Joe Biden has nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to be a Supreme Court Justice. And this is where we now are on judicial nominees: Republicans know they will oppose her nomination, so they are now looking for reasons to justify that opposition. Lucky for them she was a public defender because now they can vilify her as being lax on crime.
Other Biden judicial nominees who were public defenders have been asked by Senators Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz questions that boil down to, “How could you represent such scum?” Public defenders are not surprised by this question at social gatherings from people who do not fully grasp our legal system. On the other hand, Cotton, Hawley, and Cruz have degrees from some of the country’s finest law schools. The all clerked for federal judges, two of them for Supreme Court justices. You might expect them to understand American justice and recognize the importance of defense lawyers in that system, but their comments only reveal either their ignorance or their disingenuousness.
The Senators, however, are selective in their disdain for lawyers who represent criminals or those accused of crimes. When I taught, some students would tell me that they could never represent organized crime. My response was, “I guess you are not going into corporate law then.” I was only being semi-flip. Although corporate crime has seldom been a high prosecutorial priority, many corporations have defended themselves in our criminal justice system. For example, to avoid criminal prosecution in 2015, General Motors paid a $900 million fine for hiding a fatal ignition switch defect responsible for 174 deaths. (How often has a public defender had a client linked to 174 deaths?) As a result of charges filed in 1996, Archer Daniels Midland pleaded guilty to criminal antitrust violations for fixing prices and paid a fine of $100 million. In 2013, Halliburton pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed eleven people. In 2021, United Airlines paid over $49 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims on postal service contracts.
You can play a little parlor game: Put into a search engine the name of a corporation and “criminal” or “felony” conviction and see how many hits you get. You can go further and put in the name of a major financial institution together with “fraud” and see what comes up. You might learn that investment firms paid over $20 billion to settle fraud claims from the sale of mortgage-backed securities in 2005 to 2007, behavior that might have been criminally prosecuted.
In other words, if you know a corporate attorney, there is a good chance that you know somebody who works for, and presumably gets well paid by, a criminal. But there is little chance that you would hear those lawyers derided by Republican senators because of their clients.
True conservatives who are concerned about checking governmental power and overreach should, of course, be thanking, not denigrating, public defenders. The government has the power to criminally investigate and punish people. Right wingers screech about this power only when other right wingers are caught up in our criminal justice system, but true conservatives should be concerned with the appropriateness of this authority all the time. Since defenders provide a check on governmental power and overreach, they should be celebrated by those who claim conservative credentials.
I am not surprised when “conservatives” pandering for partisan gain do not uphold conservative principles, but I still found some recent comments by the Republican National Committee noteworthy. A news story reported that the RNC “in a background paper on her nomination for the high court referred to Judge Jackson’s ‘advocacy for these terrorists’ [imprisoned at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay] as ‘going beyond just giving them a competent defense.’” If an attorney for the government at Guantanamo were a judicial nominee, I doubt the RNC would label the lawyer an advocate for torture even though it has been established that detainees were tortured. More startling, however, is that conservatives are trying to vilify Jackson for going beyond competence in her job. They apparently don’t want people who do their jobs too well on the Supreme Court. Mediocrity is good enough.
And while I assume the Senators Cruz, Cotton, and Hawley have proclaimed that they want Supreme Court justices who are “originalists,” these conservatives would appear to be ignorant of the importance placed on defense advocacy by the founders of the country. Our Constitution expressly rejected English law and guaranteed a right to counsel because of the important role defense attorneys had for preserving American freedom.
(continued March 23)