Legally Speaking: When a Lawyer Goes Too Far

By John G. Browning | Oct 10, 2007

The firestorm of controversy ignited by Columbia University's decision to provide Iranian president Ahmadinejad with a public forum for his hate-mongering has barely subsided, but another controversial speaking invitation in New York has largely escaped public scrutiny.

On October 14th through 16th, Long Island's Hofstra Law School plays host to a conference entitled "Lawyering on the Edge: Unpopular Clients, Difficult Cases, and Zealous Advocates." Among the speakers identified as "conference faculty" for the gathering's final day is radical activist and self-styled "human rights" attorney Lynne Stewart.

If Stewart's name sounds familiar, it's because she represented the infamous "blind sheikh," fundamentalist Islamic cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 1996 of plotting terrorist attacks against various New York City landmarks. His followers in al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department) not only committed the first World Trade Center bombing and assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel, they massacred 58 Western and Japanese tourists in Luxor, Egypt, in 1997.

While serving as Rahman's attorney in 2000, Stewart agreed to certain special administrative measures (SAMs) that the prison had imposed on Rahman (who had already exhausted his appeals), promising that she would not use their meetings, correspondence, or phone calls with Abdel Rahman "to pass messages between third parties (including, but not limited to, the media) and Abdel Rahman."

But Stewart violated these rules, and conveyed messages from the convicted terrorist to the press in June, 2000. In particular, these included press releases expressing Rahman's opposition to a ceasefire then in place regarding violence against the Egyptian government; Rifai Taha, an Egyptian terrorist associated with Osama bin Laden, and other cell members viewed this as an endorsement of a return to violence.

For passing on Rahman's blessing, Stewart was indicted by a federal grand jury of providing material support to a murder conspiracy. At trial, she was represented by noted defense attorney Michael Tigar (a favorite of the left whose past clients have included '60s radical Angela Davis and Oklahoma City bombing defendant Terry Nichols), who argued that Stewart's actions as Rahman's message-bearer were part of a proper defense strategy of eliciting public awareness and support for her client.

In February 2005, after a 9 month trial and 13 days of jury deliberations, Stewart was convicted of conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists, and defrauding the U.S. government. Two co-defendants, Mohamed Yousry and Ahmed Sattar, were also found guilty.

Prosecutors sought a 30 year sentence for Ms. Stewart, arguing that her criminal conduct had nothing to do with zealous legal representation of the terrorist leader; as they pointed out, she didn't merely "walk a fine line of zealous advocacy and accidentally fall over it; she marched across it into a criminal conspiracy."

In a 2006 letter to presiding Judge John Koeltl, Stewart (who by that time had been diagnosed with breast cancer), admitted that she intentionally broke rules barring Rahman from communicating with his followers outside the prison walls, and that "these statements if misused may have allowed others to further their goals." However, she claimed she was simply careless and naïve, and didn't realize that her conduct in a post-9/11 America could be "interpreted differently and considered criminal."

Despite acknowledging that Stewart's actions constituted "extraordinarily severe criminal conduct," Judge Koeltl sentenced her to only 28 months in prison, citing her record of championing unpopular causes and defendants.

Free while she appealed her conviction, the unrepentant Stewart has become a fixture on the college lecture circuit, speaking to audiences at campuses like the University of California-Davis, San Francisco State, and Stanford, where she was named a "Public Interest Mentor." Because of her felony conviction, Stewart was automatically disbarred.

But that hasn't stopped her from speaking out about her ideological support for Rahman and her admiration of Communist leaders like Stalin, Mao, and Castro. Ironically, the disgraced lawyer who has benefited greatly from the freedom of expression that our Constitution guarantees sees nothing wrong "with Mao or Stalin or the Vietnamese leaders or certainly Fidel locking up people they see as dangerous.

Because so often, dissidence has been used by the greater powers to undermine a people's revolution." Perhaps Stewart's blindness to the irony of being free to espouse the overthrow of the very nation that safeguards her freedom to utter such statements served her well in representing Rahman. After all, the first actions a fundamentalist Islamic regime would likely take would be to shut down an outspoken woman like herself, as well as the media outlets that have been so sympathetic to her.

Which brings me to the slowly building controversy over Ms. Stewart serving as a faculty member for a continuing legal education seminar on legal ethics. Surely I'm not the only one who sees something inherently wrong in having a disbarred attorney serve as a paid expert on legal ethics, or in portraying someone who provided material support to mass murderers as a champion of human rights.

Hofstra Law School's brochure for the conference makes no mention of Stewart's conviction or disbarment. And in response to some initial criticism, Hofstra law professor Monroe Freedman tried to minimize Stewart's role, painting her as not a role model, "but as a cautionary lesson" about the risk of "going over the edge, both ethically and legally." From Freedman's hasty backpedaling, one might get the impression that conference-goers will be in store for harsh rebukes of Stewart's conduct, a lá the Bollinger/Ahmadinejad show at Columbia.

If that's what you're expecting, prepare to be disappointed. The other speakers at the conference are like a "Who's Who" of lawyers for the radical left, and include some of Stewart's most vocal defenders; the keynote speaker is none other than Michael Tigar, the lawyer who represented her.

In addition, radical lawyer Ron Kuby, who was Rahman's first lawyer, is on the same panel. The conference features topics like prosecutorial misconduct and defending Guantanamo Bay detainees, and comes across more like a leftist rally than a serious, balanced academic conference. Stewart is far more likely to be greeted as a hero than as a cautionary tale.

Hofstra Law School itself may have some explaining to do. While the school is free to choose whoever it wants as conference faculty – gosh, why not invite Jane Fonda while they're at it – it's asking lawyers to pay $475 to attend the event, for which continuing education credit (required for an attorney's license) is given.

However, New York bar regulations stipulate that accredited continuing legal education courses and programs "shall not be taught by a disbarred attorney, whether the disbarred attorney is the sole presenter or one of several instructors." In other words, attendees shelling out $475 may wind up with no credit or only partial credit, due to Lynne Stewart serving as conference faculty. (In response to concerns voiced by attorneys about the credit issue, Hofstra announced just before this article went to press that no credit will be given for Stewart's presentation).

However, it's more than just the fox running the henhouse scenario of a disbarred attorney purporting to teach an audience of lawyers about legal ethics that troubles me. Disbarred lawyers are, sadly, nothing new and they occupy every strata of political thought; from Richard Nixon (whose New York law license was forfeited for obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal) to Bill Clinton (whose Arkansas law license was suspended for 5 years as part of a plea bargain, and who resigned his right to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in advance of disbarment proceedings).

What bothers me even more is Lynne Stewart being held up as a victim who was prosecuted for zealous defense tactics. Abdel Rahman received due process to the hilt, including publicly-subsidized legal representation – thanks to the 6th Amendment guarantees of the very system Rahman was committed to tearing down.

Long after his appeals were exhausted, Rahman's sole "need" was not for an attorney, but a co-conspirator who would help him maintain his relevance to and influence over his jihadist followers by passing information back and forth. He found that co-conspirator in Lynne Stewart.

When Stewart's apologists point out that in a society based as ours is on the rule of law, being a defense lawyer for even the most reviled defendant is a noble and necessary calling. I cannot disagree. But an accused is entitled to a lawyer who will work within the rules and ensure her client every reasonable doubt; he is not entitled to an accomplice to further a campaign of terror.

For someone who held herself out as a human rights attorney, Lynne Stewart showed no regard for the rights of innocent victims of terror.

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