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Controversy continues over political candidate in South Carolina representing violent criminals

Legal organizations weigh in on lawyers’ responsibility to represent unpopular clients

Is it fair game for political opponents to attack a lawyer who represented clients accused of illegal and sometimes violent acts against adults and children?

The Republican Governors Association thinks so, but lawyers groups in South Carolina and nationally disagree.

Already, the South Carolina Bar Association is working on TV ads that defend “the legal profession.” These ads are in response to the Republican group’s ads aimed at state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat. He is running against incumbent Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

In response to the controversy, South Carolina Bar Association President Alice Paylor issued a statement, which says in part, “It is the job of a criminal defense lawyer to ensure his or her client has a fair trial, not to defend the crime.”

“Members of the South Carolina Bar fall all along the political spectrum, and as such, the Bar does not pledge support for political candidates. Irrespective of party lines, candidates and those supporting them should present their own credentials and experience and allow intelligent voters to make informed decisions as to how to vote based on those facts…. Lawyers promote good government and economic growth. They represent the individual, the small business, the larger entities and the government. Some of those individuals are the poorest in our communities, and lawyers go to court for them without charge,” the statement adds.

In addition, the American Bar Association has weighed in on the controversy, too. ABA President James R. Silkenat wrote to the Republican Governors Association and its chair, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), in an effort to retract the ad.

"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 said in the statement. "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."

“The message the ad sends is wrong in the context of the American system of justice, and it must be rejected," the letter added. “The Republican Governors Association ad 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. Voters who subsequently pass judgment on the candidate for the singular reason that he was a competent lawyer are disqualifying him from public service. On the contrary, lawyers who represent unpopular or guilty clients demonstrate the kind of courage and confidence in our legal system that characterizes the finest public servants.”

But South Carolina Republicans so far appear to find no reason to pull the ad.

"This is not about due process or the right to have counsel. It's about someone who wants to represent South Carolina not standing up for our citizens," state GOP Chairman Matt Moore was quoted in news reports. "He could have stood with abuse victims and exploited children and instead took a paycheck. Vincent Sheheen made a choice that was wrong."

"This is fair game," Moore added in a recent press conference. "He simply took these clients to make money. We think he's not fit to serve as governor."

Also, Haley's campaign spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said, “South Carolinians have the right to know exactly who Vince is and who he chose to represent when they vote for governor."

On the other hand, Sheheen said he wanted to have diverse cases in his legal career.

"I tried to experience every type of case I could whether it was prosecution, defense, or civil because that's what I think a lawyer should do," Sheheen was quoted in news reports. "It's a lawyer's obligation to take on many types of cases during their career to uphold the values of the Constitution."

Also, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, a Republican, tweeted recently Haley, "should have this ad taken down."

"The basis of our whole constitutional system is that it's a noble calling, it's a really positive profession, positive calling, to be a lawyer and particularly a criminal defense lawyer," Condon added.

 

Further reading:

 

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Contributing Author

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Ed Silverstein

Ed Silverstein is a veteran writer and editor for magazines, websites and newspapers. A graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he has won several...

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