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Harvard professor loses post for defending an unpopular client


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Harvard professor loses post for defending an unpopular client

  • Simon Liu isn’t a sex offender. But he’s still on the registry for life.

  • Queens DA candidates compete for ‘most progressive’

  • Klobuchar will push for hundreds of millions of dollars for police

  • Indiana law will compensate wrongly convicted people

In the Spotlight

Harvard professor loses post for defending an unpopular client

As soon as it was revealed earlier this year that a house faculty dean at Harvard University, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., had decided to join the legal team of Harvey Weinstein, students spoke out. Two undergraduates wrote an op-ed in The Crimson, calling on Harvard to “remove” Sullivan, because he chose to defend Weinstein, “the man whose infamous sexual misconduct and assault of over a dozen women initiated the #MeToo movement.” The students say that they “condemn Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein” while serving as dean, and “further condemn the Harvard administration’s inaction.” [Danu A. Mudannayake and Remedy Ryan / Harvard Crimson]

Petitions and other expressions of student outrage quickly followed,” writes Lara Bazelon for Slate. Hundreds of students protested. Harvard listened. Last Saturday, Harvard announced that it would not renew the appointments of Sullivan and his wife, lecturer Stephanie Robinson, as faculty deans of an undergraduate residence, although both will stay on as professors. “Sullivan and Robinson have served in those roles for a decade and are the first Black professors in Harvard’s history to receive faculty dean appointments.” [Lara Bazelon / Slate]

Sullivan is among the most high-profile criminal-defense lawyers in the country. He has devoted much of his career to representing less-privileged defendants. He is the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School and previously served as the director of the Washington, D.C., Public Defender Service. After Hurricane Katrina, he helped free thousands of people who had been incarcerated without due process. [Isaac Chotiner / New Yorker]

A Harvard spokesperson said the decision “was informed by a number of considerations,” but students celebrated it as a “win” for the #MeToo movement. “This win—even if it is localized to our campus—means a lot for a lot of other people. It empowers voices that constantly are criticized,” said Danu A.K. Mudannayake, one of the lead student protesters.

But it isn’t a win, especially not for the disempowered. “It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else—perhaps even more important,” Sullivan wrote in an email to students after the controversy broke out. “To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be.”

Bazelon agrees. “The decision to jettison Sullivan and Robinson … is craven, foolish, and sends the wrong message to academics who also practice law: If your clients aren’t likeable enough, your students may get upset and your school will throw you—and the Sixth Amendment—under the bus.”

Sullivan told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner that even though many students support him, they “feel as though they cannot say anything publicly because they will be tarred and feathered as ‘rape sympathizers.’ ” When asked whether defending wealthy, white people implicated any of the same asymetrical power dynamics at play in public defense, Sullivan said, “I’m not aware of any criminal defendant who has power in the system. That is particularly true with respect to criminal defendants who are very unpopular. They tend to be the least powerful people in the system.” He added, “even with rich defendants, their resources pale in comparison to the resources of the government, which has an entire prosecutorial office and law enforcement at its disposal.” [Isaac Chotiner / New Yorker]

Sullivan is not the first to lose a prestigious post for representing an unpopular client. In 2014, civil rights attorney Debo Adegbile suffered a “shocking” defeat, when the Senate, including seven Democrats, voted against confirming him as head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. During the months prior, according to the Guardian, he was consistently “slammed on conservative talk radio, Fox News, and far-right internet news aggregators as a racist political opportunist whose nomination by President Obama represented a ‘hate crime against our nation’s police.’” What had he done? He was the head of the Legal Defense Fund in 2009, when the NAACP took on the death penalty case of the radical activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted of killing a police officer. The NAACP argued Abu-Jamal hadn’t received a fair trial, and a federal appeals court would eventually agree, but this did not matter to the angry mob. [Randy LoBasso / The Guardian]

“Lawyers have always been vilified for taking on unpopular clients, but, in the #MeToo era, defense lawyers endanger their good standing even in the most liberal communities, Harvard being only one example,” writes Jeannie Suk Gersen wrote in the New Yorker. “Due process for the accused isn’t always easy to stomach. In September, 2001, I was a law student, and, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, I remember sitting in a class discussion over whether indefinite detention and torture were appropriate ways to deal with terror suspects. How could I dare raise the question of their civil rights? These people could be plotting another mass murder.” Over the following years, accused terrorists inspired fierce public scorn, but their lawyers, too, “were denounced as enemies of national security.” Today, “lawyers for alleged sexual predators occupy the position as those for terror suspects—considered guilty by association. As with terror trials, these #MeToo cases will have lasting implications for constitutional law and criminal procedure.” [Jeannie Suk Gersen / New Yorker]

They will also deter many attorneys from taking on cases. Indeed, Sullivan has already stepped down from Weinstein’s legal team.

