ANNAPOLIS, Md. - A Maryland judge ordered the state bar to open an investigation Monday into the three lawyers who helped former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delete her private emails.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. said the complaints lodged against David E. Kendall, Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson were egregious and the state bar couldn't dismiss them as frivolous.
"There are allegations of destroying evidence," Judge Harris said at a hearing Monday morning.
He said the state's rules require the bar to conduct investigations no matter who raises the complaint and can't brush aside accusations.
The judge made the announcement a day before Mrs. Clinton releases her latest book, "What Happened," and begins a monthslong book tour attempting to explain how she lost an election she thought she had secured.
The Maryland bar complaint was brought by Ty Clevenger, a lawyer who has pursued sanctions against Mrs. Clinton and her legal team in several venues and who is also pressing the FBI to release details of its investigation into the former top diplomat.
Bars in Arkansas and the District of Columbia, as well as federal courts, brushed aside requests from Mr. Clevenger, who is seeking to have Mrs. Clinton and her attorneys suspended or disbarred.
But Judge Harris said Mr. Clevenger's request appears to have merit and that Maryland will have to at least launch an investigation and demand a response from the lawyers, Mr. Clevenger said.
Mr. Clevenger said he won another victory in recent days when the Justice Department agreed that his case met the threshold of intense public interest.
The FBI had denied an open-records request into its investigation on grounds that there was not sufficient public interest to overcome Mrs. Clinton's privacy rights. Mr. Clevenger appealed to the Justice Department, which ruled that it would expedite his request - signifying it accepts his claims of public interest.
Mrs. Clinton used a secret email account tied to a server she kept at her home in New York to conduct official business while she was head of the State Department, though it was against department policy.
The FBI said the email arrangement risked national security, but it declined to recommend charges. The bureau said Mrs. Clinton was too inept to understand the risks she was running.
After the arrangement was spotted, Mrs. Clinton belatedly returned thousands of emails to the government and deleted the rest, which she claimed were personal. The FBI's probe, though, found thousands of emails that were work-related but weren't turned over to the government.
Mrs. Clinton had her attorneys scour her account, and that was what landed them in potential jeopardy.
Her email behavior turned out to be a major problem for her presidential bid, with an FBI investigation and a rolling production of her messages during the primary race and in the midst of the general election campaign.
"The most important of the mistakes I made was using personal email," Mrs. Clinton acknowledged in an interview with "CBS Sunday Morning" ahead of her book launch.
"I said it before, I'll say it again, that was my responsibility. It was presented in such a negative way, and I never could get out from under it and it never stopped," Mrs. Clinton said.
The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission tried to sideline Mr. Clevenger last year, arguing that he had "no personal knowledge of the allegations" so it wouldn't investigate.
On Monday, Alexis Rohde, a lawyer representing the grievance commission, said she was bound by confidentiality rules that prevented her from explaining why the panel had determined the complaint was frivolous.
"Because all these complaints are confidential, I'm unable to put that before the court," she said.
Judge Harris rejected that explanation, saying it was the first time the commission had used the term "frivolous" to explain a decision. He also said the rules were clear that the commission needed to investigate.
"I just think this is a rather easy decision at this point," he said. "The court is ordering bar counsel to investigate."
An email sent to Mr. Kendall wasn't immediately returned Monday. An attempt to reach Ms. Mills through the Clinton Foundation, where she serves on the board, also wasn't successful.