106 views 13 min 0 Comment

Guest: Mark Taylor’s Untruths Demean the Legal Profession

- August 14, 2023

On Thursday, August 3, I received a phone call from a concerned parent, a friend, who was trying to access her child’s records through ParentVUE. That’s the online tool that gives parents and guardians access to their child’s bus information, class schedules, grades, immunization records, and attendance records among other important student information.

She told me that Spotsylvania Superintendent Mark Taylor had sent out an email informing parents that several required and optional forms were available through ParentVUE to sign as part of the back-to-school process.

One of those forms was a mandatory form asking whether the parent wanted her child to read “sexually explicit” content in school libraries. It defined “sexually explicit” in gross detail including acts of bestiality and coprophilia as set out in the Virginia Code. This parent, and many others, were understandably upset that they had to complete this form to view important information like their child’s bus schedule, class schedule, and teacher information.

Later that day, another parent, another friend, raised concerns to me that requiring her to complete this form could violate her rights as a parent under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), its implementing regulation 34 C.F.R. pt. 99, and Virginia Code § 22.1-287(B).

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in that area and I do not practice law in Virginia, so I did what any good lawyer does and recommended that she consult with more experienced local counsel.

More Complaints, and a Mystery

Throughout the day, and in the days to follow, parents kept expressing concerns on social media and even to local media outlets.

So, who are we to believe?  The many concerned parents who claimed that they could not access their children’s records or the Spotsylvania Superintendent who has made a series of serious missteps including misrepresenting NAEP scores and recommending closing school libraries as a cost-savings measure?  I think parents make more credible witnesses here.

Mysteriously, changes were made to ParentVUE so that parents could bypass the question regarding sexually explicit content just in time for Mark Taylor to “push back” on criticism regarding the required form.

When asked about the matter by NBC4 Washington’s Julie Carey, Mark Taylor responded “[y]ou’re mischaracterizing the truth.  Their access to ParentVue is not blocked.  If they answer yes, if they answer no, if they don’t answer, their access to ParentVue is not blocked.”

So, who are we to believe?  The many concerned parents who claimed that they could not access their children’s records or the Spotsylvania Superintendent who has made a series of serious missteps including misrepresenting NAEP scores and recommending closing school libraries as a cost-savings measure?  I think parents make more credible witnesses here.

Moreover, if this were some technological error, whereby parents were inadvertently blocked from viewing student records, a reasonable person would certainly have owned up to the mistake, apologized to the parents, and moved on.

Mark Taylor did none of those things.  Instead, taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook, he accused a seasoned journalist of “mischaracterizing the truth” – which is a more polite way of saying “fake news.”

It is also worth noting that Mark Taylor was comically bad at covering his tracks.  Here you can see a screenshot from ParentVUE taken on August 2, with a red asterisk next to the explicit content access question indicating that a parent’s response is mandatory to continue.  Let’s call this Exhibit A.

A close-up of a paper

Description automatically generated

And here you can see a screenshot from ParentVUE taken on August 8, with the red asterisk magically removed indicating that a parent’s response is not mandatory to continue.  Let’s call this Exhibit B.

A close-up of a document

Description automatically generated

Again, had this all been some technological problem, we would assume that Mark Taylor would immediately notify parents of the mistake to dispel any continued concerns regarding the explicit content access question.  That is what a reasonable person would have done.

A shrewd politician would have also seen the benefit of claiming that a mistake was made to make the opposition look unreasonable and erode their public support.  Mark Taylor simply didn’t do that.  Instead, he called a seasoned journalist a liar and, in so doing, called the many parents who expressed their concerns liars too – not something a Superintendent ought to do.

Sanction?

So, it looks a lot like Mark Taylor lied and he got caught in that lie – a bad lie at that.

Our legal institutions depend upon the public’s continued support to maintain their authority.  Otherwise, our laws are nothing more than mere words on paper – “parchment guarantees” as Justice Scalia once called them.

