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Court rules best-selling Oklahoma writer can keep his law license if he stays sober

Oklahoma Supreme Court decided not to suspend author William G. Bernhardt from the practice of law.
by Nolan Clay Modified: March 31, 2014 at 3:00 pm •  Published: March 31, 2014

An Oklahoma attorney who writes best-selling legal thrillers is being allowed to keep his law license despite four arrests for drunken driving and one for public intoxication.

William G. Bernhardt, 54, has written more than 20 novels including “Primary Justice,” “Double Jeopardy,” “Murder One,” “Criminal Intent” and “Capitol Betrayal.” He has more than 10 million books in print.

He has been a licensed attorney in Oklahoma since 1986.

Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Bernhardt can keep his law license — if he stays sober.

He was ordered to refrain from any use of alcohol, mind-altering substances or illegal drugs over the next two years and a day.

He also was ordered to work with the group Lawyers Helping Lawyers and to have weekly contact with his mentor.

He was warned he will be suspended for two years and a day if he violates those conditions.

Justices acted after concluding “the repetition of the DUI offenses” reflected adversely on the legal profession and showed an indifference to legal obligations.

The Supreme Court regularly disciplines attorneys who violate the law. Attorneys can be privately reprimanded, publicly censured, suspended from practicing law or outright banned from the profession.

Justices acknowledged Bernhardt’s disciplinary case was unusual because he hasn’t actually practiced law in more than 15 years.

“He is very successful in his chosen profession of writing and has no present intention to return to the practice of law,” Justice James R. Winchester wrote in the majority opinion.

“No clients were or could have been adversely affected by the ... conduct.”

Justices decided what to do with Bernhardt after a panel, known as a professional responsibility tribunal, gathered evidence.

Four of the justices wanted to suspend Bernhardt until Oct. 10, 2018, when he completes probation on a felony case resulting from one of the arrests.

Bernhardt’s tribunal reported to the Supreme Court that he is honest, highly ethical and law-abiding, except when using alcohol. The tribunal also reported he is determined not to drink again.

Last year, he testified to the tribunal, “It’s true that I don’t practice law anymore and I haven’t for a long time, but I worked hard to get that degree and I’m proud of it and I’m proud of the school I went to. ... I would like to keep it.”

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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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