Why being a public defender is increasingly bad for your political future


The Clintons, pictured in May. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The main reason that Debo Adegbile is not currently the head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is Mumia Abu-Jamal. When Adegbile's nomination came before the Senate in March, he was rejected almost entirely because Adegbile once helped prepare a brief in defense of Abu-Jamal, convicted of murdering a police officer in 1982.

In Arkansas, state Supreme Court candidate Tim Cullen faced the political wrath of a law enforcement advocacy group for his 2006 work on an appeal for a man convicted of possessing child pornography. In South Carolina this year, the Republican Governors Association ran the ad below, attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen for having "personally defended dangerous criminals" — part of his job as a former defense attorney.

The conservative site Washington Free Beacon has another in that vein: surfacing an audio recording in which Hillary Clinton describes her work as a public defender on behalf of a man accused of raping a 12-year-old girl.

The story was first reported by Politico's Glenn Thrush when he was at Newsday in 2008. The details are ugly: In 1975, a 42-year-old man allegedly gave the victim alcohol and then raped her in his truck by the side of a highway. Clinton was appointed by the court as the man's attorney, for which she received $250 in payment.

In Thrush's piece, Clinton is described as being "intent on questioning the girl's credibility," alleging that the victim had made previous false allegations. When contacted by Thrush in 2008, the victim denied having done so. (The victim also told Thrush that she didn't have any ill will toward Clinton.)

The Free Beacon recording (which you can hear here) comes from an interview between Clinton and a journalist in the 1980s. Clinton's tone is casual in discussing her work to defend a man that she appears to have considered guilty, eventually getting him a plea deal that resulted in a year in prison, minus time served. The Free Beacon's Alana Goldman describes what the site sees as the significance of the tape and the story:

The recordings, which date from 1983-1987 and have never before been reported, include Clinton’s suggestion that she knew Taylor was guilty at the time. She says she used a legal technicality to plead her client, who faced 30 years to life in prison, down to a lesser charge. ...

The full story of the Taylor defense calls into question Clinton’s narrative of her early years as a devoted women and children’s advocate in Arkansas — a narrative the 2016 presidential frontrunner continues to promote on her current book tour.

"She did no more and no less than an attorney is required to do in her representation of her client," said Steven D. Benjamin, the immediate past president of the National Association Criminal Defense Lawyers when The Post reached him by phone. "Had she failed to do that, she would have been guilty of malpractice and she would have been in violation of the legal profession's ethical rules." Benjamin called attacks on criminal defense attorneys — particularly on public defenders assigned by the state, as Clinton was — "grossly unfair."

"Public defenders and court-appointed attorneys are the backbone of the criminal justice system," he said. "Without them, the criminal justice system couldn't function."

It's a response similar to those issued after the other political attacks above. After the RGA attacked Sheheen, Republican Charlie Condon, the former attorney general of South Carolina, told the Huffington Post that the attack was "fundamentally wrong."

"The basis of our whole constitutional system is that it's a noble calling, it's a really positive profession, positive calling, to be a lawyer and particularly a criminal defense lawyer," he told the site's Ryan Reilly.

Benjamin also spoke about the similarities between the critique of Clinton and the political campaign attacks. "It is a deplorable trend of alarming proportions," he said, later drawing a comparison. "It is no different than telling a physician or a firefighter that they are unqualified for public office based on the character of the people they have saved." Benjamin said that criminal defense attorneys hear similar critiques "all the time." Asked if he personally knew criminal defense lawyers who'd declined to run for office out of fear of being attacked for that work, Benjamin said that he had.

That seems to be borne out in federal representation. The Congressional Research Service compiled data on the composition of the 113th Congress earlier this year. Congress includes more than  200 members that have a background in practicing law, including "7 former judges (all in the House), and 32 prosecutors ... who have served in city, county, state, federal, or military capacities." Prosecutors get to run on their record of putting criminals away. Defenders don't. A search of the House's historic database of information on members turns up five members of the House since 2000 who list work as public defenders in their biographies. One is no longer in Congress. Another later worked as a prosecutor.

"It should never be that an attorney who fulfills his constitutional and ethical obligation to represent a person who is criminally accused faces a question about that attorney's character or qualifications for any office," Benjamin said. But to the Huffington Post, former attorney general Condon explained the calculus the RGA used in Haley's defense. "I suspect what happened is they saw an opening here, they did polling, it got traction. But you would expect a leader to not go for the short-term gain that maybe somebody is trying to talk her into."

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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