Civil Liberty (Paid for by Philip Morris USA Inc.)

In a recent radio interview, Deputy Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs Cully Stimson threatened top American law firms that have done pro bono work for Guantanamo detainees.  And, he suggested, Vito Corleone-style, that the corporations that bankroll these firms should think twice, if they know, eh-hem, what’s good for them: 

“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.”

A chorus of criticism has followed, which President Reagan’s Solicitor General, Charles Fried, has now joined in today’s Wall Street Journal (available here).  The money quote:

“It may just be that Mr. Stimson is annoyed that his overstretched staff lawyers are opposed by highly trained and motivated elite lawyers working in fancy offices with art work in the corridors and free lunch laid on in sumptuous cafeterias. But it has ever been so; it is the American way. The right to representation does not usually mean representation by the best, brightest and sleekest. That in this case it does is just an irony – one to savor, not deplore.

It is no surprise that firms like Wilmer Hale (which represents both Big Pharma and Tobacco Free Kids), Covington and Burling (which represents both Big Tobacco and Guantanamo detainees), and the other firms on Mr. Stimson’s hit list, are among the most sought-after by law school graduates, and retain the loyalty and enthusiasm of their partners. They offer their lawyers the profession at its best, and help assure that the rule of law is not just a slogan but a satisfying way of life.”

As a big-firm alumnus, I might quibble a bit with Fried’s claim that big firm practice offers a “satisfying way of life”–but he’s absolutely right that the participation of corporate-funded defense firms on detainees’ behalf is something that’s particularly praiseworthy about the American legal system.