In the classic "To Kill a Mockingbird," small-town attorney Atticus Finch risks his reputation, his business, his life and his family's safety when he agrees to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, on charges that he raped a white girl.
Charles "Cully" Stimson would probably have despised Atticus Finch.
Stimson, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, recently complained that major American law firms were daring to provide free, or pro bono, legal assistance to detainees at Guantanamo Bay who otherwise would not have access to legal help. In a particularly outrageous act, Stimson even insinuated that some of the firms might be taking pay for their work from terrorist groups.
Stimson then listed a few of the targeted law firms, including Atlanta-based Alston & Bird and Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.
"I think quite honestly when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists that hit their bottom line in 2001," Stimson said, "those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms."
So far, Stimson's crass attempt at economic blackmail hasn't worked, according to Terry Walsh, a partner at Alston & Bird and member of the firm's pro bono committee. He is also helping to represent four detainees at Guantanamo.
"I'm aware of two clients who have seen [Stimson's comments] and responded, and both said we had nothing to worry about and they were glad to see us involved," Walsh said.
According to Walsh, when the call first went out seeking pro bono help in the Guantanamo cases, 74 attorneys at Alston & Bird offices volunteered within 24 hours
"It's the sort of basic duty that goes along with the license that we have," Walsh says, although he stresses that support for the pro bono project is far from unanimous at what he calls "our big-tent firm."
In volunteering for work at Guantanamo, Walsh and other attorneys weren't in any way betraying their country, as Stimson implied. To the contrary, they were serving their country by making sure that the American system works as it was designed.
That system runs on opposition just as surely as a car runs on gasoline. Without it, the whole thing comes to a halt. We need Republicans challenging Democrats, Congress opposing the executive branch and defense attorneys willing to oppose the prosecution, because out of that clash of argument comes fairness and wisdom, or at least as close as we humans can come to such elusive things.
On those occasions in our history when we have silenced opposition — as we pretty much did in the run-up to the Iraq war — we generally come to regret it.
Stimson's statements betray a troubling, even fascistic instinct to render opposition illegitimate. Rather than engage in debate, he and others would prefer to silence it so that power is not questioned.
The dangers of that are clear, even in the Guantanamo cases.
Back in 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called those interned at Guantanamo "the worst of the worst," in effect trying, convicting and sentencing all 800 people there and allowing no possibility that our government might have made mistakes about their guilt. Rumsfeld's verdict was accepted by most Americans, and was embraced most strongly by those who in other contexts complain that government can do nothing right.
Yet since then, almost of half of those alleged "worst of the worst" — more than 300 people — have been released outright or transferred to their home countries, suggesting that they were innocent or that their incarceration was a gross overreaction. Some may have been freed, at least indirectly, thanks to the work of lawyers smeared by Stimson.
In the days since Stimson's statement, the Bush administration has tried to distance itself from the controversy, with spokesmen releasing statements that Stimson did not speak for the administration. Stimson himself has issued an apology, saying that he does not question the integrity of attorneys involved and professing firm belief "that a foundational principle of our legal system is that the system works best when both sides are represented by competent legal counsel."
Unfortunately, it's hard to give that statement much credence, given the vicious nature of his previous remarks. And in an administration that respected the rule of law, he would have been fired days ago.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution