Attacking Firms That Represent Guantanamo Detainees

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler notes a Washington Post editorial discussing an interview given by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Cully Stimson. According to the report, Stimson pointed to a recent FOIA request seeking the names of law firms representing detainees in Guantanamo, adding, "You know what, it's shocking . . . . I think, quite honestly, when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms . . . ." Not content to rest there, Stimson suggested that while some firms would "maintain" that they were taking these cases "out of the goodness of their heart," "others are receiving monies from who knows where, and I'd be curious to have them explain that."

Adler expresses the hope that Stimson was "shooting from the hip, rather than expressing official policy." So do I -- although I would note a piece of the story Adler misses: that the Wall Street Journal ran a column today by a member of its editorial board, in which "a senior U.S. official I spoke to" toes a similar line. The writer, in his words, says the official "speculates that this information [about white-shoe firms representing detainees] might cause something of [a] scandal, since so much of the pro bono work being done to tilt the playing field in favor of al Qaeda appears to be subsidized by legal fees from the Fortune 500." (emphasis added) Of course, the nameless official might be Stimson yet again. Still, let us hope, again, that this is not someone's idea of a government talking point, or a device to rally hardcore supporters.

I admit to flirting with the view that big firms should either cease doing pro bono work, while effectively paying others to do it for them, or at least limit themselves to pro bono work closer to their areas of specialization. And I certainly think there are reasons of self-interest, having to do with training, associate hiring and retention, and the need to ease cognitive dissonance, that are involved in firms taking on pro bono work of particular kinds; those reasons have nothing to do with the dark motives Stimson suggests, but are not exactly about "the goodness of their heart[s]" either. But I can only share Adler's view that Stimson's attack is just plain wrong. As Adler says: "All individuals, even suspected terrorists, are entitled to a capable legal defense when subjected to legal process, and it is wrong to impugn attorneys on the basis of the clients they represent."

Adler notes one irony in Stimson's insinuating attack on those firms representing the detainees: that this administration has defended its judicial nominees from similar attacks by arguing that an attorney should not be judged by the position of his clients. I would add a second, targeted particularly at views like that of the WSJ editorialist above, who glibly describes these firms as working to "tilt the playing field in favor of al Qaeda." That suggests that providing counsel within the legal process to a person accused of acts of terrorism is nothing more than a collaboration with wrongdoing. Presumably, then, when a lawyer or law firm represents a "reputable firm" that is similarly accused of wrongdoing, it is again nothing more than an agent of wrongdoing, never mind that the process has not yet reached any final conclusion about the wrongness of the underlying conduct. Yet I doubt the editorialist, or the Wall Street Journal, would take a similar position with respect to law firms representing white-collar defendants. Indeed, that paper has been vociferous in attacking government tactics, like the Thompson Memorandum, aimed at undermining the provision of legal defenses for individuals and firms accused in white-collar cases. Of course, the alleged conduct at issue with respect to the Guantanamo detainees is much graver than that at issue in the white-collar cases. But so, too, the hurdles to the provision of legal process are far graver in the detainee cases, and papers like the Journal have been outraged by even the far more limited obstructions of legal process involved in the white-collar cases.

No, the principle remains the same either way. One believes that people are entitled to legal counsel or one does not; one believes that lawyers are entitled to provide that counsel without the taint of association or one does not. I would have thought that Mr. Cully, a lawyer, was fully familiar with Rule 1.2(b) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and similar state provisions, and would side with the former views. I see now that I would have been mistaken in thinking so.