“Lawyers are not extensions or alter egos of their clients,” Sullivan told the New Yorker. “Also, lawyers do not represent the ideology of their clients. Rather, lawyers are engaged in a long-standing tradition of service to people accused by the state. Just as surgeons don’t decline to work on people because they’re bad, lawyers too have these same obligations once they undertake a representation.”

Over my years as a public defender, I represented people facing many kinds of charges: trespassing and drug possession, but also assault, domestic violence, attempted murder, and rape. In my personal life, not a single family member or friend conflated me with the accusations hurled at my clients. No one stopped inviting me over for dinner. But plenty of people, especially, as it happens, older relatives, would ask me, “But what do you do when your client is guilty?” To me, this question indicates that many have not internalized the promise conferred by the Sixth Amendment: due process for everyone.

One of the graffiti messages around campus asked Sullivan, “Whose side are you on?” This question is critical. The idea that some people are not deserving of due process seems culturally proscribed. To some on the right, the undeserving include immigrants, poor people, and people of color. Some on the left would, apparently, deprive due process to those accused of abuses of power, including sex crimes.

But as Gersen points out, the left is placing a lot of stock in the criminal legal system, which they would never think to do when it comes to prosecutions of lower-income people of color. They “want and expect the courts to deliver decisions that will truly address the scope of sexual violence in our society. But, as any lawyer knows, many #MeToo cases will not end in legal vindication.” Lawyers know this because cases can fall apart when subjected to scrutiny in court.

But anyone who has ever been skeptical of the criminal system should know this, and should know that vilifying attorneys, discarding safeguards, and demanding severe sentences will not lead to the power shift that progressives seek. Instead, it will further entrench the very power and privilege that they work to dissipate.

Stories From The Appeal

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Simon Liu Isn’t a Sex Offender. But He’s Still on the Registry For Life. California’s expansive registry law forces people to pay for crimes they didn’t personally commit. [Kyle C. Barry]

Stories From Around the Country

Queens DA candidates compete for ‘most progressive’: Over 160 languages are spoken among Queens’s more than 2 million inhabitants, and the seven candidates competing in the June 25 Democratic primary for prosecutor are generally promising a change toward progressive prosecution. The district attorney, Richard Brown, died May 4 after a long career “on the more punitive end of all prosecutors in New York City,” according to one activist. In stark contrast to Brown, Tiffany Cabán, a Latinx public defender, “has been the breakout star of the race, not unlike her fellow Queens progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” writes Ross Barkan for The Nation. The Queens Democratic machine supports Melinda Katz, the borough president, who has also promised reform, as has City Councilmember Rory Lancman, who has been particularly vocal on criminal justice issues. And Jose Nieves, a former prosecutor with the New York attorney general’s office, also wants to close jails. Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, and Gregory Lasak, are all former prosecutors. Lasak “is the most conservative Democrat but quietly set up an initiative to review wrongful convictions when he worked for Brown.” Cabán and Lancman are more willing to directly confront Brown’s legacy, though they part ways on prosecuting sex workers and their clients (Lancman would, Cabán would not). “Everybody in the race is labeling themselves as ‘progressive prosecutors,’” said Cabán. “It’s lost all meaning, but for me, what I like to talk about more is decarceral prosecutors.” [Ross Barkan / The Nation]

Klobuchar will push for hundreds of millions of dollars for police: Weeks after Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar unveiled her criminal justice reform platform, she is introducing a police-backed measure to reauthorize part of the infamous 1994 crime law. Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate for president, has been criticized for her history as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, and tried to counter that with a plan to release some incarcerated people by creating a clemency advisory board and installing a presidential adviser to advocate for reform. But now Klobuchar is working on a measure endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations, which would authorize $400 million a year for a hiring program under the Community Oriented Policing Services office, or COPS. In theory, the program encourages community policing by providing grants to “community policing professionals.” But it would be a $247 million increase over last year, and comes at a time when crime rates are at historic lows. In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee sent in April, critics including the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, the NAACP, and the Sentencing Project, wrote: “The COPS program has outlived its purpose and contributes to the epidemic of mass incarceration that has devastated communities across the nation.” [Akela Lacy / The Intercept]

Indiana law will compensate wrongly convicted people: Indiana’s governor has signed a law that will grant wrongly incarcerated people monetary compensation and the same transitional services available to other formerly incarcerated people. Republican Greg Steuerwald, the bill’s author, said the idea is to help make exonerees whole after years of their lives were wrongfully taken by the state. Qualifying exonerees would be entitled to $50,000 per year for every year of incarceration. [Olivia Covington / Indiana Lawyer]

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