One of the more important things I write about here at ‘a public defender’ is the notion that “Justice” is a complicated concept. It is not limited to what you are fed through your televisions and it is certainly not a government-centric idea.
Justice takes many obvious forms, such as the apprehension and conviction of a criminal. But limiting the definition of justice to something as simplistic as “good guys vs. bad guys” leaves you with a very narrow worldview and an over-inflated sense of morality.
Justice can mean that the right person was punished and that the punishment was just. Justice can mean standing up for unpopular causes, maybe sometimes precisely because they are unpopular.
The persecution of this nuanced meaning of justice, however, has never been more fervent than in this day of “speak by shouting at others” discourse and base politics that pander to ever-extreme hysterical idiots who have found a sure-fire method of whipping up political points and ire by removing any semblance of complexity from American politics and intellectual discussion.
I speak, of course, of the shameful defeat of the president’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. Joined by 7 democrats, Republicans torpedoed this highly qualified, lifelong public servant from running the civil rights division because a long time ago, he spent some part of his career working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, during which time he worked on a brief seeking to overturn the conviction of “noted cop-killer” Mumia Abu-Jamal.
What, exactly, does this boil down to? What the’re saying, in effect, is that there is one kind of justice that’s acceptable and there’s another that’s not. That our founding principles are great, but only in name. And that hatred of cop killers will always trump everything else:
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is facing reelection this year and whose state sits within the Philadelphia media market, said he thought Adegbile was well-qualified for the position, but was concerned that he would face “visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job,” citing the opposition to his nomination by several law enforcement organizations.
Adegbile was presumably only doing his job. I am only doing my job. But I also believe in what I do. That doesn’t make me a lesser person or any less deserving of a job that I am qualified for. The fact that I despise the death penalty is not a fault or a bug. The fact that I am highly skeptical of the Government’s power and their irresponsible exercise of that power doesn’t make me an amoral person. The fact that I have represented robbers and rapists and killers doesn’t make me one.
To hold that view is akin to, as Dahlia Lithwick at Slate writes:
a referendum on the most basic premise of any functioning legal system: that even the guilty deserve representation and that the justice system cannot operate if we don’t work to correct systemic injustice. As the president of the American Bar Association, James R. Silkenat, was forced to explain to the Senate Judiciary Committee, “a fundamental tenet of our justice system and our Constitution is that anyone who faces loss of liberty has a right to legal counsel. Lawyers have an ethical obligation to uphold that principle and provide zealous representation to people who otherwise would stand alone against the power and resources of the government—even to those accused or convicted of terrible crimes.”
But as of today, you are as guilty as your guiltiest client, and your representation of that client—especially if it is both zealous and successful—is now disqualifying as well. Cop-killers deserve no lawyers and their lawyers deserve no role in government service. It’s not hard to imagine the scorching Fox News headlines, under the new standards set forth by the Judiciary Committee today: “John Adams Frees Vicious Patriot-Killer in Boston Massacre.” “John Roberts Unsuccessfully Defends Serial Killer in Florida!” “Anarchist-Loving Felix Frankfurter Advocates for Sacco and Vanzetti!” Clarence Darrow! Lover of Killers, Monkeys, and Commies; Disgrace to Legal Profession!.” “Murderer-Coddler John Paul Stevens disqualified from Supreme Court at 80!”
We became who we claim to be because we valued the rights of individuals above all else. Because we had people willing to fight for those who were minorities and whose positions were unpopular.
Imagine if Republicans had voted against Adegbile because he represented Edith Windsor or Mildred Loving? Would you be as outraged as you are now? What’s stopping you today?
This is what happens when we willingly accept a Fox News/Law and Order society: where everything is so black and white and you’re always good and they’re always bad.
A good, honest, hard-working man doesn’t get a job he deserves because our world has become so isolated and selfish and so mind-numbingly ignorant.
Update: As Scott points out, this “defense” of Adegbile by Sen. Harkin (2:00 mark) is well-meaning but also exposes the greater point that I’m talking about. Harkin says “not that he defended this person”, distinguishing the act of actually representing and fighting for the Constitutional rights of an individual at the trial level and “signing on an appeal”, which places the lawyer at a distance.
The implication, again, is that anyone who does represent cop-killers and child molesters is unworthy of political office or even recognition or any sort of reward.
Due process has always been an obstacle on the way to conviction, but we were always willing to pay it lip service:
In Oct. 1990, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) passionately defended then-Supreme Court nominee David Souter, who faced criticism during his confirmation process for defending literacy tests in his home state of New Hampshire. Hatch noted that those tests were existing law at the time, and that Souter, as the state’s assistant attorney general, was required to defend them.
“It is not right to go back in hindsight and say he should not have done that; that that shows something wrong with him. Come on, that is what advocates do,” Hatch said at the time.
“If we are going to start using a nominee’s briefs against him in the confirmation process, we are going to be setting a shocking precedent,” he continued. “It would be a very, very dangerous message to send to lawyers: If you have any ambition to be a judge, you lawyers, do not represent controversial clients and be careful what you say on behalf of a client because you might be held responsible for the fact that the law was as it was at the time you made the statement.”
Now we won’t even do that. Long live the Justice System.