Certainly, it does not reflect well on him, or the majority of the Spotsylvania County School Board who hired him. But people lie all the time. And politicians are especially known for lying.  So, you might ask, what’s the big deal?

The problem is that Mark Brian Taylor (VSB# 26728) is an attorney, a member of the Virginia State Bar, and, as such, should be held to a higher standard than other invertebrate lifeforms like politicians, lobbyists, or partisan hacks.

As a practicing attorney myself (I do not practice in Virginia), I have serious moral and ethical problems with his conduct.  It demeans the entire profession and raises serious questions about his fitness to practice law.  Lawyers have been admonished and sanctioned for less egregious conduct.

Our legal institutions depend upon the public’s continued support to maintain their authority.  Otherwise, our laws are nothing more than mere words on paper – “parchment guarantees” as Justice Scalia once called them.

As officers of the court, lawyers play a unique role in maintaining that support for the justice system and the rule of law.  We have a detailed set of rules of professional conduct that govern our behavior, and we are responsible for ensuring that every lawyer follows those rules.

If we have reliable information that a fellow lawyer is violating the rules in a way that “raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice law,” we are required to inform the appropriate disciplinary authority.  See e.g.Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 8.3(a).

Our ethical obligations do not begin and end at the courtroom doors.  Nor do they necessarily involve representation of clients or even the practice of law.  As the Virginia Standing Committee on Legal Ethics has made clear, “lawyers remain subject to the authority of the Rules of Professional Conduct, even while working in other fields.”  Legal Ethics Opinion 1819 (Sept. 19, 2005).

Attorneys have been subject to rules of professional conduct in matters involving the selling of life insurance, operating an accounting firm, and, as in the case of Legal Ethics Opinion 1819, lobbying.  Virginia is no outlier in this regard.  Every jurisdiction has rules of professional conduct that continue to apply outside legal practice itself.

Aside from our responsibilities to be competent, prompt, and diligent, there is probably no greater responsibility for a lawyer than to tell the truth.  In representing our clients, we have a duty of candor towards the tribunal.  Making a false statement of fact or law, or failing to correct a false statement of material fact or law that we previously made to a tribunal is professional misconduct.  See e.g., Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.3(a) and Comments 4 (misleading legal arguments) and 10 (remedial measures).

And, in our general dealings, we have a duty not to commit any criminal or “deliberately wrongful act[s] that reflect[] adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice law,” or engage “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation which reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.”  See e.g., Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 8.4(b), (c).

[Taylor’s] position as Superintendent of Spotsylvania County Public Schools does not excuse him from the responsibility to tell the truth – the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  In fact, that position of public trust should command Mark Taylor to be even more careful in what he says.  He ought to be ashamed of himself for lying to the parents of Spotsylvania County Public Schools and, perhaps, even sanctioned for it.

Mark Taylor’s lying raise serious questions about his honesty, trustworthiness, and, ultimately, his fitness to practice law.  Whether his lying rises to the level of professional misconduct is for the Virginia State Bar and the Supreme Court of Virginia to decide.

I’m not a Virginia lawyer and I do not hold myself out as one.  But, as an outside observer and fellow legal practitioner, I can say without a doubt that his conduct demeans the profession.  His lie breathes truth into every negative stereotype about lawyers – how we’re nothing more than crooked liars.

His lie casts a shadow over the judicial system, the rule of law, and the public’s continued faith that lawyers deserve to operate as a self-regulating profession independent of government regulation.  Thus, his lie compromises the profession and the public interest that it serves.

His position as Superintendent of Spotsylvania County Public Schools does not excuse him from the responsibility to tell the truth – the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  In fact, that position of public trust should command Mark Taylor to be even more careful in what he says.  He ought to be ashamed of himself for lying to the parents of Spotsylvania County Public Schools and, perhaps, even sanctioned for it.

Ben Litchfield is a resident of Stafford County and the former chairman of the Stafford Democratic Committee.

Comments are closed.