Legal Groups Call Out GOP Attacks on Attorney Candidate

In South Carolina, a gubernatorial candidate finds himself under fire from the Republican Governors Association over his work as a criminal defense lawyer. Two leading bar associations have pushed back, saying that defending the accused should not preclude an attorney from holding public office.

Is an attorney who represents people accused of violent crimes fit to be governor?

Opponents of one South Carolina attorney-turned-candidate are saying no, aiming to convince voters to reject state Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s candidacy for governor by unleashing a series of negative ads focusing on his record as a criminal defense lawyer. But several legal associations are rallying to Sheheen’s defense, noting that defense attorneys play an important and constitutionally protected role in the U.S. criminal justice system. More details:

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.

Republican governors go after legal record: Sheheen, seen as the likely Democratic candidate in this year’s gubernatorial race, has faced a number of attacks on his career as a defense attorney in recent weeks, some of which have been funded by the Republican Governors Association (RGA). One example (shown above) claims that Sheheen “made money off criminals” and “went to work setting them free.” Sheheen, who also spent time as a prosecutor, was once chosen as the South Carolina Solicitor’s Association’s “legislator of the year” and has strongly defended his record on his website. But RGA sees it differently. “Actions speak louder than words, and the reality of Vincent Sheheen’s background as a trial lawyer tells a vastly different story than what he has offered up on the trail so far,” RGA Communications Director Gail Gitcho said in a statement.

ABA pushes back: RGA’s tactics prompted a swift reaction from several legal organizations, most notably the American Bar Association, which sent a letter to RGA Chairman Chris Christie last month criticizing the attack-ad strategy. “The Republican Governors Association ad sends a disturbing message to lawyers—that their clients’ past actions or beliefs will stain their own careers, especially if they want to serve their country in public office,” ABA President James R. Silkenat wrote in a letter to the New Jersey governor [PDF]. “Voters who subsequently pass judgment on the candidate for the singular reason that he was a competent lawyer are disqualifying him from public service. On the contrary, lawyers who represent unpopular or guilty clients demonstrate the kind of courage and confidence in our legal system that characterizes the finest public servants.”

Online defense: Back in South Carolina, the state bar association—which first responded to the situation, ahead of the national group—launched S.C. Lawyers: The Facts, a website that directly refutes political attacks on lawyers and highlights their contributions to the state’s legal system and economy. “The uncivil, misleading political rhetoric clouds the opportunity for honest debate on substantive issues important to our state,” the South Carolina Bar Association says on the site. “Instead, candidates and committees supporting them should present their own credentials and experience and allow intelligent voters to make informed decisions as to how to vote based on those facts.” The site includes video clips in which lawyers from the state—such as Shannon Felder, above—explain their decision to go into the profession. (The SCBA says that the ABA is likely to borrow this strategy in its own efforts.)

SCBA President Alice Paylor said the campaign attacks the legal profession as a whole, not just individual candidates.

“That’s a basic tenet of the Constitution,” Paylor told the Associated Press last month. “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.”

For her part, the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, has stayed away from the controversy, though some local newspaper editorial boards have suggested she push RGA to stop running the ads.

A scene from an attack ad featuring South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen. (YouTube screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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