Last year at this time I wrote about how I always watch some of the HBO John Adams miniseries around the Fourth of July. That tradition holds true. The part that I want to highlight this time around however, is not the section that covers Independence Day, or the Declaration, or anything about Philadelphia and 1776. Instead, I want to rewind almost all of the way, to talk about one of the more overlooked aspects of our second President.
The fact that he was a criminal defense attorney.
When you take a step back and look at that, you realize that it’s almost unthinkable today. These days, politics bastardizes and vilifies everything about a candidate’s history, magnifying things way out of proportion and distorting a record beyond recognition. To even dream that a lawyer who spent a good part of his career defending accused criminals, the most hated among us, is just beyond reach. But John Adams, in those days, could do it.
The reason illuminates why this should not in any way actually be a problem, for a candidate now or in the future, and how badly we’ve failed to appreciate the role of defense lawyers as a society.
As a recap, the series begins with the Boston Massacre, in which a cadre of British troops stationed in that city during the colonial era, opened fire on a rioting mob of civilians, killing one. The soldiers claimed they had good reason to fear for their lives, but in a somewhat odd turn of events which would not happen today, the local authorities charged them with murder, arrested and incarcerated them, ultimately putting them all on trial. John Adams defended them–and secured an acquittal.
Even today, the Boston Massacre comes down to us as one of the many supposedly intolerable actions by the Crown that brought on the Revolution, along with the Stamp Act and taxes on tea, among other things. It’s still thought of as a British crime. Imagine then, how hated those soldiers must have been in Boston at the time, already a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment. They were DESPISED.
Yet, even under the peculiar circumstances, the Common Law system guaranteed their absolute right to a fair trial, and recognized that such a right was only meaningful with access to effective legal counsel. Those principles remains as sacrosanct today. A defendant may be vile, he may be awful, he may even be downright evil, but in our system, everyone has the right to their day in court, and a lawyer by their side.
What goes hand in hand with that, of course, is that no man or woman acting in that capacity is in any way endorsing the potentially horrible conduct of the client they represent. They are protecting a sacred right that belongs to every individual to have a fair shake when the government accuses them of an offense. John Adams was doing his duty to not only his clients, but to the system as a whole.
Yet today, it is all too common for political opponents to sully their adversaries by appealing to the lowest common denominator and playing to the ignorance of their base. In some cases, that has meant trying to demonize a lawyer who has done just such a duty as Adams and countless others have, myself included. This should not work. The immediate rejoinder should be–no lawyer should be judged by their client’s actions. They should be applauded for honoring the rights of everyone by representing anyone, no matter how bad. That should also be widely and completely understood by all.
But sadly, it is not. So today, while a former prosecutor can win over legions of voters by shouting from the mountain top about how many criminals they convicted, it’s unlikely that a lawyer who defended a bunch of the most hated and vilified accused killers in the country could ever hope to parlay that into a political career, much less one rising to the highest levels. That’s a shame. Both roles are equally important to the effective functioning of a judicial system, and people should know that.
It wasn’t always this way, and John Adams reminds us that our country, and our legal system was founded on higher principles, ideals that we should still be striving to meet today.