To understand what the Joe Paterno’s family’s report (released on Feb. 10) regarding the late Penn State football coach’s culpability in the Jerry Sandusky child abuse cover-up means, one has to understand what lawyers do, and why it is completely ethical for them to do so, as long as their role isn’t misrepresented by them or their clients.
Lawyers exist to allow non-lawyers to have access to a legal system that is (needlessly) complicated and technical, and to provide their legal training, analytical skills and advocacy abilities to their clients’ legal and legitimate needs and objectives. A lawyer who interposes his or her own opinions, judgments and desires on the client without being asked to do so is, in most cases, behaving unprofessionally and unethically. This is an essential principle to grasp, and yet the vast majority of the public do not grasp it. Nonetheless, without the partisanship a lawyer brings to the attorney-client relationship, regardless of whether a client is rich or poor, altruistic or venal, kind or cruel, we would all be slaves to the laws we supposedly create ourselves, through the machinery of a republic.
An independent investigation of the Penn State administration’s failure to stop serial child molester Jerry Sandusky from harming young children found that iconic football coach Joe Paterno was at the center of the school’s misconduct and the catalyst for it. The investigation was performed by Louis Freeh, a lawyer, a former prosecutor, a former federal judge, and once the head of the F.B.I. His charge was to find out what happened and who was at fault—not to nail Paterno or anyone else. It was an independent investigation, with no dictated result. Don Van Natta, a sportswriter whom I supposed should not be expected to understand such distinctions, writes,
“If the Freeh report was a prosecutor’s relentless opening statement that delivered devastating, far-reaching consequences, the Paternos’ rebuttal is a defense attorney’s closing argument brimming with outrage and fury.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Freeh report was not a work of advocacy in an adversarial setting, but akin to a judge’s objective decision after reviewing the relevant and available facts. The Paterno family report, in contrast, is a work of advocacy, like a brief arguing an appeal to overturn a judicial decision against a lawyer’s client. The charge given to Freeh in his investigation was to find out what went wrong and why. (It began with the assumption that something did go wrong, which was reasonable, since a child predator had somehow managed to roam the Penn State campus for decades, including a ten-year period after he had been seen sexually assaulting a child in a Penn State shower.) Freeh was not told to get Penn State off the hook, or to pin as much as possible on Joe Paterno. The authors of the Paterno family report, however, were charged with the task of rebutting and discrediting Freeh’s report in order to rescue Joe Paterno’s reputation and legacy. It is an advocacy memorandum, like the torture memos and the recent Justice Department justification of the killer drone program. Continue reading