By Jack Shafer
Is serial fabulist Stephen Glass fit to practice law?
That question—first posed in 2002 when Glass applied for admittance to the New York State Bar Association—moved to California in 2007, when Glass applied to join its bar. Glass’s California application has now traveled to the top of the legal food chain, where the state Supreme Court agreed in November to hear arguments on Glass’s moral fitness to become a member of the State Bar of California.
If Stephen Glass were an ordinary applicant, the California Committee of Bar Examiners would have readily approved the graduate of Georgetown University law school (magna cum laude, 2000) after he passed the California bar exam and applied for admittance. But Glass was an exceptional case: He gained worldwide notoriety in 1998 after dozens of stories he wrote while working as a Washington journalist in the mid-to-late 1990s were discovered to be fabricated. These pieces described incidents that never took place and attributed quotations to made-up people. Most of these tainted stories appeared in TheNew Republic,where he worked, but others were published in Policy Review, Harper’s, George, and Rolling Stone. (According to court documents, Glass settled a lawsuit filed against him by D.A.R.E., the subject of his Rolling Stone piece, for $25,000.) The scam ended in May 1998 after reporting and inquires from Forbes Digital Tool editor Adam L. Penenberg tipped the New Republic off about the fishiness of Glass’s piece about “Jukt Micronics,” and all of his journalistic work was scrutinized for lies.
The legal argument under debate in California isn’t whether Glass made stuff up willy-nilly in his journalism. That verdict was delivered long ago; you can read the eye-popping details in Buzz Bissinger’s September 1998 Vanity Fairfeature. The question before the California Supreme Court is the 39-year-old Glass’s current moral state, and whether he has sufficiently rehabilitated himself to practice law today.
Glass ‘s legal struggle to join the bar goes back almost a decade. According to court filings, Glass passed the New York Bar Examination in 2000 and applied for admission to the bar in July 2002. But he withdrew his application on Sept. 22, 2004 after the bar notified him he would not likely be approved on moral character grounds. He moved to California that fall and passed its bar exam in 2007, but the Committee of Bar Examiners rejected Glass on moral character grounds in 2009. The committee holds that Glass has not rehabilitated himself, waiting more than 11 years to fully list and identify all of the fabrications in his journalism.
Glass appealed the decision to the State Bar Court of California hearing department, where Judge Richard A. Honn overturned the committee decision on Aug. 19, 2010, in Glass’s favor. The committee, still not wanting a confessed liar as a member of the California bar, appealed once more to a three-judge panel. But in the summer of 2011, the panel also found 2-1 for Glass. So the committee made its final appeal to the California Supreme Court, which accepted the case.
The pleadings and decisions in the Glass matter were held confidential under court rules until the state Supreme Court granted review. Depending on how you read them, the documents reveal a fully reformed Glass, or the same old Stephen, cutting corners and conning people as he did in the old days. Either way, they provide the most elaborate explanation by Glass for why he systematically lied and deceived in his journalism.
Siding with Glass during a 10-day administrative trial in 2010 were 22 friendly witnesses, who attested to his rehabilitation. They included two psychiatrists, four law professors, two judges, 10 attorneys, long-term friends, his life-partner, and even Martin Peretz, sole owner of the New Republic at the time the fabricated stories were published. “I don’t think what Steve committed, and his journey after, should condemn him to be exiled from respectable, ethical society,” Peretz told the court. All of the friendly witnesses endorsed Glass’s “current high standards for honesty and integrity,” as Judge Honn, ruling in Glass’s favor, writes in his Aug. 19, 2010, decision.
Judge Honn drew on testimony to summarize Glass’s childhood as a rolling series of psychological traumas. Among the alleged tormentors were Glass’s father, a doctor, and Glass’s mother, a nurse, both of whom are depicted as being hell-bent determined that their son win a medical degree. (Calls to the offices of Stephen Glass and his father were not returned.) Judge Honn writes:
Throughout his schooling, applicant’s parents put enormous pressure on applicant to succeed in school. In elementary school, applicant and his brother would be required to stand in front of their parents and recite answers to questions posed by the parents. If they produced incorrect answers, they were sent back to their rooms, and after studying the subject in more detail, they would undergo the same grilling by the parents. Often, if applicant or his brother disappointed their parents, that child would be “frozen out” by the mother. In such situations, the mother would not speak to or acknowledge the child for days or even weeks at a time. While denying attention to the wayward child, his mother would shower the other child with compliments and love, resulting in and exacerbating the first child’s feelings of inadequacy. Applicant’s father dealt with his disappointment in a different manner: he would fly into fits of rage against the children. As a result, applicant grew up with deep feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, despite having an impressive academic record. His brother also suffered from the treatment, and spent a significant part of his childhood in therapy.
