The Republican Governors’ Association, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), launched an attack ad in South Carolina this week that strayed far from American norms – and by some measures, might even be considered dangerous.
The RGA targeted gubernatorial hopeful Vincent Sheheen, an accomplished lawyer who’s worked both as a prosecutor and a criminal-defense attorney, and who’s now taking on incumbent Gov. Nikki Haley (R). But what matters most in this case is how the RGA went after him – Republicans are telling voters Sheheen “defended violent criminals,” and “protects criminals, not South Carolina.”
At its most basic level, the American tradition rejects tactics like these – because the Constitution guarantees a proper defense for all, attorneys aren’t supposed to be judged based on the crimes of their clients. We’ve embraced this basic principle since before we were even our own country.
And as Rachel explained on the show the other day, whenever the right has lost sight of this, responsible voices have called them out. Indeed, as recently as 2010, when Liz Cheney and other far-right voices targeted Justice Department nominees over their backgrounds as defense attorneys, a group of prominent conservative lawyers including nine former Bush administration officials, Ken Starr, and a founder of the Federalist Society released an outraged statement calling attacks on these lawyers “shameful,” saying they “undermine the American justice system.”
Who would do the same now in light of the RGA’s ugly ad in South Carolina? Fortunately, some are stepping up.
A lawyer representing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee in connection with the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal is condemning an attack ad released by the Christie-led Republican Governors Association that goes after an attorney based on the conduct of his clients.“I did watch the ad and, wow, it’s a disgrace,” Robert D. Luskin, a partner at Patton Boggs, told The Huffington Post in an email. “The people who talk incessantly about American exceptionalism ought to demonstrate some understanding – and some respect – for what makes our system truly admirable: that includes the willingness of lawyers to stand up for their clients no matter how ugly the allegation. But a lawyer is only, ever an advocate; he’s not a co-conspirator or an enabler.”
For a lawyer representing Christie’s campaign to condemn a message from Christie’s RGA clearly gives this some added weight, but Luskin isn’t alone.
Charlie Condon, for example, is the former South Carolina Attorney General and the former chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association, and he too believes this ad is a mistake. He called on Haley to “have this ad taken down.”
The non-partisan South Carolina Bar Association is pushing back even harder.
The bar launched a website counteracting a Republican Governors Association ad, which began airing statewide Monday, that condemns Sheheen as protecting criminals. It’s an unprecedented move for a nonpolitical organization to which every South Carolina attorney must belong, with more than 15,000 members statewide. […]Association President Alice Paylor said campaigns should be about issues, not bashing lawyers for providing people their constitutional right to legal representation.“That’s a basic tenet of the Constitution,” she said Wednesday. “What they’re attacking is the whole basis for the U.S. and the U.S. Constitution. According to them, I guess everyone accused of something is automatically guilty.”
Update: a link to the Bar Association’s site is right here.
Despite all of this, the Christie’s Republican Governors Association is standing by the ad and refusing to take it down. The South Carolina Republican Party also continues to argue that Sheheen’s criminal-defense work is evidence that the attorney is “not standing up for our citizens” and that it “was wrong” for Sheheen to represent clients accused of heinous crimes.
The Haley campaign said Sheheen had a right to represent the accused, “just like South Carolinians have the right to know exactly who Vince is and who he chose to represent when they vote for governor.”