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Everyone deserves a legal defense

By Karen J. Mathis
President, American Bar Association

Karen Mathis

A Pentagon official’s badly misguided attack on law firms representing Guantanamo detainees has had a boomerang effect. Far from putting lawyers on the defensive, it has reminded us of an important American principle: that everyone who faces loss of liberty deserves legal counsel.

Thankfully, the comments by Charles D. Stimson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, have been universally repudiated. The White House, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Defense Department and the legal community all have rejected his suggestion that corporate clients shun firms whose lawyers represent detainees voluntarily. (Stimson later apologized for his remarks.)

The real issue in this debate is not whether lawyers should represent accused terrorists, or whether other clients should shun them for doing so. The real issue, and one that should not be lost in petty distractions, is whether our nation is committed to justice. Rooted in our original Constitution is this core value. People should not simply be thrown away in prison without an impartial review by society — known as a habeas corpus review. This was designed to protect not just individuals, but society itself. By making the legal system accountable, we ensure that no one is imprisoned by mistake.

It’s exactly in times like these, when fear of terrorism remains high, that we must do our utmost to insure that no one is falsely imprisoned. It is easy, but dangerous, to create classes of people for whom there is no accountable system of justice.

The lawyers representing Guantanamo’s detainees are attempting to assure justice, despite extremely challenging circumstances, and they have done so as volunteers, in the finest tradition of this country’s legal profession.

The American people understand that in representing individuals accused as enemies of our nation, lawyers are rejecting the tenets of terrorism. The American Bar Association believes, as our founding fathers did, that anyone facing a loss of freedom deserves legal representation, whether a defendant enjoys public sympathy or faces widespread loathing and contempt.

Had Stimson’s suggestion gained currency, had corporations been bullied into not doing business with law firms that protect unpopular clients, we all would have been put at risk. Such out-of-court tactics could be used to undermine any American’s right to a fair defense in a criminal trial.

Only through vigorous and committed defense can we expect the world to acknowledge the justice of our cause, and indeed to champion our finest values as a nation. Without it, we are doomed to receive only the world’s mistrust and suspicion, and run the risk of breeding terror anew.

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