This ugly beast keeps raising its head out of the muck, and it is the duty of every citizen, Republican or Democrat, who believes in justice and due process under law to beat it back with heavy clubs.
The Republican Governors Association is defending one of its own, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, with a series of ads attacking state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, an attorney who is her Democratic opposition in the gubernatorial race. The message of the ad, as summarized by a voice-over, is that “Sheheen defended violent criminals who abused women and went to work setting them free.”
Like all criminal defense attorneys, Sheheen defended citizens charged with serious crimes, and used his skills to make sure they weren’t falsely convicted despite inadequate evidence, prosecutorial misconduct or wrongful application of the laws. This smear, an ugly appeal to widespread public ignorance of the legal system by an organization that can’t possibly be this ignorant, is, as the South Carolina Bar pointed out in a press release condemning the ad, an attack on the legal profession itself, not merely Haley, and the attack promotes misunderstanding of one of the legal profession’s most crucial duties. “Lawyers have a professional duty to ensure that justice is not rationed but is available to everyone,” the release notes. “It is the job of a criminal defense lawyer to ensure his or her client has a fair trial, not to defend the crime.” South Carolina Bar President Alice Paylor told the AP, “What they’re attacking is the whole basis for the U.S. and the U.S. Constitution. According to them, I guess everyone accused of something is automatically guilty.”
Well, yes, that would seem to be what they are saying…or that certain crimes don’t deserve a legal defense, and that based on a n allegation under oath by any citizen of sound mind, those accused should just be locked up, tarred and feathered, or shot. “This is not about due process or the right to have counsel,” argued state GOP chairman Matt Moore to the press, defending the ads. “It’s about someone who wants to represent South Carolina not standing up for our citizens. He could have stood with abuse victims and exploited children and instead took a paycheck. Vincent Sheheen made a choice that was wrong.” Republican Governors Association spokesman Jon Thompson chimed in, “Vincent Sheheen made a deliberate choice to defend violent criminals who abused women and children. He is unfit and unprepared to serve as governor of South Carolina.”
And, of course, if every lawyer regarded that as the proper way to ‘stand up for South Carolina citizens,’ it would mean that citizens accused of crimes in the state could not get the defense guaranteed to them by the Constitution. Matt Moore and Jon Thompson are idiots, and based on their words, if either is accused of a crime, every lawyer in the country should make what Moore thinks is the “right” choice and let them fend for themselves while fighting for their freedom. Of course, lawyers won’t do that, and because their ethics rules explicitly remind them that
“A lawyer’s representation of a client, including representation by appointment, does not constitute an endorsement of the client’s political, economic, social or moral views or activities,”
So Thompson or Moore will be defended in their trials against charges of alleged child-raping, terrorism, woman-skinning, water-supply poisoning or whatever other horrible crime they may have been accused of, and the State will have to prove, using admissible and persuasive evidence, that they are guilty of those crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. Then, if the State is successful, they can contribute money from prison for attack adds against their former lawyer for protecting their rights.
ABA President James Silkenat wrote a letter of protest to RGA Chairman Chris Christie, who, I’m sure, knew no more about this disgraceful conduct by the organization he heads than he knew about his underlings intentionally causing a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. The letter says in part…
“The Republican Governors Association ad sends a disturbing message to lawyers — that their clients’ past actions or beliefs will stain their own careers, especially if they want to serve their country in public office. Voters who subsequently pass judgment on the candidate for the singular reason that he was a competent lawyer are disqualifying him from public service. On the contrary, lawyers who represent unpopular or guilty clients demonstrate the kind of courage and confidence in our legal system that characterizes the finest public servants.”
All true. It is unfortunate that in recent decades the American Bar Association has positioned itself as a permanent and reliable ally for the Democratic Party and left-favored causes that have nothing to do with the practice of law (like climate change), so it cannot now exercise the kind of influence that it should in this kind of controversy, where a non-partisan voice for the nation’s lawyers would be helpful.
“Representing unpopular causes or clients is never easy, but it is necessary. Organized efforts to blunt the careers of those who take on such efforts are shameful. It would be one thing if Sheheen were accused of unethical conduct in his representation of his clients. It is quite another to attack him for defending those who, however horrific their crimes, needed a legal defense. A lawyer is responsible for his or her own conduct, and is not responsible for the sins of the client…Our adversarial legal system depends upon the willingness of lawyers to represent clients of all stripes, including those who are unpalatable or politically unpopular. If attorneys are vilified for representing such clients — if the message to the politically ambitious is don’t ever represent a client that voters might not like — fewer will be willing to take up the task. Conservatives recognize this when GOP nominees are attacked. They should also recognize it when the shoe is on the other foot.”
Let’s see if Governor Christie has the integrity to stop a dishonest, misleading and frankly un-American ad campaign launched by an organization he leads. He’s a lawyer himself. He knows it’s a crock. It will tell us a lot about the kinds of choices he makes, his judgment, and where he stands.
Pointer: Volokh Conspiracy (Jonathan Adler)
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