On Saturday, Harvard College removed a black faculty dean for engaging in what is probably the noblest and most difficult service a member of the bar can perform: Representing an unpopular client.
The school gave in to months of student protests against law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and removed him from his position as faculty dean, after he joined the defense team representing disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, became the first African American deans in Harvard’s history when they were appointed faculty deans of Winthrop House, an undergraduate residence hall, in 2009.
Students began protesting when Sullivan joined Weinstein’s defense team in January, complaining that by representing a person accused of abusing women, he disqualified himself from any student support role, The New York Times reported.
Beginning in October 2017, a long string of young women came forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, with some of the claims going back as far as 30 years.
Eventually, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana threw up a white flag and surrendered to the students residing at Winthrop Hall, and sent them an email announcing that decision.
“Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college,” he wrote. “The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate have been ineffective, and the noticeable lack of faculty dean presence during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the house. I have concluded that the situation in the house is untenable.”
But the students miss the point and function of defense counsel, in the same way that they often miss the point of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees.
Just as the First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular thoughts, speech, and ideas, the noblest function of a lawyer is to protect the rights and interests of an unpopular client.
The American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards for the Defense Function 4-2.1(c), provide that "Qualified defense counsel should be willing and ready to undertake the defense of a suspect or an accused regardless of public hostility or personal distaste for the offense or the client."
Harper Lee famously portrayed that principle in her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was set in a mid-1930s small town in Alabama. The character Atticus Finch is appointed to represent Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman.
Despite the southern town residents’ open hostility, the taunting Finch’s children receive from their classmates, and an attempted lynching, the lawyer defends Robinson to the best of his ability.
American lawyers who have willingly represented unpopular clients include Edward Reilly, who represented accused Lindbergh kidnapper Richard Hauptmann in 1935, and Emmanuel Bloch, who represented Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on federal espionage charges in 1951.
More recently and more on point, former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz carried on that tradition by successfully handling a number of unpopular clients on appeal, including:
- Pornographic actor Harry Reems, who was convicted of distributing pornography; and,
- British socialite Claus von Bülow, who was previously convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny.
Perhaps most famously, Dershowitz was on the defense team that successfully fought for the acquittal of former actor and NFL running back O.J. Simpson, who was charged with murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Dershowitz, incidentally, is also on Weinstein’s defense team.
That students should be able to dictate what positions faculty members may or may not hold, as well as who may or may not speak on campus, is not just unfortunate — it’s intolerable. That a university would meekly give in to a student mob’s demands is sad.
Dean Khurana‘s email to the students continued: “We are sorry that Harvard’s actions and the controversy surrounding us has contributed to the stress on Winthrop students at this already stressful time.”
To be clear, it wasn’t “Harvard’s actions” that created the “controversy” — it was the students’. And any “stress” the students may have experienced was wholly self-inflicted.
Michael Dorstewitz is a retired lawyer and has been a frequent contributor to BizPac Review and Liberty Unyielding. He’s also a former U.S. Merchant Marine officer and an enthusiastic Second Amendment supporter, who can often be found honing his skills at the range. To read more of his reports - Click Here.