My client had spoken with forked tongue, and, luckily, he had finished his probation. It happens often so be wary.

The form on the facing page can be found on the TCDLA website in the Members Only section (Brief, Motion & Memo Bank/Voice Motions).

The following missive was in response to a request for advice from the Ethics Committee:

“To you and the TCDLA Ethics Committee, thank you all so very much for your help with my DA disqualification issue and helping me work through it. A special thanks to Michael Mowla, Brent Mayr, Keith Hampton, and Pat Metze for prompt written responses. What an incredible breadth of knowledge we all have at our beck and call. And, Robert, thanks so much for always answering that phone of yours on practically the first ring. The Texas criminal defense bar is in such good hands.”

Robert Pelton
Robert Pelton
Robert Pelton is the former President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA), Associate Director for TCDLA, and Feature Articles Editor of the Voice, as well as serving as editor and assistant editor of Docket Call. Among his many honors, Robert was named by H Texas magazine as one of the top criminal lawyers in Harris County (2004–2010) and one of Houston’s Top Lawyers for the People in criminal law (2004–2010), and he is listed in the Martindale Hubbell Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. Robert has offices in Abilene and Houston.
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