Clinton and Kaine are following in the tradition of John Adams, a revolutionary who defended British soldiers when no one else would.
The Republican National Committee recently embraced an uninformed smear in an advertisement condemning Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine for his past legal representation of people accused of crime. The Democratic vice presidential nominee is an attorney who took on a number of criminal cases, including death penalty cases, before running for office.
The GOP ad says Kaine “has a passion for defending the wrong people” and that “long before Tim Kaine was in office, he consistently protected the worst kinds of people.” It is as if the politicians attacking former criminal defense lawyers believe the public cannot or will not distinguish between the lawyer and the crime their long-ago client was accused of committing.
In the second presidential debate, Donald Trump attacked Hillary Clinton for defending a man accused of rape when she was a private lawyer decades ago. Clinton offered no response. In the past, when asked about having defended a criminal, Clinton acted like a politician chagrined because her adversary’s opposition research had just revealed an embarrassing moment from her past. She defended her role by noting that “when you’re a lawyer you often don’t have the choice as to who you will represent. And by the very nature of criminal law there will be those you represent you don’t approve of. But, at least in our system, you have an obligation. And once I was appointed I fulfilled that obligation.”
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which I currently serve as president, does not endorse or oppose any party or candidate for office. However, NACDL strongly condemns attacks by any party or candidate directed at any lawyer as a result of the attorney’s representation of clients in criminal matters. The nation’s criminal defense bar deserves gratitude, not condemnation. The men and women who represent accused persons, without regard to economic station or racial, ethnic, or national background, render a vital service to the nation. Most are proud to be criminal defense lawyers, and rightly so. Indeed, they are acting in the best traditions of our Founding Fathers.
In 1770, before our country was founded, British soldiers were charged with murdering five Boston residents in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Passions ran high against the British soldiers and few were willing to step to their defense. One who did was a prominent lawyer by the name of John Adams. Adams skillfully and successfully defended the soldiers in the face of cries for mob justice.
Adams, a revolutionary, did not defend the British soldiers out of love for their cause. Rather, he defended them out of his love for the cause of justice and his fervent belief that anyone accused of a crime has a right to counsel.
Fortunately, the citizenry did not view his role as a defense lawyer in the Boston Massacre trials as being disqualifying for public office. Just three months after he agreed to represent the British soldiers, John Adams was elected to the Massachusetts legislature. As a delegate from Massachusetts, he was a leading advocate for independence from Britain and assisted Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence. When the newly formed United States held its first election for president, George Washington was unanimously elected. Under the rules then in place, the recipient of second highest vote, John Adams, became Vice President. He went on to succeed Washington and become the second president of the United States.
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Thus, the very act that some would deem disqualifying for Tim Kaine to be vice president was not disqualifying for the person who became our very first vice president. A man who was one of our founding fathers, unlike Clinton, did not hide behind a legal obligation when later discussing his role as a defense lawyer. Rather, he said, it was “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”
Politicians from all parties and ideologies should stop misguided attempts to sully an individual’s reputation based on his or her role as a criminal defense lawyer. Such attacks undermine the right to counsel, one of the most important principles upon which this nation was founded. Similarly, politicians of all political parties and ideologies who have served with distinction as criminal defense lawyers should be proud of their past roles in vindicating this essential constitutional right. When having served as a criminal defense lawyer becomes fodder for political attacks and the targets of those attacks fail to forcefully respond, our country has truly lost is constitutional moorings.
Barry J. Pollack is the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
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