A three-year suspension is not enough to punish Ogden attorney Jean Babilis for looting a client's estate and then lying to cover his tracks, the Utah Supreme Court was told.
And at least some of the court's five justices seemed to agree."It was self-interest, it was greedy, it was selfish. He lied to the client, he lied to the court," Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman said after hearing oral arguments last Monday from attorneys for Babilis and the Utah State Bar.
"It's very hard to argue that the public ought to be allowed to walk into his office and give him business," Zimmerman said.
The court took the matter under advisement, with a decision not expected for several weeks.
Bar prosecutor Stephen Cochell urged the court to set aside the suspension imposed by 2nd District Court Judge Gordon Low and instead disbar the once-prominent Babilis for using his deceased client's estate to buy a car, take trips and cover personal expenses while also billing the out-of-town heirs for nonexistent services.
"Mr. Babilis consistently and routinely misappropriated funds and treated the client's estate as a personal checking account," withdrawing $78,000 for his own use, Cochell said.
Low was too sympathetic to Babilis' personal and legal problems and testimony from his friends and may not have applied bar rules properly for disbarment, Cochell said.
"The victims were vulnerable. He saw them coming," Cochell said. "There are many members of the bar who have legal and personal catastrophes who don't steal from clients, who don't lie to the court."
The justices seemed unimpressed by arguments by attorney Brian Florence, representing Babilis, that they should not tinker with the trial court findings.
Zimmerman and Justice Christine Durham peppered him with questions, with Zimmerman concluding that the role of the Supreme Court is to lay out how rules are to be applied and ensure uniformity in such cases. Likewise, they did not seem swayed by Florence's argument that other lawyers have not been disbarred for a first offense.
"But did those cases involve a kind of systematic lying to the client, lying to the court and looting the account?" Zimmerman shot back.
The bar said the 41-year-old lawyer violated several bar regulations stemming from his $78,659 billing of the estate of the late Jane Kerns of Ogden.
Last year, Low found Babilis in violation of eight bar canons, including misleading another judge about the Kerns estate assets, conversion of estate funds for his own use without authorization and billing his client for work performed by a paralegal.
Low said bar regulations provide for disbarment for such things as fraud, extortion, homicide and conspiracy.
"The behavior and misconduct of Mr. Babilis, as reprehensible as it was, is not of that same nature, genre and description," Low said in his decision.