Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” I am a Republican and a lawyer, and I’m proud of both.
However, I am ashamed of the ads financed by the Republican Governor’s Association, which attack Vincent Sheheen for representing criminal defendants. Two of the core values of the Republican Party are freedom from big government, and that criminal prosecution of our citizens by that government should be closely monitored and scrutinized.
Why would Republican governors criticize such a cornerstone of our political philosophy? If the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance is to continue to have meaning, Americans should not tolerate these ads.
Our Founding Fathers knew their history. They had watched despotic governments eradicate innocent citizens and they wisely decided on a system that requires the government to prove its case against a defendant. Lawyers play a critical role in that process. Like doctors, lawyers are required to take an oath before being admitted to their profession. Included in the lawyer’s oath is a promise to “assist the defenseless or oppressed by ensuring that justice is available to all citizens.”
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Just as doctors are not criticized for saving the life of a person accused of a crime, neither should lawyers be attacked for fulfilling their duty to provide equal justice to all. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus explains that acts of humanity and justice are to be afforded to everyone, most particularly to the poor, the suffering, and the imprisoned. His admonition that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” finds expression in a lawyer’s obligation to defend the defenseless.
Perhaps the Rev. Martin Luther King was recalling this passage from Matthew when he wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Finally, as a practical matter, we know from experience that each case is different. This is why our General Assembly has permitted a range of sentences for any given crime. It is dangerous to criticize a sentence without knowing all the facts of the case. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that Mr. Sheheen did not impose the sentence complained of.
The people of South Carolina were represented in the case by a duly elector solicitor who negotiated the plea agreement, and an impartial judge accepted the plea and imposed the sentence.
Lawyers serve as a critical check on the power of government. The Founding Fathers rejected the absolute power of the government, and I have always taken pride in belonging to a party -- the Republican Party -- that safeguards this noble tradition. It is certainly fair game to criticize Mr. Sheheen for the votes he has taken in the General Assembly, but it is not fair to criticize him for the clients he has represented.
I hope the Republican Governors’ Association will reconsider the use of ads that impugn not only the entire legal profession but also undermine the very system of equal justice for all on which our great country was based. It is not American, and it is certainly not Republican.
The writer is a former S.C. representative who lives in Conway.