Political Attacks on Lawyer-Candidates Undermine the Rule of Law

This story has a happy ending. Last week, Republican Mark Grisanti (R-NY60) pulled through in a close race to defeat Antoine Thompson, the incumbent Democratic state senator representing Buffalo and surrounding areas, after recounts, voting machine challenges, and threatened litigation. Unfortunately, this contributed to the Senate’s flip to Republican control — thus guaranteeing that nothing will happen in New York for the next two years — but it is a meaningful victory, considering what follows.

Senator-elect Grisanti is a Buffalo lawyer, a partner at Grisanti & Grisanti, the firm his grandfather founded ninety years ago. Like many most private lawyers, he does criminal defense work — apparently quite well. For his contribution to the nation’s justice system, Mr. Grisanti received this from the New York Democratic Party:

While Western New Yorkers are fighting to make ends meet, Mark Grisanti is fighting for hardened criminals.

Such attacks, from any party, must be condemned. First, they are nonsensical. Law is a profession, but it’s also a job — the law is how Mr. Grisanti “fight[s] to make ends meet.” The perception that all lawyers are rich, and thus less noble than the struggling middle, does not hold up under scrutiny: the job pays well, sometimes, but it also costs a lot to get it (this is an extreme case, but we’re all in debt). Second, setting aside the ethical qualms one will have with any representation, criminal defense work is systemically moral. The country needs her defense lawyers to maintain a functioning judicial system: without defense lawyers, and good ones, the judicial system we fought a war to enact becomes actually meaningless.

Doubts about this conclusion have no place in a country whose independence was procured, and her government designed, in significant part by a lawyer who defended war criminals, and in whose government lawyers have always served disproportionately, prominently, and honorably.

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5 comments

  1. “the job pays well, sometimes”

    And salaried legal jobs are often not commensurate with the amount of time worked.

  2. Should read: And legal salaries are often not commensurate with the amount of time worked.

  3. I’ve always wondered about where you draw the ethical and moral line in defending a client you know to be guilty. Certainly there are the fine points of playing devil’s advocate, arguing details like intent, and debating sentencing, but aren’t there some people you just don’t defend?

    1. My favorite answer I’ve ever heard for that came from a commenter in a thread over at the Volokh Conspiracy. He said basically that as a defense attorney, he framed his job not as defending the accused but as being a sort of “inspector general” for the police and prosecutor: his job was to make sure they’d done theirs right. From that standpoint, his clients’ guilt or innocence was irrelevant to his job, which was to make sure the police had followed the rules and conducted their investigation properly and to ensure that the prosecution followed the rules and made a strong enough case.

    2. I’ve heard that one and rather like it. I think it’s absolutely right, too, and underlines the systemic values being vindicated. Haha so wordy for no reason, sorry guys.

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