An Attack on the Rule of Law Itself

The difference between mob rule and democracy can be summed up in three words: rule of law.

And the rule of law would mean nothing without an independent court system, the presumption of innocence, and the right to an effective legal defense for anyone who stood accused of a crime. This is all that stands between governments that could disappear citizens on the mere suspicion of a crime and a judicial process that, while far from perfect, preserves at least the concept of fairness.

This concept of fairness stands on a three legged tool in our legal process: the burden on the prosecution, a trial by a jury, and the mandate for the defense counsel to represent the interest of their client with full vigor, regardless of how they personally feel about representing a given defendant.

In 1975, Hillary Clinton - then Hillary Rodham - represented a man accused of raping a 12 year old girl, and conservative - as well as mainstream - media are suddenly all abuzz about the horror of a 27-year old member of the Bar in Arkansas doing the job she was assigned by judge: defending the client she was assigned. How could she have represented a man accused of raping a child? How could she have sought a psychiatric evaluation of the victim? How could she laugh about her faith in polygraph being destroyed by her client, who she helped plea bargain (and who served a year in jail and a year probation), passing the test?

For a lot of the media consternation, the discussion has revolved around whether or not the present day presumptive Democratic nominee accepted the assignment early in her legal career happily or with a qualm (though evidence suggests the latter). But few in the media are actually talking about what actually matters: that without the contribution of lawyers like her, the very foundation of our justice system would be dismantled, that the effective work of criminal defense alone can assure due process, and that as such, the work of representing defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers is noble work.

A brilliant mind with a bright future of her own, Hillary Rodham could have done anything, gone anywhere after she finished law school at Yale in 1973. But she chose to continue to pursue her passion in children's issues with the Children's Defense Fund. She battled public corruption at the highest levels when she was counsel to the House committee pursuing Nixon's impeachment. She taught law, and even when she joined a prestigious law firm, she continued to represent children's interests pro-bono. She founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

And yes, once she also was assigned a case to represent an individual who stood accused of a heinous crime (and eventually did time), and did her job: to give her client the best defense she could without regard to the fact that this wasn't a client she chose.

We do not have this adversarial system of legal representation of criminal defendants for the sake of the criminals. We have this system to ensure that those granted awesome and necessary powers to prosecute crimes and put people behind bars are held accountable to the Constitutional guarantee of due process. We have this system for our own sake - for the sake of ensuring that we continue to live in a democratic society.

And every time the sincere work of a defense attorney for a client who does not have all the money in the world to hire their own high-paid lawyer is politicized simply because the defense attorney is good at their job, we chip away at the foundation of that great cornerstone of American justice. Every time we allow the people who do that work to be maligned, we acquiesce to an attack on the rule of law itself.

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