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Don't punish lawyers for representing unpopular clients
Everyone deserves a lawyer, no matter what the charges against them
 
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) just underwent a brutal public shaming by his old law school — and rightfully so.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) just underwent a brutal public shaming by his old law school — and rightfully so. (Brooks Kraft/Corbis)

Earlier this month, the Senate rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Adegbile's bid was scuttled because as an executive of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund he once worked on a series of briefs supporting legal arguments made on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was controversially convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1991.

The primary argument made against Adegbile is essentially that the sins of the client ought to be laid upon the lawyer.

In the aftermath of the vote, the lawmakers who drew the most fury from Adegbile's supporters were the seven Democrats who abandoned their president's choice for the job. What made the vote by these Democrats even more dubious is the fact that five of the seven graduated from law school: Mark Pryor, Joe Donnelly, Bob Casey, Heidi Heitkamp, and Chris Coons. And yet each of them chose not to defend a bedrock principle in our rule of law: the notion that everyone deserves a lawyer no matter what the charges against them.

On Monday, Yale Law School, where Coons got his degree, publicly blasted the Delaware Democrat. Hundreds of disgusted Yale students and faculty members sent the senator an open letter highlighting the hypocrisy of his vote against Adegbile and urging him to reconsider should the Senate again take up the nomination. You can read the letter here.

If every law student's greatest fear is to be asked by a fearsome professor to answer an impossible question in front of the whole class, Coons has just been asked by his law school to answer his own impossible question in front of the whole world. And of course he has no valid answer, at least no answer that doesn't involve the honest admission that Coons voted against Adegbile because he was afraid if he didn't, voters one day would vote against him.

Here are the guts of the letter, as concise and as passionate a defense of the principle the Senate ignored as any I have since read:

As students, professors, and practitioners, your vote alarmed us. It signaled a lack of respect for the fundamental American legal principle that all parties have a right to zealous representation and sent a message that young people considering public service careers should avoid work on behalf of unpopular or marginalized communities and clients. Lawyers who advocate for unpopular clients, even guilty ones, perform an honorable public service. This advocacy is especially important when defendants are indigent and facing capital punishment, a peculiar institution that has not shed its ugly history of racial discrimination.

Leading American lawyers have long recognized this bedrock tenet of our adversarial justice system, from John Adams' defense of British soldiers charged with massacring American civilians to Thurgood Marshall's iconic advocacy for black defendants sentenced to death in the South, to John Roberts' appellate work on behalf of a man accused of killing eight people.

[...]

[Y]our vote sends a disturbing message to young people considering careers in public service. Mr. Adegbile has been a tireless advocate for civil rights for the most vulnerable Americans. It is tragic irony to reject Mr. Adegbile for the head of the Civil Rights Division because he has a history of leading civil rights. Like Mr. Adegbile, many of us will have opportunities in our lives to help unpopular clients and communities.

Should we shy away from Yale's Capital Assistance Project because we might assist an indigent client accused of murder? Should we think twice before helping with appellate briefs arguing against the use of torture because the client is an alleged terrorist?

Coons is not alone. There are 57 senators who hold law degrees. That means that dozens of other senators educated in the law voted against a man because he once represented an unpopular client. The argument these senators made — that Adegbile somehow had transcended mere representation and become an "advocate" for Abu-Jamal — is vitiated by the fact that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as conservative a federal appeals court as we have in this country, agreed with Adegbile that Abu-Jamal's constitutional rights had been violated. Are those judges unworthy now as well?

You don't have to go to law school to understand that our justice systems work best when each person accused of a crime gets the best possible representation — when the government is pressed at every turn to meet its many constitutional burdens. You don't need a law degree to know that it is a measure of character and integrity in a lawyer to represent someone who is despised. The lesson Coons and the others sent when they voted down Adegbile, on the other hand, is that this principle is malleable and that the brave expression of this character in a lawyer will one day be evaluated using different calculations. Politics trumps law, Sen. Coons and company said with their vote. And now we know, thankfully, that this craven, destructive calculus is something they don't teach at the Yale Law School.

 
Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News. He has covered the law and justice beat since 1997 and was the 2012 winner of the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award for commentary.

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