Rights for Everybody!

There was something in the news a week or two ago about an Obama appointee named Debo Adegbile getting blocked by Republicans and a handful of Democrats. Since I care more about abstracts than particulars, I wanted to make sure not to write about it while it was current, but it’s been long enough by now that nobody remembers it.

To start with, I don’t care about Debo Adegbile. The only information I have on him is that he was appointed to a civil rights commission or something, and the Senate blocked him because he had allegedly advocated for an unrepentant murderer. This then showed up in the conservative parts of the Internet as “Obama appointee too radical even for some Democrats.” So, politics as usual.

Here’s what I do care about: The “advocating” that he did was to file an appellate brief on behalf of the guy in a U.S. federal court. And because he had been a lawyer for a murderer, he was declared unfit for whatever job the President tried to give him. Apparently, the belief is that guilty people don’t deserve lawyers, and anyone who acts as their lawyer needs to be stopped. I am going to start by saying why this is wrong, then accuse its supporters of undermining a basic right, then talk about how it disgusts me, and end by beating up on it some more.

The first reason that it’s wrong is because helping the murderer with his appeal is literally what appellate lawyers are supposed to do. “You zealously advocated for the rights of your client? You monster!” But the bigger reason is that it’s ridiculously important for lawyers to do that.

Picture a world where nobody appeals after a conviction. Say a defendant gets convicted and wants to appeal because the prosecution threatened to have witnesses killed if they don’t say the person’s guilty. Or something. I don’t really care about the details; just assume it wasn’t a fair trial. What you’re supposed to do is file an appeal. But in the world that a majority of the Senate thinks we should live in, lawyers should refuse to help you with that. Otherwise they’d be guilty of “advocating for a convicted criminal.”

The Senate appears to have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders of normal human psychology. I don’t know if it has a name or not, but they’re doing that thing where they identify who they think are the good people and bad people, and decide that the right thing to do is decide in favor of the good people and against the bad people. Sounds reasonable, right? They’re thinking on the specific case level instead of the meta level. That would probably work well for omniscient people, but if you are not currently God then you probably shouldn’t be trusted to make that decision.

Instead of deciding based on who is “obviously guilty,” we have a court system. We have a set of rules that we follow specifically because we don’t trust anyone to say which defendants deserve a fair trial. We give rights to everybody for that very reason. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it. And sticking to the rules is, in theory, more important than making sure that guilty people lose every appeal. In no case do we say “Yes, your Whateverth Amendment rights were violated…but you’re such a bad person that we don’t care.”

This is where the basic right part comes in. For illustration, pretend it’s a different right. Let’s say free speech. Suppose I’m a serial dog-kicker, but not currently serving a sentence. If I insult the governor of California, it’s not OK for him to have me thrown in prison without trial.  You might not care what happens to me; after all I am a despicable person who regularly punts puppies. But that’s irrelevant. You’d still want my free speech rights protected. You don’t need to like the person who invokes the rights, but if you’re a fan of civilization you should care about protecting the rights themselves. By the Senate’s logic, there would be no problem here. They just say “the bad man punted Baxter,” and that’s the end of it. I’m a bad person so I don’t deserve rights and nobody should side with me.

(Also keep in mind that you have the same rights I do. If there’s ever any precedent about “rights only for people we like,” that could very well come back to bite you in the whatever body part is best representative of not being imprisoned.) In that hypothetical, if I contact the ACLU and they agree to sue the state to protect my free speech rights, you would consider them to be the good guys.

Now change it a bit. Instead of a dog-kicker I’m an ordinary murderer. You don’t like me very much; maybe you even hate me. But regardless, you still care about my rights. So if I claim that my Eighth Amendment rights were violated, you will begrudgingly hear me out. Not because you care about me, but because you care about the Eighth Amendment being applied fairly. And once again, if someone argues my side they are not evil. They’re protecting the rights of the people regardless of despicableness. That makes them the good guys. And yet a majority of the Senate, backed by their constituents, thinks otherwise.

