I don’t know South Carolina state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, and I doubt I’d support him for governor if I were a resident of the Palmetto State. I do know, however, that the Republican Governors Association’s latest ad attacking Sheheen for having worked as a criminal defense attorney is contemptible.
The ad (below) attacks “trial lawyer” Sheheen because he “made money off criminals” and represented those “charged with violent acts,” child and sex abuse. I assume the accusations are true, but they are irrelevant. Even those accused of the most heinous crimes deserve a defense, and our legal system depends upon the willingness of capable attorneys to defend even the most unpopular or unpalatable defendants.
Whether or not this ad is “the most negative ever,” it is contemptible. And were the ad itself not bad enough, RGA spokesperson Jon Thompson defended the ad by commenting, “Vincent Sheheen made a deliberate choice to defend violent criminals who abused women and children. He is unfit and unprepared to serve as governor of South Carolina.” Of course, should Thompson ever be accused of a crime — even, perhaps especially, wrongfully accused — I am sure he’d sing a different tune.
Representing unpopular causes or clients is never easy, but it is necessary. Organized efforts to blunt the careers of those who take on such efforts are shameful. It would be one thing if Sheheen were accused of unethical conduct in his representation of his clients. It is quite another to attack him 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.
The RGA is not the first to attack lawyers for having agreed to represent unpopular clients or causes, but that hardly makes the ad any more defensible. Others on the right wrongly went after attorneys who agreed to represent Gitmo detainees. Folks on the left assailed Bush nominees who represented corporations or defended administration policies and attacked King & Spalding and Paul Clement for agreeing to defend DOMA. Some members of Congress are also currently attacking district court nominee Mark Cohen because he helped defend Georgia’s voter ID law. All such attacks are misguided. Left unchecked, they pose a threat to the adversary legal system. As Paul Clement wrote when he resigned from King & Spalding:
Defending unpopular positions is what lawyers do. The adversary system of justice depends on it, especially in cases where the passions run high. Efforts to delegitimize any representation for one side of a legal controversy are a profound threat to the rule of law.
The current head of the RGA is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. I doubt Governor Christie viewed or approved the ad before it was aired, but as an attorney and former prosecutor, he should certainly understand why it is out of line. The implicit premise of the ad strikes at heart of our legal system and has no place in a campaign. The RGA and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the ad’s intended beneficiary, should disavow it.