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Gagging the Lawyers

Yesterday in China, the government revealed that it had brought formal charges of subversion against a lawyer who spoke out against the government for persecuting religious groups.  Yesterday in Mexico, the government banned a lawyer from the country who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mexican victims of clergy abuse. Yesterday in Washington, our government gagged the military lawyer, Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who alleged ongoing abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. And yesterday in New York, the government ordered lawyer Lynne Stewart to prison for two years for charges that centered on her reading a press release about her client to the media.

Meanwhile, here in Massachusetts where I practice, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Deval L. Patrick has come under attack by Republicans for writing letters on behalf of a convicted rapist and defending an admitted cop killer. As noted here yesterday by Carolyn Elefant and in this Boston Globe article, Bay State lawyers have rallied to Patrick's defense. In an unusual joint op-ed in The Boston Herald, the presidents of the state's two largest bar associations wrote of the need for zealous advocacy of even the most unpopular clients. "We write not to take sides in the political process, but only to affirm that our adversary system of justice depends on the commitment of lawyers who are willing to take on those burdens," they said. "They are the essential defenders of our liberties." Citing the attacks on Patrick's defense work, the state's legal newspaper, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, this week made its first-ever endorsement of a political candidate.  "[Republican] finger-pointing has a flavor of McCarthyism," an editorial said, "suggesting that anyone who has spent time in the criminal-defense arena should be identified, called out and avoided."

Is the legal profession itself guilty of a double standard here? I am glad to see lawyers rally to support Patrick's legal defense of the unpopular. But where is the uproar over the gagging of lawyers by other countries? More importantly, where is the uproar over our own country's gagging of Vokey and Stewart? If Lawyers Weekly is right that this has the flavor of McCarthyism, then terrorism is the new Red Scare. We are quick to defend lawyers who defend criminals, but less sure about defending lawyers who defend terrorists.

With regard to Lynne Stewart, there are many lawyers, including among the criminal defense bar, who share the opinion expressed by Norm Pattis that Stewart crossed the line from zealous representation to breaking the law. But I am bothered by the case and agree with Kevin Jon Heller, who writes at Opinio Juris:

[The case] involves a criminal defense attorney (strike 1) who is outspoken about the need to zealously defend individuals accused of the most heinous crimes (strike 2) charged with helping a convicted terrorist plan further terrorist attacks (strike 3) in an atmosphere where the prosecution was continually allowed to discuss bin Laden despite his irrelevance to the case (strike 4). Under those circumstances, I find it very difficult to believe that the jury convicted Stewart because of the evidence, not out of fear.

In the media, Stewart has become a name forever associated with the words "radical lawyer" and "terrorist lawyer." Just look at the first sentences of today's reports in The New York Times and The Boston Globe. I read about China charging a lawyer for subversion and can't help but see parallels in the news from this country. Lawyers were right to speak out on behalf of Deval Patrick. But we should be just as quick to defend other "defenders of our liberties," whether they be Democrat, Republican or radical.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 17, 2006 at 06:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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