The ACLU's furious comments on my June 8th post about proceedings at Guantanamo refute an argument for allowing guilty pleas in capital cases that I did not make. In fact, I share Denny LeBoeuf's evident abhorrence of a system that accepts guilty pleas from defendants after summarily detaining and torturing them, as I share her abhorrence of the death penalty in general.
But I do think that cases like this present obvious quandries for defense attorneys, and I'm a little surprised by the rage I provoked in raising them. As my friend, veteran criminal defense attorney Harvey Silverglate remarks, lawyers are bound to act in their client's best interests, which are normally determined by the client: "But when the lawyer has reason to believe that the client is not compos mentis (e.g., is clinically insane or has been driven to distraction by years of torture or isolation), or is otherwise not free to decide what is in his best interests (e.g., the client is being threatened by someone), then the lawyer is in the middle of a conundrum: Should the lawyer take the client at face value and follow the client's instructions, or should the lawyer, adjusting for the client's inability to assess and communicate his best interests, substitute his judgment for that of the client (and resign if the client insists)? Lawyers will disagree as to how to proceed."
I regard as equally uncontroversial my opinion that defense attorneys directly representing detainees are primarily bound to serve the detainees' interests, not the public interest in learning what a trial might reveal about the 9/11 attack or the government's use of torture. I disagree with LeBoeuf that advocacy of this public interest in trials for alleged 9/ll co-conspirators is so easily reconciled with advocacy in the interest of detainees.
I don't doubt LeBoeuf's integrity or her commitment to her clients, but in arguing for "our interest as a society" in trials as opposed to pleas for detainees, I do think her remarks to the New York Times inadvertently illustrate the dilemma sometimes facing advocacy groups that engage in direct representation of clients. On occasion, the client's interest may demand that his or her lawyers present arguments or adopt tactics that conflict with group's ideals. (I recall an attorney at a committee meeting of the ACLU of Massachusetts arguing against ACLU representation of a controversial client because if his case went to trial, his most effective defense might be one that the ACLU would be loathe to mount.)
So I repeat: the interests of our society in trials and the interests of Guantanamo detainees may diverge. Indeed, after spending years in detention and suffering torture, I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of the detainees, whether innocent or guilty, would agree.