If you want to run for office someday, you better not believe that everyone is entitled to legal counsel before the government locks them away. Or, at least, that's the message sent by a new Republican Governors Association ad targeting Vincent Sheheen, a former prosecutor who now represents civil and criminal clients in private practice. Sheheen is a Democratic candidate for governor against incumbent Nikki Haley (R-SC). The RGA's ad attacks Sheheen for "defend[ing] violent criminals" and ends with the tagline, "Vincent Sheheen protects criminals, not South Carolina."
In early March, the Senate rejected Debo Adegbile, President Obama's nominee as an assistant attorney general, in large part because members in both parties forgot a rather basic American principle: attorneys are not supposed to be judged by the crimes of their clients.
In the case of Adegbile's nomination, we saw an extremely well-qualified attorney with a classic American background -- he's the child of a mixed-race family, who overcame poverty to become an accomplished Supreme Court litigator -- who was nevertheless rejected by the Senate. Adegbile worked on the legal team that successfully persuaded a federal court to commute Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence.
Fox News labeled him a "cop killer coddler" and soon after, every Republican in the Senate opposed his nomination. They were joined by seven Democrats -- enough to derail Adegbile's confirmation hopes.
It was a shameful display, which apparently is repeating itself, not in the Senate, but in South Carolina.
Ed Kilgore noticed, "In an especially despicable little twist, the anonymous narrator of this ad twice notes that Sheheen was paid for defending 'violent criminals who abused women.' Would it have been better if he had represented them for free?"
The entirety of the ad is online here.
Those responsible for airing it really ought to be ashamed of themselves.
It's as if much of the right, for all of its talk about celebrating constitutional conservatism, has chosen to forget the basics of the American justice system. Defense attorneys serve a vital, noble role in American jurisprudence. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that in "all criminal prosecutions," the accused will "have the Assistance of Counsel" for a competent defense.
How is it, exactly, that some conservatives now believe providing a defense for those accused of crimes is somehow a disqualifier for public office?
To be sure, the point isn't that Sheheen's clients were good people, but rather, that these defendants deserved representation -- because everyone does, no matter how heinous their suspected crimes. The Republican Governors Association, which created this ugly attack ad, must understand this at some level -- the RGA is led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who's hired some defense attorneys of his own recently.
This is, for lack of a better word, bonkers. In 1770, John Adams provided the defense for eight British soldiers accused of the murders in the Boston Massacre. It didn't mean Adams was un-American. It didn't even stop Adams from later becoming president.
More recently, John Roberts did pro-bono work on behalf of a man recently executed for mass murder. It didn't stop the Bush/Cheney nominating him to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court and it didn't stop Senate Republicans from embracing him en masse.
The right appears to be inching closer to a new standard: it's all right to defend the accused in court, just don't defend anyone unpopular unless you're ready to get smeared later.
Conservatives have a responsibility to speak out against such transparent nonsense -- and that includes South Carolina Nikki Haley (R), the intended beneficiary of the RGA's ugly ad.