September 01, 2018 Feature

All the President’s Lawyers

A look at the actions of lawyers within the Trump administration.

Steven J. Harper

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Everyone deserves a lawyer. It’s a bedrock principle of the American legal system; the centerpiece of any civilized society’s approach to criminal justice; the ethical backbone of To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel that propelled countless would-be Atticus Finches to law school.

But are there limits?

The landmark 1963 Supreme Court case involving Clarence Earl Gideon guaranteed an indigent defendant’s right to counsel in criminal cases. Yet attorneys invoke the “everyone deserves a lawyer” mantra reflexively to rationalize client representations that go far beyond that constitutional protection.

A little more reflection might be in order, especially when the client uses the world’s most powerful podium to attack the rule of law itself and enlists the support or complicity of lawyers to help him.

President Trump is entitled to legal representation. But when he undermines America’s constitutional foundation, he has no right to assistance from enablers with law degrees. Respect for the rule of law is not a partisan issue. It’s the legal profession’s animating force, central to the Constitution’s design. It is also fragile. Remove any single leg of the separation-of-powers stool and our democracy collapses.

Every law school graduate understands the implications of abandoning that principle. Forsake it and all other policy controversies fade away, as the great American experiment disappears into history’s dustbin of failed republics. The president seems indifferent to that outcome.

Unfortunately, some of the attorneys surrounding him don’t seem to care either. Perhaps the prospect of fulfilling an immediate policy agenda motivates them. Maybe the lure of future wealth or the proximity to power is overwhelming. Whatever the reason, too many lawyers have yielded to the lesser angels of their nature. As they betray their profession and the country’s founding ideals, the rest of us must call them out.

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