White House Tries Economic Pressure on Lawyers Representing Guantanamo Detainees

I’m sorry, but this is just disgusting. Now that there’s a real chance that the might lose in the courts, the White House is trying to put the economic screws on lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees.

This radio interview with Cully Stimson, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, heralds the start of an organized campaign by the White House to encourage major law firm clients to pressure those firms to drop their pro-bono representation of Guantanamo detainees.

The Washington Post had a forceful editorial about this today, which says almost everything that needs saying:

MOST AMERICANS understand that legal representation for the accused is one of the core principles of the American way. Not, it seems, Cully Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. In a repellent interview yesterday with Federal News Radio, Mr. Stimson brought up, unprompted, the number of major U.S. law firms that have helped represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

“Actually you know I think the news story that you’re really going to start seeing in the next couple of weeks is this: As a result of a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request through a major news organization, somebody asked, ‘Who are the lawyers around this country representing detainees down there,’ and you know what, it’s shocking,” he said.

Mr. Stimson proceeded to reel off the names of these firms, adding, “I think, quite honestly, when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.”

Asked who was paying the firms, Mr. Stimson hinted of dark doings. “It’s not clear, is it?” he said. “Some will maintain that they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, that they’re doing it pro bono, and I suspect they are; others are receiving monies from who knows where, and I’d be curious to have them explain that.”

It might be only laughable that Mr. Stimson, during the interview, called Guantanamo “certainly, probably, the most transparent and open location in the world.”

But it’s offensive — shocking, to use his word — that Mr. Stimson, a lawyer, would argue that law firms are doing anything other than upholding the highest ethical traditions of the bar by taking on the most unpopular of defendants. It’s shocking that he would seemingly encourage the firms’ corporate clients to pressure them to drop this work. And it’s shocking — though perhaps not surprising — that this is the person the administration has chosen to oversee detainee policy at Guantanamo.

It’s true that the list of law firms donating time to representing the victims of torture, humiliation (and a total lack of due process) at Guantanamo reads a bit like a who’s who of the elite of the corporate bar. And they deserve credit for it.

I’d just add one thing: the first firm to cave on this issue is going to find it awfully hard to recruit elite law students, as they will have demonstrated a serious lack of moral fiber. If you won’t stand up for your most desperate clients, what kind of firm are you?

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10 Responses to White House Tries Economic Pressure on Lawyers Representing Guantanamo Detainees

  1. Lindsay says:

    I had never heard of Cully Stimpson until I read this post–forgive me, I am just a dumb foreigner. But I did a Google search, and I discovered he is a lawyer (or at least was before his current post, and possibly aims to practice his profession in the future). Now where I am from (the UK) these comments about his learned friends could well (as I understand it) be interpreted as a breach of professional ethics. Might this also be the case in the US? If so, should this be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities?

  2. anon says:

    LOL! ROFL! “the first firm to cave on this issue is going to find it awfully hard to recruit elite law students, as they will have demonstrated a serious lack of moral fiber.” Good one Prof! $uper elite law $tudent$ from the be$t law $chool$ ba$e their deci$ion on a firm’$ moral fiber? UM Law Grads Do…Go Canes!

  3. AnneJ says:

    Why does Anon hate our freedom? But enough at hominem as anon does. Let’s just say that Stimpson sort of proof Anon’s point: at least we know one lawyer completely without ethics.

    Let’s keep our eye on the ball here: giving someone the US want’s to try a lawyer, is SO anti-american!

  4. I don’t think this issue is as clear cut as your post suggests – and I’ve blogged about some additional points in my post at Legal Blogwatch – http://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch/2007/01/should_law_firm.html

    Basically, I don’t agree that firms should have taken these cases as part of their pro bono programs. I believe that there are far worthier causes where their resources could be better spent. For the money that a single firm is spending to represent a single detainee, it could probably represent 3 capital defendants at trial (and avoid the imposition of a capital sentence, which is another popular pro bono focus). But firms took these cases because they’re trendy and sexy and get the firms lots of good press and make them appealing to top students.

    However, having agreed to take these cases, I do agree that the firms are absolutely obligated to follow through, irrespective of pressure. At the same time, I see nothing wrong with clients deciding to leave a firm that represents detainees, either. Client fees do subsidize pro bono and if a client doesn’t want his money spent that way, it ought to choose another firm.