One Senator defended Adegbile by saying that, well, he was only an appellate lawyer. At least he never argued that the guy wasn’t a murderer. The implication is that if Adegbile had been a trial lawyer, then he shouldn’t head the civil rights commission. THIS ISN’T BETTER. Because there’s also a right to an attorney. That Senator is once again saying that if you side with people we don’t like, it reflects badly on you. Remember how John Adams defended the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre? Apparently today’s Congress would not stand for that.

Debo Adegbile was advocating for a convicted criminal. He was claiming that the convicted murderer had had his rights violated and that the violation needed to be corrected. This is not a bad thing, because if someone’s rights are being violated then somebody needs to call the government out on it.*

Here’s the thing. The Senate apparently thinks that supporting someone’s rights is the same thing as supporting that person. Which is not encouraging if you care about rights in the abstract. (I happen to not support the KKK, but I’d support their right to hold a march around my block. It’s a distinction that I would hope the great minds in Congress are capable of comprehending.) If it’s possible to be so disliked that your rights don’t matter, then your rights are dependent on public opinion. I said I’d accuse the supporters of the Senate of undermining a basic right, but I’ll go further. They’re undermining the concept of rights. They’re claiming that rights don’t apply to sufficiently bad people, when it is literally the point of rights that they apply to everyone.

There can be good enough reasons to override rights. We imprison criminals, overriding their right to freedom of movement because protecting people is important enough. We even execute people, because we think their right to life is outweighed by whatever benefit there’s supposed to be. But that’s not what’s going on here. People weren’t saying that Adegbile’s argument was wrong. It wasn’t about whether that guy’s rights had been violated. Their beef with Adegbile was that he had argued on behalf of the wrong person. The reason for blocking his appointment was, quite literally, that he had sided with a murderer. You will note that that applies equally well/badly regardless of whether and how the rights were actually violated.

Republicans like to go on at great length about how we’ve got this glorious country made of freedom. But when this case comes up, when those rights in the Constitution they say they care about are actually in question…. They didn’t say “there’s no rights violation here,” they said “how dare you argue for that person.” You know the people who claim not to trust the government with too much power? Those were the same people who blocked a nomination specifically because the nominee had challenged the government’s use of power. The difference, of course, is that he had challenged a use of power that they agreed with.

So, yeah, that’s kind of repulsive. The best-case scenario is that they didn’t actually believe what they were saying and were only doing it to score points against Obama. (Would this be a bad time to mention that I’m a registered Republican? I guess that fulfils the “ranting against people I agree with” thing I said I’d do on this blog.) But considering that several Democrats joined them, maybe they were actually telling the truth. Which in this case is even worse.

Now, just for fun, let’s imagine what it looks like if we take the Senate at their word. Suppose that it actually was unethical to advocate for a convicted criminal.

If you get 25 to life for stealing a slice of apparently really good pepperoni pizza, you probably think that’s excessive. You want to appeal. But you’ve been convicted. You’re a known Bad Person. Thanks to the Senate (those fearless protectors of our rights), every appellate lawyer knows to avoid siding with convicted criminals. Nobody helps you with the appeal, and the Supreme Court doesn’t pay any attention to your note saying “8 Amendment Plz?” in blue crayon.

25 years later, you get out on parole. You get accused of stealing another slice of pizza (this one had mushrooms). You need a lawyer, but who’s going to represent you? By now everyone knows better. If they advocate for a convicted criminal, that could be bad for their future career. They’d have to try to convince a jury that you didn’t steal the mushroom pizza, and even the pro-Adegbile faction wouldn’t stand for that. So the lawyers avoid you like the plague, and I hope you’re seeing a problem here.

The obvious solution is lawyers for everyone who’s accused of a crime. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s the solution the legal system is built around. Too bad nobody informed Congress.

*(I don’t actually know whether this particular murderer’s rights were violated. I could check how the appeal turned out, but I’m intentionally not doing that because it doesn’t matter. At the time that the appeal was filed, it hadn’t been determined yet and that’s why it needed to be argued.)