ABA President James R. Silkenat urged Republican Governors Association (RGA) Chair Gov. Chris Christie to retract a new video ad aired last month that vilifies South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen for his work as a criminal defense attorney.
Sheheen, a South Carolina state senator, is running against incumbent Gov. Nikki Haley.
“A fundamental tenet of America’s justice system and constitution is that anyone who faces loss of liberty has a right to legal counsel,” Silkenat wrote in an April 25 letter to the RGA and Christie. “Lawyers have an ethical obligation to uphold that principle and provide zealous representation to people who otherwise would stand alone against the power and resources of the government – even to those accused or convicted of terrible crimes,” he said. Rule 1.2 (b) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that “[a] lawyer’s representation of a client, including representation by appointment, does not constitute an endorsement of the client’s political, economic, social or moral views or activities.”
Silkenat said that this legal ethics provision is also consistent with long-standing American legal tradition. He pointed out that for hundreds of years, dating back to John Adams’ passionate defense of British soldiers after the 1770 Boston Massacre, “we have valued the importance of legal representation, even for those who are disfavored by society.” The RGA ad, Silkenat said, 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.
South Carolina Bar President Anne Paylor, in a statement issued April 22, announced that the state bar has launched a website to educate the public and help defend the legal profession against blanket political attacks against lawyers performing their professional duties. Both Silkenat and Paylor emphasized that their organizations do not endorse political candidates. The presidents of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and New Jersey State Bar Association also sent letters critical of the ad to their governors, both of whom are members of the RGA.
Earlier this year, Silkenat also voiced ABA concern over the harsh criticism regarding the legal work of Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department Civil Rights Division. The Senate failed to invoke cloture on Adegbile’s nomination March 5 after many opponents based their opposition to his nomination on his legal work on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The Legal Defense Fund became involved in Abu-Jamal’s appeal of his death in 2006 when Adegbile was director of litigation for the organization.
“Adegbile’s work, like the work of ABA members who provide thousands of hours of pro bono legal services every year, is consistent with the finest tradition of this country’s legal profession and should be commended, not condemned,” Silkenat wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to the committee’s 10-8 vote approving the nomination in February.