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.