Last week, I blogged about a contemptible Republican Governors Association ad attacking South Carolina democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen for having worked as a criminal defense attorney and having represented some unsavory folks. (He also worked as a local prosecutor.) The ad doesn’t identify anything that Sheheen did that is unethical other than having defended criminal defendants who were found guilty. In case there was any doubt about the point of the ad, RGA spokesman Jon Thompson defended it 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.”
The RGA ad triggered substantial criticism, including from those who are likely to support Sheheen’s opponent, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. For example, former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon — the first ever Chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association– tweeted that the ad should be taken down. The ad was also condemned by ABA President James Silkenat in a strongly worded letter to RGA Chairman Chris Christie. Silkenat wrote:
The Republican Governors Association ad sends a disturbing message to lawyers — that their clients’ past actions or beliefs will stain their own careers, especially if they want to serve their country in public office. Voters who subsequently pass judgment on the candidate for the singular reason that he was a competent lawyer are disqualifying him from public service. On the contrary, lawyers who represent unpopular or guilty clients demonstrate the kind of courage and confidence in our legal system that characterizes the finest public servants.
Well the ad may be shameful, but it must also be effective, as the RGA is undaunted. On Monday, the RGA released a second ad attacking Sheheen for his defense work. This one is marginally better, in that it purports to focus on Sheheen’s handling of a specific case, but in the end it makes the same fundamental error: Condemning an attorney for zealously advancing his client’s cause.
If Sheheen actually engaged in questionable conduct as an attorney, then by all means attack him. But if all he did was seek to defend those accused of heinous crimes, and work to get their sentences reduced, that is not something for which he should be attacked. If the sentence in the case RGA now highlights was too short — and it seems short to me — the real outrage is that a prosecutor acquiesced or a judge approved the sentence, not that a defense attorney tried to help his client.
Our adversarial legal system depends upon the willingness of lawyers to represent clients of all stripes, including those who are unpalatable or politically unpopular. If attorneys are vilified for representing such clients — if the message to the politically ambitious is don’t ever represent a client that voters might not like — fewer will be willing to take up the task. Conservatives recognize this when GOP nominees are attacked. They should also recognize it when the shoe is on the other foot.