The Glass parents allegedly ran their home on “rigid rules,” prohibiting the children from opening the refrigerator or voicing any dissent. When Glass “showed some social deficiencies in high school,” Judge Honn writes, his parents leaned on him to date girls and drink alcohol in social situations to assist him in “fitting in.” Despite their social coaching, Glass was unpopular in school and suffered “feelings of inadequacy.” Such was their demand for their child’s success that they even hired a “tutor” to help Glass master rope-climbing. “Applicant noted that, at least in this case, their efforts were unsuccessful. He still could not climb the rope, even after tutoring,” Judge Honn continues.
The summary portrays Glass as a bundle of phobias and ailments. While in high school, the sight of blood caused him to faint. While waiting for letters of acceptance from colleges he became so anxious that he doubled over in pain and missed days of school. Despite all of his inadequacies, Glass won admission to the University of Pennsylvania, his father’s alma mater, and enrolled in pre-med classes.
Glass enjoyed great success as a student journalist at Penn, becoming the executive editor of the school paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. But his parents viewed his enthusiasm for journalism as a detour from the med-school track they had plotted for him, Judge Honn writes. Glass temporarily overcame their meddling long enough to graduate from Penn in May 1994 and applied to New York University’s law school, where he was accepted. He then deferred law school for further adventures in journalism, which took him to Washington, D.C., where he got a job at Policy Review.
Readers may well wonder whether the sins of Glass’s parents—assuming they are true—in any way justify his particular brand of journalism. Is Glass really blaming his upbringing for what he did as a journalist? Bissinger’s Vanity Fair feature establishes that Highland Park High, the suburban Chicago school where he studied, is a famed hothouse of academic talent and achievement. Highland Park parents have long pushed “their kids to succeed,” Bissinger writes.
Glass’s parents continued to express their unhappiness with their son. Judge Honn wrote:
Applicant came home for Passover in 1995, having given his parents a subscription to TNR [the New Republic]. They did not appreciate the gift. They told him that they disliked his chosen occupation and felt he was failing—in their words, “doing a bad job, poorly.” Once again, they brought up medical school, and derisively referred to TNR as the “sandbox” and told him that it was time he “grew up.”
If Glass’s parents really spoke this way, he must have winced the same way many of us winced when we strayed from the future our parents had paved for us in their imaginations. But Judge Honn seems to think pushy parents are a cause of fabulism, writing:
This criticism hit applicant particularly hard. He had trouble sleeping and felt he could never achieve success in his parents’ eyes without going to medical school, something he did not want to do. He felt he had to find a way around this problem. He decided to create articles with “electricity” and excitement that even his parents would appreciate. To do so, he felt he needed to “embellish” the facts. Shortly thereafter, he wrote “The Hall Monitor,” his first article that contained fabrications. Applicant was clearly a gifted writer and was on a steep trajectory toward success in journalism. However, with that article a dark cloud began growing which would completely destroy his promising career in that field.
Glass had attended law classes at Georgetown while working at the New Republic,and continued his studies there after the magazine fired him for his fabrications. Judge Honn wrote that Glass felt “isolated” from his fellow law students and suffered their “rejection.” He did, however, become “friends with several faculty members, who understood the challenges he faced as a child and the failures he had as a journalist.”
The California bar has not been as forgiving as Judge Honn: Insisting that Glass has never rehabilitated himself in a manner that would make him fit to practice law, the Committee of Bar Examiners dissects his behavior since 1998 in the pleadings. It accuses Glass of misleading the New York Bar in 2003 during the admittance process.
