Jewish World Review May 1, 2003 / 29 Nissan, 5763
CUNY Law gives grads a cynical parting gift
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Last week, the law school of the City University of New York decided to give its graduating seniors a final lesson to take with them into practice: It is better to be popular than principled in your professional lives. This lesson was drilled home when the school revoked a graduation award because the students selected someone who might displease some of the school's financial backers.
The controversy began when more than half of the graduating class picked Lynne F. Stewart as their choice for Public Interest Lawyer of the Year. Stewart is a lawyer who gained fame in representing some of New York's most hated criminal defendants. Stewart is also currently under criminal indictment by the Justice Department for allegedly facilitating communications between one such client, Omar Abdel Rahman, and his terrorist-linked followers. Rahman is a blind and rabid cleric, who is serving a life sentence for a terrorist conspiracy.
Stewart has pleaded not guilty and many lawyers have denounced the charges as retaliation by the Justice Department against a woman who has been a thorn in its side for years. More importantly, the case deals with unresolved issues of an attorney's role as an advocate and her First Amendment rights of free speech. A motion to dismiss all charges against Stewart is pending.
Apparently, it was not the merits of the still unproven allegations that motivated the school's action, but rather the fear of a backlash from politicians who control part of the school's revenues. Dean Kristin Booth Glen explained that, because of Stewart's controversial status, "we will not be able to escape the consequences that come from sources unwilling to listen or who might seize this opportunity to malign the law school, its graduates or its mission."
Glen and others were reportedly afraid that the school's funding could be adversely affected, particularly at a time when CUNY is being criticized for the low passage rate of its graduates on the bar. (Of course, the low passage rate may be due to the way the school teaches subjects like the presumption of innocence.)
Ultimately, the principle here is not about Rahman or even Stewart. It is about the duty of the school to defend the choice of its students and to resist pressures to censor their exercise of free speech. As happens in many legal controversies, the law school was asked to support not the choice but the process itself. The ethical relativism shown by the school is the historical scourge of the law, the notion that one should support principle only at a manageable cost. But we shouldn't abandon positions merely because there are people who are "unwilling to listen." To the contrary, we teach that it is the unpopular decisions that are often the very test of principle.
Of course, none of this means that Stewart is innocent of the charges or that she is the most worthy recipient of the award. Frankly, Stewart would not have been my choice. Throughout her career, Stewart has dangerously blurred the roles of lawyer and advocate. At a minimum, Stewart seems guilty of terrible judgment and a lack of professional objectivity. This case, however, raised fundamental questions of advocacy that could rage unresolved for years - issues that made her a natural choice for students who want to challenge a growing sense of forced conformity in society today.
The students selected an unpopular defense attorney for a reason. They clearly wanted to send a message about the importance of dissenting voices in a legal system at a time of national unrest. Their law school responded by sending precisely the opposite message of ethical relativism and self-censorship.
Now that the law school has acted, the next decision rests with the students and their graduation speaker, Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. A graduation ceremony is about symbolism, and the school is now asking students to begin their legal careers with an act of ethical acquiescence. They and Henderson should decline such an invitation. There would be no greater answer to the lack of principle shown by the law school than the scene of a faculty facing a sea of empty chairs on May 23.
This is not an easy choice for students who have worked long and sacrificed much to attend graduation. But regardless of how one feels about Stewart, the association of these graduates with the law will only be strengthened by their disassociation with this saddest of ceremonies.
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