National Review Online contributor Jonathan Adler came to the defense of South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen after the Republican Governors Association ran advertisements attacking Sheheen's past as a criminal defense attorney. But NRO supported the successful efforts to smear Debo Adegbile, President Obama's choice to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, for supervising the appeal of a death row inmate's unconstitutional sentence.
Earlier this month, the Republican Governors Association released a pair of ads that attacked Sheheen, a Democrat, because he "made money off criminals," and "represented others charged with violent acts." Although other right-wing outlets began referring to Sheheen as "the molester's lawyer," Adler quickly condemned both ads. Adler, who also contributes to The Washington Post's libertarian legal blog the Volokh Conspiracy, called the ad "contemptible." He went on to explain that it was "shameful" to "attack [Sheheen] for defending those who, however horrific their crimes, needed a legal defense. A lawyer is responsible for his or her own conduct, and is not responsible for the sins of the client." Adler repeated his condemnation of the ad in a blog post at NRO, writing that "the adversary legal system relies upon the willingness of lawyers to represent even the most unpopular or unpalatable clients." He continued:
Unfortunately it seems that the attack ad specialists at the Republican Governors Association never learned these lessons, as they have produced two ads assailing South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen for having represented criminals when he worked as a criminal defense attorney. I have no doubt these ads are effective, but they are also wrong. Attorneys should not be vilified because they were willing to represent those who needed a defense, and we should fear a system in which such representation can come at the cost of one's political career.
The American Bar Association, the South Carolina Bar Association, and the former South Carolina Attorney General and former chair of the Republican Attorneys General all agreed with this condemnation of the RGA's attack on a "fundamental tenet" of American justice. In fact, the ABA has been consistent on this basic principle, having recently seen no difference in the respective attacks against Sheheen and Adegbile.
Adegbile, like Sheheen, faced serious opposition from conservatives who attacked his previous work as the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). But right-wing media went even further in his case, personally subjecting Adegbile to racialized attacks and largely misrepresenting his legal record in advance of the vote on his nomination.
Unlike Sheheen, Adegbile did not have a notable defender like Adler during his confirmation process. Adegbile was attacked by Fox News and other right-wing media figures for being a "cop-killer's coddler," and a "cop-killer advocate," because a group of attorneys at LDF represented death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal on appeal. Although LDF lawyers were successful in overturning Abu-Jamal's death sentence due to a constitutional violation in his sentencing, they were not litigating his guilt, and he remains in prison for life. Nevertheless, conservative media were quick to portray Adegbile's criminal defense work as "political" because of his client's past crimes and the statements and actions of an entirely different civil rights attorney.
In an earlier castigation of the conservative crusade against Adegbile, the ABA wrote that it "was alarmed to learn that there is some opposition to Mr. Adegbile's nomination based solely on his efforts to protect the fundamental rights of an unpopular client while working at the Legal Defense Fund. His work, like the work of ABA members who provide thousands of hours of pro bono legal services every year, is consistent with the finest tradition of this country's legal profession and should be commended, not condemned." The opposition to Adegbile was particularly shameful in light of the fact that the list of famous Americans who have gone on to public service after defending murderers is long, and one that includes both former President John Adams and current Chief Justice John Roberts.
The right-wing's respect for "the finest tradition of this country's legal profession" was entirely absent in their Willie Horton-styled attacks against Adegbile, widely denounced as "race-based gutter politics."
Now that he had come out in defense of Sheheen, perhaps Adler can have a word with his colleagues at NRO, who accused Adegbile of going "out of his way to play a role in defending cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal," legal representation the NRO editorial board characterized as emblematic of a "pet radical" of "defective" character. If he needs support, in addition to the ABA, law enforcement executives, or members of the Supreme Court Bar, he can now cite another letter of support for Adegbile from over 1,000 law professors. In their letter, the professors write that "we are deeply concerned that the vote and the rationale publicly articulated by a majority of Senators rejecting Mr. Adegbile sends a message that goes to several core values of the legal profession." The letter continued:
These [values] include the right to counsel, the importance of pro bono representation, and the importance of ensuring that constitutional protections are afforded to every criminal defendant regardless of the crimes for which they are accused.
As law teachers we are particularly concerned about the disquieting message conveyed to law students and graduates entering the profession who may fear that their engagement with pro bono representation of unpopular clients may imperil their future eligibility for federal government service. Those who rejected Mr. Adegbile, while acknowledging his stellar and unquestioned qualifications for the position, repeatedly invoked the fact that Mr. Adegbile provided legal representation to an inmate on death row -- Mumia Abu Jamal -- while Mr. Adegbile was a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
[A]s every lawyer knows -- including the 57 in the U.S. Senate -- we are not our clients. The constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel would be turned on its head if the contrary view were advanced. Indeed, had past candidates for public office been held to the Senate's unjust standard, our nation would have been deprived of the likes of President John Adams (who defended British soldiers charged with killing Americans in the Boston Massacre), Justice Thurgood Marshall (who defended countless black men on death row in the Jim Crow South), and Chief Justice John Roberts (who represented convicted serial killer John Errol Ferguson).
Simply put, the rule of law cannot succeed if attorneys are judged guilty by association with their clients. In rejecting a qualified nominee for public service based on conduct which reflects the best of our profession, the Senate has done a grave disservice to the legal profession and those who seek to enter it.
NRO has shown a willingness to go to bat for Vincent Sheheen, but what about Debo Adegbile?