A society cannot have justice without representation

January 13, 2007


This week, as reported by the NYT (“Official Attacks Top Law Firms Over Detainees”), the top Pentagon official overseeing the Guatanamo detainees suspected of terrorism uttered comments that are not only ethically questionable but severly damaging to a country that prides itself on the justice system.

Charles Stimson is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs and stated that he was distrubed by the fact that many lawyers in top law firms in the United States are representing “terrorists.” However, he refused to stop there. He stated that corporate CEOs should obtain the names of the law firms pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act and choose law firms that do not support this type of pro bono representation.

This is a slap in the face to the legal profession. Just as in any profession where paying for more, gets you more, it is often the case in the legal profession where rich criminal defendants receive a more favorable outcome than poorer legal defendants (query: OJ with his legal team v. OJ with a public defender). It is important that law firms encourage and permit significant hours spent on pro bono activities. Why is this a big deal where a top administration official comments when it deals with an accused terrorist rather than when it deals with an accused rapist?

Corporate CEOs should make a FOIA request to see which law firms employ attorneys who work on these cases. They should ask their outside counsel what pro bono their law firm does. When the US government significantly limits access to evidence, changes procedural rules and alters standards of proof required to avoid dismissals, these detainees are the most deserving of receiving strong legal representation.

The fact that 500 lawyers coordinated by the Center for Constitutional Rights are representing the detainees displays the value of lawyers in our society – even those making six figures at major law firms. Though on a day-to-day basis lawyers are forced to do work that many perceive as morally wrong, there are thousands of lawyers spending millions of hours to give some of the best representation to people deserving of a fair shot who could otherwise not afford it.

Mr. Stimson should not only be reprimanded by President Bush, but should be investigated by the bar for ethics violations.