Softening the political ground for 2016, Hillary Clinton’s critics have seized on a case from her early legal career to characterize her as unethical. The controversy reveals the difficulties faced by defense lawyers in the current no-holds-barred political environment.
As young attorney just out of law school in the 1970s, Hillary Clinton defended a man accused of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. The victim said that Clinton “put [her] through hell” in the process. Clinton’s critics have sneered at the “legal technicality” that Clinton used to engineer a plea bargain that resulted in her client serving a much-reduced sentence.
Regardless of the merits of Clinton’s political aspirations, the problem here is that her critics are bashing a defense attorney for doing her job. The primary job of the defense attorney is to serve the client’s interests by forcing the prosecution to uphold its burden of proof. If the prosecution is unable to do so for whatever reason, the consequence of a reduced sentence or even an acquittal is not based on a “legal technicality,” but rather a fundamental feature of our legal system. Defense attorneys should not be punished politically for playing their proper role.
Others have, however, highlighted a different ethical problem in Clinton’s behavior: her public statements implying that she thought her client was guilty. The problem here is not that Clinton defended a client that she thought was guilty. The fact of the matter is that most defense cases involve a guilty client and, because defense attorneys are not stupid, they know this. Their role in the legal system is to defend their clients, including the guilty ones, in order to constantly reinforce the protections built into the system that protect the innocent as well.
The problem is instead that Clinton implied her belief that her client was guilty publicly, potentially betraying her ethical obligation to defend him. The job of a defense attorney does not end with the disposition of her client’s case. As a defense attorney, Clinton’s obligation to honor her client’s confidences persisted after she ended her work on his case. And to indulge, as she apparently did, in a self-serving interview using the client as an exhibit, does show a troubling apathy towards her ethical obligation.
Of course, this was a long time ago and Clinton’s performance as a senator and cabinet secretary is far more important when assessing her qualifications for the presidency. But it is worth remembering for its application to attitudes about the legal system as a whole, the role of the media covering criminal cases, and the kinds of people (with law degrees) that we tend to favor as judges, legislators, and executives.