If, as de Tocqueville observed, everything in America eventually becomes the province of lawyers, it should not be surprising that the conduct of lawyers has become a salient aspect of the war on terror. While terrorists typically express contempt for the rule of law, lawyers in a democracy should know better. Unfortunately, crises sometimes push lawyers from their traditional roles as advocates and counselors into less auspicious roles as enablers of overreaching. The legal response to the attacks of September 11 has highlighted the ethical pressures imposed on lawyers in crisis situations. The contributors to this symposium focus on two important subjects: (1) the ethical issues triggered by the recommendations of government lawyers on treatment of detainees (the so-called “torture memos”), and (2) the debate over the ethics of the government’s placement of restrictions on civilian defense lawyers representing alleged terrorists in government-dominated fora such as military commissions. The torture memos represent a conflict between the lawyer’s role as advocate for a client’s position and the attorney’s role as advisor offering an accurate account of the law as it exists. Symposium contributors argue that lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice are advisors charged with the latter role. They argue further that these attorneys failed in that obligation.
Lawyers often represent clients in criminal cases when the odds are long or a catastrophe likely. The facts might be harmful, the evidence overwhelming, or the law clearly on the side of the prosecution. Still, we do the best we can. But what if the system is rigged? What if the system has the trappings of a fair fight but is, in fact, skewed to one side and, by design, the lawyer cannot fully defend the client? What if the lawyer can only lend legitimacy to a process that at its core is biased, slanted in favor of the other side, or fundamentally unfair? Indeed, what if the system is rigged so as to prevent the lawyer from zealously representing the client, or if it compromises the lawyer’s undivided loyalty to the client? Should lawyers refuse to participate in such systems, or should they – should we – still do the best we can?
What are the professional responsibilities of lawyers who provide legal advice to the executive branch, particularly in times of crisis? Who, exactly, is their client? Do professional responsibility standards shed any light on the circumstances that faced executive branch lawyers in the months following 9/11? What can we learn from the experience of those lawyers about competing principles of professional responsibility?