Glass stated to the New York Bar that he “worked with all three magazines and other publications … to identify which facts were true and which were false in allof [his] stories, so they could publish clarifications.” This statement was false, the committee wrote, because Glass didn’t work with all the magazines. Glass later testified that he should have said that he “offered” to work with the publications, and “by ‘offered’ to work, he meant through counsel.” The committee found this Glass explanation “disingenuous.”
The committee also damned Glass for providing the New York Bar in 2003 with an incomplete list of articles that he fabricated, identifying only 23, and waiting until August 2009, when under the crosshairs of the California bar, to concede that the complete list contained at least 42 fabricated pieces. This argument made a strong impression on Judge Catherine D. Purcell, the dissenting judge in the three-judge panel review. She wrote:
[T]o gain admission to practice law in New York, Glass understated the number of articles he had fabricated and exaggerated his efforts to help the magazines indentify those articles. At a time when he should have been scrupulously honest, he presented an inaccurate application because it benefitted him—the same behavior as his earlier conduct. And as late as 2005, Glass told one psychiatrist that he was still in the process of understanding and accepting his past misconduct. Just two years later, in 2007, he applied for admission to the California bar.
This dissent captures in miniature the committee’s objections to Glass’s admission to the bar: Glass was still lying and deceiving in 2003, when he applied to the New York Bar. Because he didn’t come completely clean about his fabrications until 2009, he really hasn’t, as Judge Purcell puts it, “show proof of reform by a lengthy period of exemplary conduct. …”
The majority opinion gave deference to Judge Honn and his opinion, and found “overwhelming evidence of Glass’s reform and rehabilitation.” Of Glass’s incomplete list of fabricated stories, the judges wrote, “Perfection is not required in these proceedings.”
The majority agreed with Judge Honn on the “quality of Glass’s character witnesses,” all of whom endorsed Glass’s “good moral character” and found him to be “exceptionally honest and trustworthy.”
In its Oct. 3, 2011, request for Supreme Court review, the committee takes a mallet to Glass’s assertion that the emotional distress he suffered after being found out at the New Republic threw him into a paralysis and a suicidal state that prevented him from atoning in a timely manner. For a paralyzed guy, the committee notes, Glass was very active. Between 1998, when he was busted, and 2003, Glass 1) completed law school with honors, 2) passed the New York Bar Examination, 3) clerked for a judge, 4) worked law-related jobs, and 5) wrote a novel.
According to the committee, Glass didn’t begin writing most of his 100-plus letters of apology until after he graduated from law school, with most of the letters sent between 2001 and 2004, and as earlier noted, he waited until 2009—11 years—before compiling his complete list of fabricated articles “and only then in connection with these moral character proceedings,” the committee writes. “[T]he full list of fabrications was only compiled when it suited him, and not when it was most needed by his victims.” (The official list now contains 35 New Republic pieces, one at Harper’s, one at Policy Review, two at Rolling Stone, and three at George.)
The pleading rejected Glass’s excuse that his transgressions were a product of his “youth” because he was between 23 and 25 years old and a college graduate when he committed his frauds. In other words, he was no longer a kid trying to learn how to climb a gym rope. Traducing Glass’s claim that he has acquired good character and is now rehabilitated, the pleading damns him for profiting from his deceit by fictionalizing it in The Fabulist, which earned him $190,000 minus agent’s fees. (Simon & Schuster took a beating on The Fabulist. They gave it a first printing of 75,000, but BookScan recorded sales of only 4,669 copies. The book did not go into paperback.)
The committee wrote of Glass’s conduct:
The concept of Applicant profiting from his wrongdoing appears inconsistent with the notion of moral rehabilitation. Applicant could have, and the Committee believes should have, used the money to correct his wrongs, to pay back the victims of his lies, or to fund charitable programs benefiting the journalism profession, which he damaged so greatly. These are not meaningless, futile gestures; rather, disgorgement of the profits would have demonstrated a basic act of repentance, integrity, respect, and good will toward others. In short, Applicant focused on cashing in on his infamy, while continuing to ignore his responsibility to assist his victims.
