Sunday, March 17, 2019

At Harvard, a #MeToo Clash With Lawyers' Role

      The #MeToo Movement is colliding on the Harvard University campus with the time-honored tradition in American law that lawyers do not shirk from representing unpopular clients or unpopular causes. The clash emerged as Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard Law School professor and resident faculty dean of one of Harvard's undergraduate houses, came under fire for joining the dream team of lawyers representing the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in his upcoming criminal trial on sexual misconduct charges.
      Sullivan, director of the law school's criminal justice institute and the first African-American to serve as faculty dean of one of Harvard's undergraduate houses, is under pressure on the Cambridge, Mass., campus from among others a student group critical of Harvard's record in combating sexual misconduct. Some students have called for him to step aside from his role as Winthrop House faculty dean, but 52 of Sullivan's law school colleagues defended his participation in the Weinstein case in a joint letter and warned the college administration against dismissing him from his residential deanship.
      Sullivan's on-campus critics are right, however, in seeing a conflict in the dual roles of defending Weinstein and ensuring a supportive climate on campus for victims of sexual misconduct. Sullivan has added to the conflict with comments denigrating the #MeTooMovement and casting doubt generally on the credibility of accusations of sexual misconduct. That conflict will inevitably grow if Sullivan emerges as the public voice for challenging the credibility of all of Weinstein's accusers.
      The tradition of representing unpopular clients dates back as far as John Adams' defense of the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre despite Adams' anti-royalist views. The lawyers' obligations have been celebrated not only in legal ethics classes but also in fiction and film adaptations such as To Kill a Mockingbird and John Grisham's A Time to Kill.
      The heroes of those two films, Atticus Finch and Jake Tyler, portrayed by Gregory Peck and Matthew McConaughey respectively, represented wrongly accused black defendants in predominantly white towns in the racially polarized South. Real-life lawyers, black and white, similarly risked public disapproval and scorn in representing black defendants and white civil rights crusaders in the civil rights era. So too the left-leaning lawyers who represented public figures and government officials caught up in the anti-communist McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s.
      Sullivan has wrapped himself in this tradition ever since the New York Post first reported in mid-January that he was joining two high-profile criminal defense attorneys in representing Weinstein in his forthcoming criminal trials. Weinstein is admittedly unpopular: he has been public enemy number one for the #MeTooMovement ever since the bushel basket of sexual misconduct accusations began to surfaced in October 2017.
      Weinstein does not lack, however, for top-notch lawyers willing to provide him the kind of defense needed to assure a fair trial. Before enlisting Sullivan, Weinstein had already secured the services of two of the nation's most prominent and successful criminal defense lawyers: New York's José Baez and Denver's Pamela Mackey. Baez is best remembered for his successful defense of Casey Anthony in the 2011 trial for murder in the drowning death of her young daughter. Mackey gained national prominence for successfully defending the basketball star Kobe Bryant against rape charges in 2003.
      Sullivan has paid his dues in reform-minded criminal defense work by, for example, helping to design an indigent defense system in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina and helping to build a conviction integrity unit for the Brooklyn district attorney's office. He has represented in sexual misconduct cases accusers and defendants alike. But with no compelling need for his services in Weinstein's case, cynics are entitled to view the reasons for Sullivan's participation to be less than idealistic: the fee and the publicity.
      All of Sullivan's experience and good deeds cannot offset the discomfort that any sexual misconduct victims among his undergraduate charges would feel in bringing their cases to Sullivan as their resident faculty dean. By now, more than 300 students have signed a petition that cites this issue as their reason for calling him to step aside from his Winthrop House role.
      Sullivan has acknowledged the concern at least in part by designating a female assistant as the point person at Winthrop House for receiving complaints of sexual misconduct. But he has also cast himself as the innocent victim of students unmindful of the presumption of innocence and the importance of legal representation for even the worst of the worst of criminal defendants. He has complained of what he called incendiary coverage of the issue by the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, including a signed op-ed by two undergraduates calling for him to be replaced as Winthrop House dean.
      The Harvard administration has responded to the controversy by instituting a so-called "climate survey" of Winthrop House's several hundred undergraduates. Along with playing the "blame the messenger" card, Sullivan is playing the race card by noting that the college has never before conducted a similar survey to check on a white faculty dean's performance. The controversy took an ugly turn recently when someone painted the graffito "Remove Sullivan" on one of Winthrop House's redbrick walls.
      The controversy can only turn uglier for undergraduates and Sullivan alike once he engages actively in Weinstein's defense. For all concerned, the best course now is for Sullivan to withdraw and turn full attention to his full-time job as professor and in loco parentis to his students.

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