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November 23, 2022

ABA asks U.S. Supreme Court to reject a primary-purpose test for attorney-client privilege

CHICAGO, Nov. 23, 2022 — The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief today with the U.S.
Supreme Court, urging the high court not to tinker with the longstanding attorney-client privilege, which the ABA said “is essential in our adversarial system of justice and ultimately benefits society as a whole.”

The case stems from a tax law dispute, but the ABA brief warned any change in the “time-honored” attorney-client privilege could affect the privilege in other civil and criminal matters. It also offered examples to support its contention that a change in the privilege, as put forth in an opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, could have wide-ranging consequences.

At issue is whether a communication involving both legal and non-legal advice is protected by attorney-client privilege when obtaining or providing legal advice was one of the significant purposes behind the communication. The appeals court in 2021 set forth a “primary-purpose test” that would weigh the purposes of communications in determining whether the privilege applies.

In its brief, the ABA said the Supreme Court “should not muddy the analysis of a time-honored privilege that is, by comparison, relatively clear and understandable by clients and lawyers alike.”

“That (circuit’s) test does not allow clients to confidentially share full information with their lawyers in dual-purpose scenarios,” the ABA brief said. “It also inhibits both lawyers and clients from fully exploring potentially relevant facts and full legal options.”

The ABA brief added: “The Ninth Circuit’s test would narrow the privilege well beyond already well-established exceptions and limitations, without justification. It would also introduce substantial uncertainty into the existence and extent of the privilege. For this reason, this court should firmly reject it.” 

The ABA amicus brief In re Grand Jury is here. Oral arguments in the case are set for Jan. 9, 2023. The law firm of Colvin & Hallett, P.S. in Seattle, Washington, filed the brief pro bono on behalf of the ABA.

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