Glass’s lawyers give his updated side of the story in a September 2011 filing, insisting that their client’s youth at the time of the original scandal should mitigate in favor of his rehabilitation. On this note, a Glass psychiatrist maintains that his patient suffered from arrested development prior to therapy. Witnesses aplenty testified to his moral fitness to work as an attorney, the pleading states, and substantial time has passed since the fabrications, during which Glass has confessed to his wrongdoing on national television (a 2003 60 Minutes segment, in which he promoted his novel) and has repeatedly stated that his journalism is not to be trusted.
Even if you’re supportive of Glass’s legal quest—as you might have guessed, I’m not—the unsealed documents sketch a cringeworthy picture of him. How many people would make the sort of confessions and excuses that Glass does in this case, just to gain admittance to the bar? Take for example, the passage in Judge Honn’s decision, in which he recounts another high school humiliation of Glass. In a footnote, Honn wrote:
As an example, applicant took a family life class in high school where the boys and girls were paired and assigned to be a “husband” and “wife” to study the development of an egg into a baby. Applicant’s partner was distressed to be assigned to applicant, and she complained to her parents, who in turn, complained to the teacher. The next day, the teacher continued the theme by having the marriage “annulled.” As one would imagine, this caused applicant to be ashamed and humiliated.
I don’t know what’s worse—that Glass’s side introduced these “facts” to create sympathy for him or that the judge appears to have bought them. As high school humiliations go, annulments of family life class marriages rate pretty low. Yet this isn’t the lowest grab for sympathy recorded in the court documents. In another footnote to his decision, Judge Honn writes:
Although applicant has recently established a relationship with his parents by setting boundaries in their interactions, his brother has had more difficulty doing so. In fact, despite his brother having a wife and two-year-old twins, his parents have not actually seen the grandchildren for more than approximately ten hours.
What sort of person would enlist the story of his brother’s estrangement from their parents as legal leverage in a civil proceeding?
Glass may well have assumed that none of these documents would become public. Had the California Supreme Court not agreed to review the case, the proceedings would have remained sealed and confidential. Nobody outside the court would have ever learned how weirdly Glass groveled or how bitterly he blamed his parents for his shortcomings.
But perhaps I misread the hardness of Glass’s ego and the depths of his shamelessness. Perhaps the groveling that we interpret as weakness and the plaintive pleas for forgiveness and understanding that mark his character are his strengths. A 2006 feature by Gabriel Oppenheim in 34th Street Magazine, which is published weekly by the Daily Pennsylvanian, Glass’s old college newspaper, favors this interpretation. Oppenheim interviews Matt Selman, an old college newspaper colleague of Glass’s. Selman speaks of running into Glass at a party in Los Angeles, where Glass now lives. (As recently as 2008, Glass was making $154,000 a year working for a California law firm, according to court filings.)
Matt ribbed Steve about him being a maniac who forever sullied the journalistic profession. And when Steve took it in stride, Matt thought: “He could always absorb whatever abuse you threw at him. No matter what mean thing you said about his pants or his personality or whatever, he’d suck it up, like a beaten dog happy to get an open-fisted punch in the ear.”
It’s a brutal image, but it captures Glass’s tenacity and helps explain why he’s submitted to more than four years of legal struggle—nine years, if his 2002 New York Bar application is the starting point—to win the right to practice law. Does Glass expect membership in the bar to provide him with the forgiveness or the exoneration he’s obviously craved ever since Adam L. Penenberg caught him making things up in 1998? By becoming an officer of the court, does Glass expect to put the scandal behind him? That’s my hunch. If the bar considers him morally fit, who are we to question him?
What are the chances that the Supreme Court will certify Glass’s admittance into the bar? Surely there are worse people than Stephen Glass practicing law in California, but I don’t think the Supreme Court decided to review the case to affirm that position. Obviously, the easiest way out for the court would have been to deny review and leave the Glass onus on Judge Honn and the panel that agreed with him. But it takes at least four (pdf) of the seven members of California Supreme Court’s to grant review, and that indicates to my mind that the court may be as opposed to Stephen Glass practicing law in California as the committee is.
If it weren’t for the paper trail, this decade-long struggle to become an attorney, with all of its emotional striptease and maudlin confessions, might be mistaken for one more Stephen Glass fabrication. Maybe, when it’s all over, he’ll write about that.
Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist. This article was first published on Reuters.com