Clinton, Trump, and a Lawyer’s Obligations

Clinton, Trump, and a Lawyer’s Obligations

Any attempt to put down in writing Donald Trump’s crimes against reason and decency would result in a tome the size of a major city’s phone book, so I won’t try to do that here. But there was a component of the great orange carnival barker’s side show last week that really irked me, mostly because I am an attorney. I believe this issue is particularly significant due to the fact that Trump is not alone in his ignorance of basic legal principles, and so a short primer on the subject might be helpful to others as well.
As most people know, before last Sunday’s debate Trump conducted an event with four women who claimed to have suffered at the hands of Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, (only one of whom, it should be pointed out, is actually running for president this year). Three of the women at Trump’s event claimed to have been assaulted by Bill Clinton, but the fourth woman’s story was quite different. Kathy Shelton was at the event to complain about Hillary Clinton, who had provided legal representation to a man whom Ms. Shelton had accused of rape.
As New York is the state in which I am licensed to practice law, I am most familiar with New York’s Lawyers’ Code of Professional Responsibility, but many states have adopted most or all of a Uniform Model Code of Legal Ethics, and so such rules are quite similar from state to state. In pertinent part, New York’s rules state: “In furtherance of the directive of the bar to make legal services fully available, a lawyer shall not lightly decline proffered employment…. Regardless of personal feelings, a lawyer should not decline representation because a client or a cause is unpopular, or community reaction is adverse. 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. When a lawyer is appointed by a court… to undertake representation of a person unable to obtain counsel… the lawyer should not seek to be excused from undertaking the representation except for compelling reasons. Compelling reasons do not include such factors as the repugnance of the subject matter of the proceeding… (or) the belief of the lawyer that the defendant in a criminal proceeding is guilty”.
So as you can see, Hillary Clinton Esq., in accepting the case for which she was appointed by the court, was fulfilling her obligation as a practicing attorney. Furthermore, our justice system presumes that a person is innocent until and unless proven guilty. So when asked to defend the person in question, attorney Clinton was obligated to presume that the person was not guilty, and was further obligated to take their case even if they had strong doubts as to whether that was true. Moreover, attacks on attorneys for representing unpopular clients (and therefore obeying the rules) are self-defeating. It is reasonable to assume that people who criticize attorneys for representing clients who are accused of heinous crimes, want those defendants to be punished (although they often seem gloss over the conviction after trial part so they can get to the punishment part). But according to our constitutional principles, a person cannot be punished until they have been convicted after a fair trial, and they cannot receive a fair trial unless they are represented by competent counsel. So that very person whom some want to see in prison cannot be incarcerated unless an attorney has the courage to risk attacks from know-nothings (like Donald Trump) and provide competent counsel to a defendant, regardless of how terrible the crimes of which they are accused. Attorneys who take on such cases should be praised for helping the criminal justice system to function properly despite potential damage to their careers and reputations from fools who have no idea how the justice system actually works.

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