The 6th Amendment provides in part that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to...the assistance of counsel for his defense.” In other words, when the government says you committed a crime, you have the right to have an attorney fight for you. In 1963, the Supreme Court took it a step further and unanimously held in Gideon v. Wainwright that every criminal defendant in a felony trial has the right to a lawyer even if they're too poor to hire one.
The right to competent counsel is so important and ingrained in our country’s DNA that we put it in the freaking founding document. Damn it feels good to live in such an enlightened country. So naturally I was surprised when I read that Harvard students were throwing a baby hissy fit because a law professor and defense attorney named Ronald Sullivan had the audacity to do his job and represent the accused serial sexual assaulter Harvey Weinstein. One of the infants, ahem students, leading the campaign to get rid of Sullivan described the professor's representation of Weinstein as "not only upsetting, but deeply trauma-inducing" and evidence that he "does not value the safety of students."
Well thank goodness that there are adults at Harvard who stood up for the sacred principles of due process and the presumption of innocence and smacked down these young fools. J/K, LOL. Nah, instead the Harvard administration allowed themselves to be swept away by the tsunami of ignorance and canned Sullivan as a dean.
Well at least prominent politicians and television personalities put Harvard in its place for shitting on the most important principles of the American justice system before wiping its collective butt with the Constitution. PSYCH!!! They think defense attorneys who actually defend people are super scummy too. In an interview with presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Real Time With Bill Maher, the following exchange took place:
Maher: Harvard had an issue a couple of weeks ago. Ronald Sullivan, he's a brilliant professor, he's a dean there, African-American, who is defending Harvey Weinstein. And there was a big protest. These are Harvard students who don't understand that everyone gets a lawyer in this country. They're saying we don't want to get our diplomas from someone who was this closely associated with violating metoo principles no matter what his reason. No matter what his reason? Harvard students don't understand? Law students?
Buttigieg: Well maybe they just think that's the right place to protest what they see as going into the toleration of sexual harassment.
Maher: But isn't the principle that everyone gets a lawyer in America more important?
Buttigieg: Well you can still have a lawyer, but then when he shows up, you can also raise your voice to protest what he represents. That's the whole idea of free speech and vigorous debate. I'm all for that.
Maher: Wow. I don't know if it's debatable that everyone gets a lawyer in America.
Buttigieg: I agree everyone ought to get a lawyer. Sure. But the decision is to what extent do you invite those people or appear to be conferring honor on them.
MSNBC television personality Chris Hayes similarly opined on twitter:
Vis a vis the latest Harvard story, the question I wrestle with is, as a matter principle, isn’t it sometimes justified to criticize a lawyer for which clients they choose to take on?
A Harvard student named Hakeem Angulu made the same point saying “Let me be clear, the point about Harvey Weinstein deserving due process is a straw man argument and is a point that protesters have never disputed. The more specific and relevant point that we're trying to make is that Dean Sullivan does not have to provide the representation, and by providing, he is compromising his ability to serve survivors and his house.”
The basic argument in all of the above is that private attorneys have a choice in who they represent and thus who they represent is a reflection of their morality. In other words, if an attorney chooses to represent an accused rapist, the attorney is sanctioning or "conferring honor" on rape. This argument is so fucking stupid that the people who make it should be branded on their forehead with a capital S. When I was a public defender, I represented people charged with ugly crimes who paid me nothing. As a private attorney, I’ve represented people charged with ugly crimes who paid me. It makes zero moral difference. I'm the same dude. I defend people because I'm a defense attorney and that's the job. As I wrote in a prior blog post about why defense attorneys defend people charged with repugnant crimes:
The answer is a simple one: I do it because it’s my responsibility. It comes with the territory of being a defense attorney. If I phoned it in because I thought a client was guilty, it would make me the worst kind of coward. Look, it’s not always pleasant. Cross-examining a child witness in a molestation case isn’t fun. But I do it because I’m a professional. Who am I to say whether a man is guilty or innocent? Who am I to determine what a fair punishment is? What I do know is that every person accused deserves at least one person standing up for them. We can’t hope to have a system with any integrity unless people step up to the plate to take on that calling.
Imagine what kind of system we would have if we followed the nonsense logic of dual track criminal justice systems for those worthy of representation and those unworthy of representation.
Judge: You are accused of child molestation.
Defendant: I didn’t do it!
Judge: As this is a morally repugnant crime, no reputable attorney will want to represent you and confer honor upon you. Therefore, I will appoint you an attorney from our disreputable attorney list. You will be represented by attorney Lester McSleaze.
Defendant: No, he’s been disbarred three times!
Judge: What do you expect? You’re an accused child molester! Any attorney who chooses to defend you clearly loves child molestation.
Defendant: But how can I get a fair trial without a decent attorney! What about my rights!
Judge: Tut, tut. I will hear no more squawking about rights. We have evolved beyond quaint ideas of presumptions of innocence and due process. Be gone from my presence you dirty pervert.
Harvard students, Pete Buttigieg, Chris Hayes, hop up on Papa W&K's knee. Here's the deal. The right to counsel, the presumption of innocence, and due process aren't some arcane technical legal mumbo jumbo. They're the bedrock principles of our justice system. We should be proud that in America we don’t lock people up without a meaningful opportunity to hear evidence against them, challenge that evidence, and present counter evidence. That doesn't work unless attorneys like Ronald Sullivan answer the call. So put on your big boy pants, wipe away your tears, and be grateful for people like him. Some day you very well might find a deeper appreciation for people like him if you find yourself on the wrong side of the finger of accusation.