We have recently discussed attacks on lawyers for simply doing their jobs in representing accused individuals. It is truly vile and McCarthyist trend that seeks to punish professional working within our criminal justice system. It is particularly offensive therefore when a large, presumably respectable organization unleashed such an attack. However, that is precisely what the Republican Governors Association has done in the attack ad below against State Senator Vincent Sheheen (left) who is being opposed because he represented people accused of crimes. To its credit, the South Carolina Bar Association has stepped forward to denounce the ad as containing “uncivil, misleading political rhetoric.” It is a shameful and shocking ad that attacks the very notion of due process guaranteed by our Constitution. The ad is designed to help Gov. Nikki Haley in her reelection campaign.
The ad proclaims that “Sheheen defended violent criminals who abused women and went to work setting them free.”
Eager to join the mob in attacking these due process values has been the South Carolina Republican party which issued a press release entitled “New Research Shows Vince Sheheen Defended Sex Offenders, Child Molesters, and Spouse Abusers for Pay.” Even Eugene McCarthy would blush at the premise of the campaign: Sheheen should be opposed simply because he agreed to represent those accused of crimes. It states:
Candidate-Vince wants to be governor and wants South Carolinians to entrust him with the oversight of our pardons and parole system, yet lawyer-Vince has proven he will sell out South Carolinas children, women, and victims if it means he can personally cash a paycheck.
But there is a lot more to Vince’s profiting from defending hardened criminals than The State’s recent report indicates.
And South Carolinians deserve to know exactly who Vince Sheheen is and what that means before casting a vote in this year’s general election. Let me walk you through new information that court records has revealed about the kind of work Vince Sheheen does for money.
They then detail with breathless rhetoric how Sheenen was . . . wait for it . . . a criminal defense attorney.
Attacks on this kind are used to deter young lawyers from defending criminal defendants. The message is clear: if you accept an appointment or a client in a criminal case, you will be making yourself ineligible for any public office. Already, the federal and state courts are heavily populated by former prosecutors while few former criminal defense attorneys are even considered for the bench.
The South Carolina Republicans ignore the possibility that some people might actually be innocent and that being accused by the government does not make you guilty. Yet, GOP chairman Matt Moore dismisses any notion that the attack ads raise any issues of “due process or the right to have counsel, . . . It’s about someone who wants to represent South Carolina not standing up for our citizens. He could have stood with abuse victims and exploited children and instead took a paycheck. Vincent Sheheen made a choice that was wrong.” That wrong choice was simply being a criminal defense attorney. Yet, Moore does not think that that has anything to do with the right of counsel.
Of course, those criminal defense attorneys that defended such Republican politicians like Tom DeLay, Ted Stevens, David Vitter, and others presumably are not bottom feeding, corruption loving lawyers.
The RGA Communications Director Gail Gitcho is fueling the anti-lawyer and anti-due process theme: “Actions speak louder than words . . . As he attempts to court voters with ‘tough on crime’ and ‘defender of women’ rhetoric, they should remember Vincent Sheheen has fought for the very same criminals he now decries, not for South Carolina.” Gitcho’s comments are being made (as is this campaign) in the name of all GOP governors from Chris Christie to Bobby Jindal and others. They should all be asked why they have not denounced this campaign and held accountable those who would seek to demonize candidates for simply being defense lawyers. Notably prior and current Republican candidates have represented criminal defendants. Ironically, when Arlen Specter switches parties in 2009, conservatives demanded that his representation of the notorious Ira Einhorn be raised in the campaign.
The South Carolina Bar has taken an apparently unprecedented step and condemned an attack ad. It includes a simple fact sheet with such obvious points that “Lawyers have a professional duty to ensure that justice is not rationed but is available to everyone, a right guaranteed to each of us by the Constitution. It is the job of a criminal defense lawyer to ensure his or her client has a fair trial, not to defend the crime.”
The absence of a national condemnation of this campaign from Republicans is equally astonishing. I realize that politics in this country has become a blind rage from both parties, but there has to be limits. When we start to demonize people for fulfilling constitutional functions, we have descended to a new level of self-destructive, hateful debate. The campaign by the RGA and the South Carolina GOP truly shocks the conscience. The same campaign could have been used against John Adams for representing the British soldiers accused in the Boston massacre. It follows the principle that all is far in love and politics. However, when you start to effectively campaign against core American values of due process and the right to counsel, you have reached lost all sense of propriety and proportion. I am most shocked that GOP lawyers must have played some role in this attack on our profession in the development of the campaign.
The Republican party has strived to convince the public that it is not an extremist or radical organization after being painted by a series of embarrassing candidates in the last election. Yet, many independents are likely to recoil at this crude and thoughtless campaign.
I will leave you with the words of Joseph Welsh who faced Joe McCarthy on June 9, 1954, the 30th day of the Army–McCarthy hearings. Until that day, politicians thought that the public would continue to rally around the attacks on filmmakers and others who were paraded before Congress. However, the public saw for the first time the hatred and ignorance behind these attacks in the televised hearing and they were as repulsed as Welch.
As I watched this disgraceful ad, Welch’s final words seemed all to prophetic and poignant: