Friday, January 26, 2007

Lawyers Prosecuting the Powerful

A couple of days ago Neil Buchanan posted a few ideas about how to sell the value of defense lawyers to the public. I don't have much to add directly on that thread, but three current cases do, it seems to me, show one great virtue of lawyers in a system of limited government: Because we lawyers consider ourselves guardians of the principle that no one is above the law, lawyers serve as a vital check against the accumulation of tyrannical power. That's conventional wisdom for defense lawyers putting the prosecution to its proof, but it's even more clearly illustrated in cases in which lawyers act to prosecute high-ranking government officials. Thus, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz sees it as his duty to prosecute the country's President, Moshe Katsav, for rape and other crimes. Likewise, special prosecutor Pat Fitzgerald is aggressively building his case against Scooter Libby, and there's little doubt that he would have gone after Rove or even Cheney if that's where the evidence led. In both cases, the prosecuting attorney has been accused of having a political ax to grind but the accusations ring hollow: Fitzgerald and Mazuz both have reputations for being tough prosecutors who follow the evidence.

The problem, of course, is that prosecutors have been known to go overboard in their pursuit of the powerful, whether it's Ken Starr's Inspector Javert-like obsession with Bill Clinton's completely inappropriate but ultimately private sexual misbehavior or Michael Nifong's single-minded quest to bring down members of the Duke lacrosse team, even if it meant withholding exculpatory evidence. How do we ensure that the likes of Fitzgerald and Mazuz are available to challenge the powerful when they need challenging without licensing Starr and Nifong?

The Madisonian answer is to counter aggressive prosecutors with equally aggressive defense attorneys. To be sure, it's hardly a perfect solution. The mere need to mount a defense can be devastating, and in cases against high-ranking public officials, the distraction of an investigation, even without a trial, can adversely affect public policy. But if supplemented by robust enforcement of professional norms -- e.g., Nifong faces the prospect of serious disciplinary action by the North Carolina bar -- setting lawyers against lawyers may be the best we can do to guard against the guardians.

12 comments:

Neil H. Buchanan said...

The Duke lacrosse case is especially interesting and relevant to the question of why so many people think that defense lawyers are amoral. Before the case fell apart, the public perception seemed to be that the accused were just overprivileged kids from rich suburbs whose daddies were buying fancy lawyers to protect their felonious sons. Once Nifong was exposed, outrage about his actions didn't seem to reflect back on the important role that the defense lawyers played. People never cease to amaze me in their ability to hold internally contradictory views.

Caleb said...

Sometimes I wonder if the central role we suggest for lawyers in the justice system is part of the public misperception.

If, as you suggested, the role of a public prosecutor is to make sure no-one is above the law, then the metaphor of a diametrically opposed defense lawyer would suggest that the defense lawyer's job was to make sure his client was above the law.

We could argue that the defense lawyer's goal was to make sure the prosecutor was not above the law, but that seems like a more nuanced point that would be harder to communicate to the public.

I am tempted by the metaphor of "scales". The defense attorney attempts to balance the scales when his client is faced by the machinery of a giant, implacable government. On the other side, the valiant public prosecutor uses his weight to rebalance the scales when the rich and powerful tip them in their favour. Of course, the problem with this is that it is often not the case; poor defendants get poor defense lawyers, rich defendants get the best, and often aren't prosecuted anyways. (Perhaps I'm being a bit too cynical).

I guess the argument that I would rely on in the end would be a process one. The legal system makes more justice available to people at all ends of the spectrum than would be available if there was no legal system. Participation in the legal process is how we build up and preserve that system. Therefore, even the high-priced defense attorney (or crazy public prosecutor) is contributing to the system in a small way (so long as he is not abusing it), and can be thought of as working for the good of even the people he doesn't represent.

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