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Keeping an Eye on Cully Stimson

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The Washington Post in this great editorial took Cully Stimson to task Friday. Stimson is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.

" MOST AMERICANS understand that legal representation for the accused is one of the core principles of the American way. Not, it seems, Cully Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. In a repellent interview yesterday with Federal News Radio, Mr. Stimson brought up, unprompted, the number of major U.S. law firms that have helped represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay."

"....Mr. Stimson proceeded to reel off the names of these firms, adding, 'I think, quite honestly, when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.'"

Stimson hinted at nefarious connections, rather than a desire to do pro bono work, as the firms' motives:

Asked who was paying the firms, Mr. Stimson hinted of dark doings. "It's not clear, is it?" he said. "Some will maintain that they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, that they're doing it pro bono, and I suspect they are; others are receiving monies from who knows where, and I'd be curious to have them explain that."

The WaPo editorial rightfully calls Stimson's comments "crude" and "offensive." The point is this:

"But it's offensive -- shocking, to use his word -- that Mr. Stimson, a lawyer, would argue that law firms are doing anything other than upholding the highest ethical traditions of the bar by taking on the most unpopular of defendants. It's shocking that he would seemingly encourage the firms' corporate clients to pressure them to drop this work. And it's shocking -- though perhaps not surprising -- that this is the person the administration has chosen to oversee detainee policy at Guantanamo."

The New York Times Saturday has this editorial castigating Stimson. It begins:

"No one who has followed President Bush's policies on detainees should be surprised when a member of his team scorns American notions of justice. But even by that low standard, the administration's new attack on lawyers who dare to give those prisoners the meager representation permitted them is contemptible."

Discussing the same Stimson Federal News Radio interview, the New York Times opines,

"The interview was a greatest-hits remix of Bush administration nonsense about Guantánamo, including Mr. Stimson's message to corporate executives that lawyers "are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line in 2001." The only terrorists at Guantánamo associated with 9/11 were transferred there recently after being held for years in secret C.I.A. prisons where no lawyer could enter."

"Not only do we find Mr. Stimson's threats appalling, we differ with him about 9/11. The tragedy and crime of that day was that thousands of innocents were slaughtered -- not that it hurt some companies' profit margins. "

We all need to keep an eye on Cully Stimson.

Every person deprived of liberty or charged with a crime in the United States is entitled to competent counsel. If they can't afford counsel, counsel can be appointed. Under the Criminal Justice Act, these lawyers work for very reduced rates. But, Guantanamo is not in the United States, and the Government believes the right to free civilian court-appointed counsel does not apply to the detainees facing trial by military commission. The lawyers representing the Guantanamo detainees are mostly doing it pro bono, because the lawyers know it's the right thing to do. Large firms have allowed their associates to spend hundreds of hours on these cases, because they believe in the bedrock presumption of our criminal justice system, that all persons are presumed innocent until after trial, should a judge or jury declare them guilty.

The private lawyers and law professors representing the Guantanamo detainees are performing among the best work our profession has to offer. They do it to preserve the fairness of the criminal justice system, the system they work in every day.

Think of justice as a three-legged stool. The Judge is one leg, the prosecutor another and defense counsel is the third leg. If you overly weaken any one party's authority to try the case and perform their designated role, the stool will fall over and collapse. Our system would come crumbling down.

When two well-respected national newspapers declare the views of the Bush Adminstration's deputy supervisor of detainees "contemptible", we all should listen.

Jeralyn Merritt blogs daily at TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime