A recurring question is why criminal defense lawyers are underrepresented in government positions, whether judicial, legislative or executive. The easy answer is that we’re easy targets, having spent our careers as gladiators, defenders of the Constitution and, as the NACDL slogan goes, Liberty’s Last Champions.
Actually, we don’t sound half bad when you put it that way. But then, nobody puts it that way. This is more the way we’re described:
Not only does it pander to ignorance and prejudice, but it’s awfully effective in smearing a candidate for office. After all, even if you’re not entirely inclined to hate criminal defense lawyers for their role in the criminal justice system, you have to admit that there’s always that place in the back of your head that says, “well, yeah, but look at the scum he works with. Some of that has to rub off on him, right?”
And while the backlash against a candidate who makes such a flagrant smear might be of some small concern, the beauty here is that the very slick ad didn’t come with the opponent’s, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, approval. Via ATL:
This ad comes to us from South Carolina, where State Senator Vincent Sheheen, a lawyer, is challenging incumbent Nikki Haley. But Governor Haley didn’t approve this ad, it’s coming to her defense from the Republican Governors Association, a group currently headed by Governor Chris Christie.
While Christie, the former United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, no doubt understands the role of criminal defense lawyer, and is familiar with a few of the amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, this isn’t a reflection of his lack of concern for the 6th Amendment, but the use of whatever tools are available to win an election.
In Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore writes:
Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire noted a new Republican Governors Association ad being run in South Carolina against Democratic candidate Vincent Sheheen under the headline: “Most Negative Political Ad Ever?” and suggested it set “a new standard for nasty.” I’d say it sets a new standard for immoral cynicism.
This is just silly. “Immoral cynicism”? This is out of every political playbook ever written when the opponent is a criminal defense lawyer. And in the relativistic scale of “immoral cynicism” of politics, nobody owns the worst ever, though that’s never stopped any candidate or soft money group from trying.
There are two reactions to campaign ads like this. The first, as reflected by Kilgore, is stand there with your hands on your hips and scold other side for being despicable human beings, like that works, or promote the idea that what we do is not only proper, but necessary, in the scheme of our nation.
Will the day ever come that people see the criminal defense function as not only necessary, but admirable? Probably not. Let’s face facts, our nation hasn’t done particularly well when it comes to educating our children as to civic virtue.
It’s a whole lot easier to fall back to the simplistic positions of good and evil, and when it comes to having something good to say about what we do, we’re usually on the south end of a train headed north. Even most beloved journalists can’t quite come up with a good reason to say something nice about defending the accused, except when it’s one of their own. And the best among criminal defense lawyers represents the worst of society, making the story that much harder to tell.
This is where everybody invokes John Adams for defending the Brits for the Boston Massacre, as does Kilgore, but since most Americans aren’t aware that they shot Crispus Attucks, and otherwise think Brits have cool accents, it just doesn’t do the trick.
So here we are, defending criminals, often really bad criminals, because our Constitution requires us to do so. Yet another reason to take a crayon and cross out offending parts of the suicide pact. When you tell people at a cocktail party that you’re a criminal defense lawyer, they will usually reply, “that must be interesting.” Nobody ever says, “thank you for your service to the Constitution.”
Oh, and we get paid for it. It doesn’t get any more American than that.