Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Monday, February 14, 2005

I feel sick about Lynne Stewart's conviction-- it amounts to criminalizing lawyering, which is something no free society should ever do. Like David Feige I've seen Ms. Stewart around the courthouse, and although I have never had an interest in being a criminal defense lawyer of any stripe, I have nothing but respect for the ones who take on the job. The good ones know that if they don't the system will collapse due to its own corruption, and they want to believe in the system. Lynne Stewart has never labored under any illusion that the system is fair-- her approach has always been to expose the unfairness, in an effort to make the law keep its promise. She was pretty effective at it too, but a New York jury-- particularly a Southern District Court jury-- isn't going to be very sympathetically disposed to World Trade Center bombers, or their lawyers. One of the first things I noticed after the September 11 attacks, after we all went back to work, was that the quality of the light downtown changed. It is different still, in Foley Square, where Stewart was tried, and where the Second Circuit, which will hear her appeal, sits. You hope for the best from your courts, but Foley Square, as Stewart could tell you, was where Roy Cohn pulled the levers on the Rosenberg trial. The quality of the light in Foley Square has always been variable.

You hang around long enough, and you realize that you know everyone. As it happens, the Assistant US Attorney on this case is someone A. practiced with back in the Brooklyn DA's office. I am sure he is pleased with this outcome, and believes that he is contributing to the war on terror, or some damn thing. I could never do Lynne Stewart's job, but it seems to me that she has made more contributions to the qualities that I cherish about the American justice system than Andy Dembar ever has, or ever will.

This afternoon I had a case management conference in the Western District federal court here in Buffalo. The magistrate I was before is the judge who presided over the Lackawanna Six case. He is fairly new to the bench, and his chambers are decorated with big framed chalk drawings of those proceedings, presumably made by a courtroom artist for use on television news. I was troubled by this-- the case really was never put to the disinfecting test of exposure to sunlight. The defendants, confronted with the Hobbsian choice of being declared enemy combatants or taking a plea, took the plea. We haven't heard about any terrorist attacks thwarted by reason of their cooperation, but the half-life of these sorts of things is pretty short-- when was the last time you heard anyone ask about the WMD's in Iraq? Still, it seemed to me that trumpeting one's participation in what looked like a real railroad job is in questionable taste, even for these times. I can't say that what happened in that case falls at the judge's feet, but I wish he didn't seem so eager to take credit for it. My response, of course, is to say nothing about it, but Lynne Stewart would have called him on it. That's why she is a lawyer I admire and respect, and why our glamour profession is diminished by her conviction.

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