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Do the Guantanamo Detainees Have an Unfair Advantage?

Ordinarily, criminal defendants represented by pro bono or court appointed counsel find themselves at a significant disadvantage against the government. But when it comes to the Guantanamo defendants now filing for habeas corpus in United States courts, the tables are turned, with Department of Justice lawyers struggling against an army of elite law firms and law professors who represent the detainees, according to the Wall Street Journal's editorial page:

In the popular mind, the 200 or so Guantanamo detainees filing for habeas corpus in federal district courts are up against the full powers of the United States government. And they are. But practically speaking, this means that 60 or so Justice Department lawyers are handling the bulk of that legal load.

Against these 60 attorneys are arrayed some of our nation's most prestigious private firms. Last year, at a dinner at Washington's Ritz-Carlton hotel, the National Legal Aide Defender Association bestowed its "Beacon of Justice Award" on 50 law firms for their pro bono work on behalf of the detainees. These firms included WilmerHale; Jenner & Block; Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan; Paul Weiss Rifkin; Mayer Brown; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; Dechert; Pepper Hamilton; Venable; Perkins Coie; Hunton & Williams; and Fulbright Jaworski. These firms in turn are joined by law professors from Stanford, Yale and Northwestern right on down to Fordham.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed suggests that large firms and professors should offer pro bono service to Department of Justice to help level the playing field. Though the work isn't glamorous and probably would not generate human rights awards for the firms, the WSJ suggests that helping DOJ would be a service to the country.

What is it about the cause of the Guantanamo detainees that has so mobilized large firm lawyers? I understand that the detainees' plight raises significant constitutional questions, but so too do the dozens of cases involving indigent criminals arrested on false warrants or deprived of effective assistance of counsel or forced to confess. Where's their army of Biglaw attorneys?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 16, 2008 at 05:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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