February 2, 2007
President Belinda S. Barnes and the Columbus Bar Association Board of Governors have released the following statement:
A distressing news item recently reminded this writer of this simple but powerful truth expressed in a letter authored by a man held in jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The year was 1963. The jail was in Birmingham. The prisoner, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The news event, as reported by Reuters and the Columbus Dispatch on Jan. 17, involved a interview on a Washington, D.C., radio station of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs (and Navy lawyer), Charles D. Stimson. Secretary Stimson was speaking about the prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay and the lawyers who are representing them in federal cases. He said that it was “shocking” that some of the major law firms in the country, of which he named a dozen or so, were “representing the very terrorists who hit [American corporations’] bottom line back in 2001.” He then speculated that the CEO’s of those corporations would “make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or [sic] representing reputable firms. . . .”
After a virtual tsunami of condemnation of these remarks by various organizations, including a forceful statement by the President of the American Bar Association, the Deputy Assistant Secretary repudiated his own statements and claimed to regret that “my comments left the impression that I question the integrity of those engaged in the zealous defense of detainees.” The Pentagon also hastily distanced itself from Stimson’s radio statements.
But the damage was done. This high government official – a lawyer, no less – intentionally floated the innuendo that providing legal defense (in most cases pro bono) to detained persons accused of terrorism is tantamount to giving aid and comfort to an enemy, thus putting in doubt the government’s commitment to the rule of law. By suggesting that large corporations should refrain from using the services of a law firm on the basis of the assumed character of other clients for whom the firm gives lawful, constitutionally appropriate representation, Stimson resorted to a vile rhetorical device -- the threat of stigmatization as a “fellow traveler.”
At the Columbus Bar Association’s annual Martin Luther King Luncheon held on January 18, featured guest speaker, Ivan K. Fong, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary of Cardinal Health, made the following remarks in his speech.
“Speaking of unpopular causes, I’d like to comment briefly on a recent remark made by a senior Defense Department official, who derided the lawyers and law firms that have volunteered their time and talent to represent detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. In his remarks, he went on to suggest that the corporate clients of these firms retaliate against them, because they somehow represent ‘terrorists.’
“This senior government official, as a lawyer, should know better. He should know, and I believe he has now acknowledged, that performing pro bono legal services is one of the highest and proudest traditions of our legal system and our legal profession. Meaningful access to effective counsel, by those least able to afford or obtain such access, is crucial to ensuring that justice is done.
“And let me tell you that this general counsel, for one, is not about to retaliate against law firms that do unpopular pro bono work. In fact, when I look at law firms, I give credit to firms that have strong records for doing and supporting pro bono, for promoting diversity, and for being committed to the values that we as a company stand for.”
Lawyers are not their clients. Their client’s acts – proven or unproven, petty or heinous – should not be morphed into stains on the character of the lawyers who represent them.
The right to representation when deprivation of liberty is at issue is engrained in the deepest bedrock of Anglo-American legal system. It is also amalgamated into international law including the Geneva Conventions (the applicability of which accords to the detainees at Guantanamo has been recognized in principle by at least a plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court in recent cases).
If we fancy ourselves a model for other governments and seek to spread notions of democracy to other venues, surely we cannot be seen to abandon rashly fundamental human rights when a threat is presented. If basic justice is permitted to sink precipitately in the face of stressful events, the waves of that subduction will have broader consequences.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Lawyer Stimson should, but apparently does not, fully understand that truth. Government Official Stimson needs to measure his words against the damage they can do. We all need to make certain we do not let righteous anger about terrorism devolve into reckless abandonment of our own core values.