Bar Associations

State bar and ABA condemn political attack ad against lawyer running for South Carolina governor

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The South Carolina Bar has taken an apparently unprecedented step and condemned an attack ad on the Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s work as a defense attorney, saying it is a smear on the legal profession as a whole, the Associated Press reports.

The Republican Governors Association’s ad is aimed at state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, an attorney who is challenging Gov. Nikki Haley in the gubernatorial race. It mentions violent criminals several times, with a voice-over stating: “Sheheen defended violent criminals who abused women and went to work setting them free.”

Republican Governors Association ad.

The ad began airing Monday, and the bar quickly put out a press release condemning “uncivil, misleading political rhetoric” in recent political ads and offering explanations and examples of the work and duty of lawyers in our criminal justice system.

“Lawyers have a professional duty to ensure that justice is not rationed but is available to everyone,” the release states. “It is the job of a criminal defense lawyer to ensure his or her client has a fair trial, not to defend the crime.”

The South Carolina Republican Party also targeted Sheheen’s criminal defense work earlier this month in a news conference, with details of the cases of five of his clients. Their news release ran with the headline “Memo: New Research Shows Vince Sheheen Defended Sex Offenders, Child Molesters, and Spouse Abusers for Pay; Sheheen’s personal judgment comes into question.”

“This is not about due process or the right to have counsel,” said state GOP chairman Matt Moore to the AP. “It’s about someone who wants to represent South Carolina not standing up for our citizens. He could have stood with abuse victims and exploited children and instead took a paycheck. Vincent Sheheen made a choice that was wrong.”

South Carolina Bar President Alice Paylor told the AP, “What they’re attacking is the whole basis for the U.S. and the U.S. Constitution. According to them, I guess everyone accused of something is automatically guilty.”

On Friday, the ABA condemned the ad in a press statement, and ABA President James R. Silkenat wrote a public letter (PDF) to the Republican Governors Association and its chair, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. While noting that the ABA does not endorse political candidates, Silkenat asked the organization to withdraw the ad.

“The Republican Governors Association ad sends a disturbing message to lawyers—that their clients’ past actions or beliefs will stain their own careers, especially if they want to serve their country in public office,” wrote Silkenat. “Voters who subsequently pass judgment on the candidate for the singular reason that he was a competent lawyer are disqualifying him from public service. On the contrary, lawyers who represent unpopular or guilty clients demonstrate the kind of courage and confidence in our legal system that characterizes the finest public servants.”

Noting that Christie is himself an attorney, Silkenat asks that he “join us in rejecting the ad’s message that undermines trust and confidence in our nation’s rule of law.”

The South Carolina Bar, which has mandatory membership for the 15,000 lawyers in the state, has launched a new website called S.C. Lawyers: The Facts. The site contains rebuttals to the attack ads, and a playlist of videos called “Proud to be a S.C. Lawyer.”

In the South Carolina Bar’s news release on Tuesday, Paylor wrote: “It would be refreshing to see comment on the merits of positions rather than attacks seeking to evoke a gut response. I keep hoping.”

Updated on April 25 to add the ABA’s press release and ABA President James Silkenat’s statement.

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