Last March, a handful of Democratic senators joined the entire Republican conference in refusing to confirm Debo Adegbile—the lawyer and public servant President Obama had nominated to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The political resistance stemmed from the overwhelming opposition of law enforcement organizations across the country: In his capacity as an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile headed a team that represented convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. The team failed to overturn Abu-Jamal’s conviction, but they did succeed in keeping him off death row, which infuriated the Fraternal Order of Police among others.
In a body overrun by lawyers, many of whom have represented unsavory clients in the past, this should have been a non-issue. As a matter of both legal ethics and political self-preservation, the Senate should have confirmed Adegbile, and rejected the idea that a public servant can be held to account for the actions of his clients.
Instead, these Republicans and Democrats sent a chilling message to all aspiring public servants that they should steer clear of controversy after graduating from law school. And the person who articulated this message most succinctly was one of the Senate’s elite lawyers, Ted Cruz.
“Now to be clear, Mr. President, every criminal defendant is entitled to an attorney, but Adegbile’s representation of Abu Jamal was pure advocacy,” Cruz said on the Senate floor, linking Adegbile to NAACP-supported public demonstrations on Abu-Jamal’s behalf. But the implication was clear: Some clients are so heinous that bedrock principles of justice should not fully apply to them. Some accused and convicted criminals deserve to be represented only by people who are prepared to face professional sanction for their service.
A year later, Cruz is running for president and catching some of the same flak he subjected Adegbile to. But as satisfying as it is to see Cruz’s own tactics turned against him, we shouldn't welcome it. In a column with an unfortunate headline—“As a Private Lawyer, Ted Cruz Defended Companies Found Guilty of Wrongdoing”—David Corn of Mother Jones sifts through Cruz’ legal career in the years before he became a senator.
Corn’s article has two subtexts. The first is that Cruz lacks empathy or conviction and thus didn’t learn the right lessons from his own cases. To wit: Cruz worked on behalf of a man who’d been wrongfully convicted of murder and spent years on death row, but didn’t translate that experience into political skepticism of the death penalty. He sought huge punitive damages for clients who had been badly wronged, but remains a strong proponent of tort reforms that would prohibit such large awards. And so on. This is an important view into Cruz’s mind.
Corn’s second point is that some of Cruz’ corporate clients were unsavory and will harm his pursuit of higher office.
“Cruz … has railed against ‘crony capitalism’ and decried ‘corporate welfare,’” Corn writes. “He has boasted that he authored ‘legislation to end federal dollars subsidizing corporate fat cats.’ Yet as a private legal gun for hire—who billed at least $695 per hour—Cruz sometimes defended corporations that engaged in sleazy practices to screw the little guy or gal.”
Many of the same conservatives who took issue with Corn’s article participated right alongside Cruz in the smear campaign against Adegbile, and will happily promote stories about Hillary Clinton’s defense of a child rapist back in the 1970s. Their hypocrisy shouldn’t eclipse the fact that they’re correct in this instance.
Our justice system fails when lawyers are too intimidated—politically, socially—to represent people accused of heinous crimes. Politics will suffer if every lawyer who’s ever represented an unpopular client becomes non grata in the public sphere, leaving only the most risk-averse lawyers to enter public service.
Lawyers who chase paychecks often find themselves representing unsavory clients, but Cruz never took a vow of asceticism. Corporate law might not be holy work, but if Cruz had allowed his political convictions to undermine his advocacy for clients—whether the death row exoneree or the corporate fat cat—that would have been the real scandal.