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?
In the fall of 2001, the Bush administration was looking for a place to imprison and interrogate alleged al Qaeda members away from the prying eyes of other countries and insulated from the supervision of United States courts. The Defense Department believed that the Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba might work, so it asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) whether federal courts would entertain habeas corpus petitions filed by prisoners at Guantánamo, or whether they would dismiss such petitions as beyond their jurisdiction. On December 28, 2001, OLC responded with a thorough and balanced analysis of how the federal courts were likely to resolve the jurisdictional question. The memorandum prepared by OLC explained the arguments against such jurisdiction, but it also explored possible strengths in the opposing position. The memorandum predicted that federal courts would not exercise jurisdiction but explained the risk of a contrary ruling. Acting in reliance on this memorandum, the government started imprisoning and interrogating alleged al Qaeda members at Guantánamo the following month, cognizant of the risk that a federal court might find habeas jurisdiction.