The S.C. Bar Association is protesting political ads attacking state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat who intends to run against Gov. Nikki Haley this year. But the ads are an affront to all attorneys, and that’s the main reason the Bar got involved.
The Republican Governors Association, a national organization, began airing ads statewide April 21 that condemn Sheheen as protecting criminals. The ads attack Sheheen for defending five clients.
Cases for which Sheheen was criticized included those involving a sex offender and several men accused of abusing women. All the clients discussed entered guilty pleas.
In a news conference preceding the latest ad earlier this month, S.C. GOP chairman Matt Moore said: “He (Sheheen) could have stood with abuse victims and exploited children and instead took a paycheck. Vincent Sheheen made a choice that was wrong.”
The Bar Association is a nonpolitical organization to which every South Carolina attorney must belong. It has more than 15,000 members statewide with varied political affiliations.
The association objects to the ads not for partisan reasons but because they criticize a lawyer for, essentially, doing his job. Association President Alice Paylor said campaigns should be about issues not bashing lawyers for providing people their constitutional right to legal representation.
“That’s a basic tenet of the Constitution,” she said. “What they’re attacking is the whole basis for the U.S. and the U.S. Constitution. According to them, I guess, everyone accused of something is automatically guilty.”
The right to a fair trial and the assistance of counsel is embedded in the Bill of Rights. Throughout American history, attorneys have defended unsavory clients as part of the responsibility of their profession.
Founding father and president John Adams, an attorney, defended the British soldiers accused of shooting colonial citizens in the Boston Massacre. Adams called it “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”
We can envision the Republican Governors Association running ads against Adams for making the choice to defend the killers of patriots.
Haley has wiped her hands of the controversy, saying she has no control over what the Governors Association does. But, as a governor, she is a member of that association, and the ads are designed to help re-elect her.
If she asked the Governors Association to halt the ads, it no doubt would do so. She ought to try to put a stop to what amounts to a dishonorable political tactic that defames all lawyers.