What do Hillary and John Adams have in common?

    When Hillary Clinton was a young lawyer, she defended an accused rapist whom she knew was guilty. Some conservatives seem to think this is a big deal – perhaps a disqualifier for the presidency – which only proves how little they know about the American judicial system.

    Let’s not kid ourselves. Everything about a candidate’s past should be fair game; on the eve of the 2000 election, Democrats kicked up quite a fuss about George W. Bush’s 1976 drunk driving arrest. But this particular Hillary game is extremely lame.

    If defending unpopular people in court is so disgraceful, then John Adams should never have been elected president in 1796. After all, back in 1770, he willingly defended the British soldiers who killed five colonists in the Boston Massacre. He got six of them acquitted, and years later he called his work “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country” – because he had demonstrated that everybody, no matter how noxious, deserves legal representation in a court of law.

    The Hillary story is not exactly new – her 1975 defense work for Thomas Alfred Taylor was chronicled by Newsday during the 2008 campaign, and she mentioned it in her 2003 autobiography – but it has surfaced anew, courtesy of the right-wing Washington Free Beacon. Reporters burrowed into the Clinton archives at the University of Arkansas, and found some early ’80s audiotapes in which Hillary can be heard recounting the legal strategy that got Taylor a reduced sentence. And then she laughs on tape.

    So, here’s the allegedly big news: Not only did she defend an accused rapist of a 12-year-old girl, but years later she laughed while recalling it. Cue Fox News apparatchik Eric Bolling, on the Beacon scoop: “Hillary Clinton said she knew the guy was guilty. Yet, she still defended him and got him off, quote, ‘got him off with time served ha ha ha.’….Do you want someone who feasibly could be sitting in the Oval Office, making decisions, who could laugh about…getting off someone she knew was guilty on some sort of legal technicality. I guess that’s not the kind of leadership I want. That’s not the character I would want my president to have.”

    The rape victim, now 52, is ticked off. But, politically, it’s easy to see what’s really going on here. Conservatives and GOPers are desperate to squash Hillary’s ’16 presidential prospects, and their first task is to sow discontent among women voters. That’s a daunting challenge – according to a May national poll, 61 percent of women say they’d vote for Hillary – and for some reason the right seems to think that an episode from 1975 can trump all the contemporary work she has done for women’s rights worldwide. But hey, they’re welcome to try.

    Did young Hillary know that her ’75 client was guilty? Sure. (From the audiotape: “I had him take a polygraph, which he passed, which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs.”) Which made Hillary roughly the zillionth lawyer to knowingly defend a guilty client. Did Hillary laugh years later about her legal tactics? Sure. Which made her roughly the zillionth lawyer to utilize black humor.

    Did young Hillary even want to defend this guy? Fox News described her as “voluntarily choosing to represent a child rapist,” but, naturally, Fox got it wrong. As the ’08 Newsday story recounted in detail, defendant Taylor requested a female court-appointed lawyer. The county judge scanned the list of available females – there were only six in the county – and picked Hillary, who was working at a legal aid clinic. The county prosecutor informed Hillary of the judge’s order. She complied, but, as the prosecutor told Newsday, “Hillary told me she didn’t want to take that case, she made that very clear.”

    But she was stuck with it. And as she pointed out the other day, “I had a professional duty to represent my client to the best of my ability, which I did. When you’re a lawyer you often don’t have the choice as to who you will represent and, by the very nature of criminal law, there will be those you represent that you don’t approve of, but, at least in our system, you have an obligation, and once I was appointed I fulfilled that obligation.”

    This is what lawyers do. As Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham remarked in 2010, talking about the legal system in general, “This system of justice we’re so proud of in America requires the unpopular to have an advocate….I’ve been a military lawyer for almost 30 years, I represented people as a defense attorney in the military that were charged with some pretty horrific acts, and I gave them my all.”

    Bottom line: The only people who think the ’75 story is hot stuff wouldn’t vote for Hillary anyway.

    The last word goes to Jonathan Adler, a lawyer and commentator with conservative creds: “The victim is understandably upset that her assailant got off easy. This is a sad result, but it’s not the defense attorney’s fault that the state could not make a stronger case. One can feel for the victim without being angry at her attacker’s attorney.” All told, “Hillary Clinton represented someone in need and fulfilled her duty as a member of the bar to provide a zealous defense of her client. This is not something for which she should be attacked. We are all the worse off if the message sent to young lawyers is that representing guilty or unpopular clients is likely to be a political liability down the road….Anti-Hillary folks should look elsewhere.”

    And if they had read up on John Adams, they wouldn’t have flogged this story in the first place.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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