Saturday, February 12, 2005

Lynne Stewart - Legal Martyr, Loon, or Terrorist Stooge?

A priest, a lawyer, and a golf pro are sitting at the bar. No, wait, that's not the post I meant to write...ok, let's try again.

A lawyer is accused of aiding and abetting terrorists. She represented a Muslim cleric who was convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to bomb New York City landmarks and government buildings. The trial was long over; appeals were exhausted. Yet she continued to visit with him in prison, and in 2002 the government accused her of being a communications conduit between the cleric and his followers in Egypt. The lawyer was charged with defying an administrative gag order (not a court ordered gag) which had been placed on the cleric, by speaking on his behalf, and in effect acting as a surrogate for a convicted terrorist.

That's the abstract of Lynne Stewart's story. You can find the long version by clicking here.

Earlier this week, Stewart was convicted in federal court of the charges, and is now awaiting a sentence which could stretch to 20 years. Government prosecutors had alleged that, in her actions as an intermediary for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, she was enabling his terrorist network. In her defense, Stewart argued "attorney / client privilege" in conversations that she carried on with Rahman over a period of years following his trial, conviction, and appeals. Given the provisions of the Patriot Act (that wonderful gutting of the Bill of Rights which jammed up our collective rectums following 9/11), guess who won that argument? Regardless of the merits of the case on either side, her conviction and penalty could effectively be a life sentence, since she is currently 65 years old.

I'm probably going to surprise some Left Blogistanians by not marching in lockstep with Lynne Stewart's cause. She was clearly given the opportunity by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (yes, that Patrick Fitzgerald) to cease her activities with Rahman -- in fact, she consented to doing so in writing. When Stewart continued to act on Rahman's behalf, the Department of Justice moved in with wiretaps and finks. Did they get heavy handed? Yes. In as much as Stewart claimed she was still representing Rahman in legal matters regarding his treatment in custody, was DOJ violating the sacred legal tenet of privilege? Since I'm not a lawyer, I can't answer that - particularly since she apparently never brought any charges against the prison in which Rahman's being held. And lastly, an article at Counterpunch brings up a very good point: could she even be tried for violating an administrative gag order, as opposed to a court ordered gag (for which she could obviously be tried)?

As is clearly obvious, there's a tremendous amount of nuance to this particular case, so I'm not quite ready to declare Lynne Stewart a martyr for the legal profession. Sometimes in the heat of impassioned defense of one's personal principles, the line between those principles, pigheadedness, and a lack of good sense gets blurred. None of these attributes, though, makes a person into the justice system equivalent of Joan of Arc. A tragic figure blinded by their principles, perhaps, but not a martyr. Still, I'm not ready to see Stewart spend the next 20 years of her life in jail. People in America simply don't get life sentences for being pigheaded.

What bothers me most about this case takes place at a macro level: Stewart's conviction will send a vibrating chill through the legal community. Between her conviction and the ongoing saga of former DOJ attorney Jesselyn Radack (which is very much different, and which I'll be writing more about in the near future), the message is clear: any lawyer getting in the way of the DOJ / DHS Patriot Act™ machine in giving legal representation to accused terrorists is taking a chance on their career, and potentially their freedom.

At the end of the day, my gut feeling is that the noose on the Constitution of the United States just got a little tighter.