  5. Michael says:

    And your view on a government official encouraging firms (many of which do business with the government) to engage in an economic boycott designed to prevent people from having representation when (1) we are (at least in come cases) torturing and (2) (arguably) holding them illegally and (3) clearly failing to give even minimal justice to them, is … what exactly?

  6. As I said in my post, whether I agree or not with the firms’ representation of the detainees, I believe the firms are now bound to follow through with representation. The detainees are their clients, entitled to the same degree of representation as multimillion dollar corporations.

    Personally, I did not view Stimson’s comments as the government threatening to cut any business ties that they might have with those law firms who chose to represent detainees, or their clients for that matter. However, assuming that your description is accurate, that’s a reality of practice that many individual and small clients face day to day. For example, at present, I am representing clients in a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit against a municipality located three hours from D.C. The reason? The suit challenges actions by the city and government, and no local attorney wanted to be associated with the case for fear that it would harm their chances for business from other local agencies in the future or even impair their ability to get court appointed assignments. I don’t think this is right, but at the same time, why should large law firms be insulated from the tough choices that small firms and solo attorneys make every day when we take on unpopular clients?

    Finally, the other reason that I don’t feel that badly here is that the law firm doesn’t have to represent the detainees and use firm resources. Individual lawyers within the firm can continue to represent these clients on their own. Back in the late 1980s, I was a government attorney and I handled a significant amount of pro bono work. At that time, the federal government did not have a formal pro bono policy, so all work that I handled, was on my own dime, using my own printer, my paper and my time. (In fact, my article, “When Helping Others Is A Crime…” Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics (1990) helped change this policy). The fact of the matter is that if I, as a government attorney making $27k could handle pro bono work on my own dime, I’m sure that lawyers working at large firms, earning far more than I did back then can do the same.

  7. Ted says:

    Partisan-first, American-second. Does this man belong on taxpayer’s payroll?

  8. Peter D. Lederer says:

    The NYT version of the story was circulated to the listserv of the American Bar Foundation’s New York members. This produced an instructive response from a military lawyer on active duty:

    “I’m going to take the liberty of commenting–I think I’m the only military officer on the list.

    This type of comment sends chills up the spines of military officers who represent detained people, too (most of them are JAG officers). Mr. Stimson is a high-ranking Navy Reserve JAG officer who teaches at senior service schools as well as being an Assistant Secretary of Defense. It seems from his remarks that he views defense work for Gitmo detainees in a negative light. I hope that his view does not reflect the views of military promotion boards, but it appears that he was not the least bit embarrassed by his remarks, so there many be many others who think the same way. I would hope that people commenting on Mr. Stimson’s behavior would consider the impact that his remarks may have on the military justice system and military lawyers, too.

    Margaret Stock”

    An effort is underway to have all ABA House of Delegates members protest to President Bush on Monday.

  9. nb in nyc says:

    Just curious, what is the issue with major law firms using their resources to represent detainees? That’s not to say they put all of their pro bono efforts towards these particular efforts…just what you are hearing about now because it’s of national concern.

    Also, how do you not see Mr. Stimson’s comments as a call to cut ties with major law firms? Would we be having this conversation if a majority of the people didn’t receive his message loud and clear?

  10. MS says:

    Stimson’s comments are repugnant.

    This legal representation is fundamental to our ideals about how our country and our legal system should work. It’s also important as part of the attempt to beat back the power grab this administration has engaged in from the earliest opportunity. And it’s important for bolstering our credibility on the world stage.

    “why should large law firms be insulated from the tough choices that small firms and solo attorneys make every day when we take on unpopular clients?” — the economic relationships are very different between (1) large firms and their corporate masters and (2) civil rights attorneys, for example, in small practices and their disadvantaged clients. (I am also a civil rights attorney, so I know this first-hand.) Stimson’s encouragement of an economic boycott is irresponsible, and accompanied by comments that are misleading at best (e.g. the remarks implying that these firms are receiving “tainted” funds as payment for the representation). The same would be true if he were encouraging boycott of firms representing capital defendants.

    Is due process really SO threatening to this administration??

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