Editorial: Don’t judge a lawyer by his client. Even if that client is Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein arrives at the State Supreme Court with his new lawyers, Ronald Sullivan and Jose Baez, in New York, NY on Jan. 25.
Harvey Weinstein arrives at the State Supreme Court with his new lawyers, Ronald Sullivan and Jose Baez, in New York, NY on Jan. 25.
(Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images)

A Harvard law professor who is also a prominent criminal defense attorney is under fire from students who object — irrationally — to the fact that he is representing Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer accused of sexual assault.

About 270 people have signed an online petition urging that Ronald Sullivan resign from his position as the faculty dean of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s undergraduate residential houses.

The petition asks rhetorically: “For those of you who are members of Winthrop House, do you really want to one day accept your diploma from someone who for whatever reason, professional or personal, believes it is okay to defend such a prominent figure at the center of the #MeToo movement?”

The idea that lawyers should be judged by their clients is a familiar — and dangerous — one. During the Obama administration, prominent conservatives objected to the fact that lawyers in the Justice Department previously had represented or advocated for suspected terrorists. Never mind that the American legal system depends for its legitimacy on an adversarial process, and never mind the fundamental tenet that accused criminal defendants deserve to be represented by counsel.

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Sullivan made that point eloquently in his response to Winthrop House residents: “It’s particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else — perhaps even more important. To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights, we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be.”

In the past, Sullivan (who serves on the Harvard faculty because of his expertise in criminal defense, after all) has defended accused murderers and terrorists, apparently without arousing significant concerns on the part of students.

The students who are criticizing Sullivan this time make an additional argument: that by defending Weinstein, he compromises his role as the live-in faculty dean. According to the university, faculty deans at Harvard “set the tone for the house in its activities and in its function as a close-knit community.” The concern, apparently, is that students who have been victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment won’t feel comfortable expressing their concerns to the man who defended Harvey Weinstein.

But there’s no reason why a faculty dean who, in his role as a lawyer, defends someone accused of sexual assault, can’t respond sensitively to issues of sexual assault on campus. And if, despite that, students feel Sullivan is not someone they are comfortable with, there are plenty of other places they can go on the Harvard campus for help and counseling, including Winthrop House’s resident dean, Linda Chavers.

The online petition calling on Sullivan to step down said that he “should first and foremost value the safety of the students he lives with in Winthrop House.” This reflects the insidious notion, increasingly prevalent on college campuses, that proximity to someone whose views offend you makes you “unsafe.”

In the aftermath of the controversy over Sullivan’s representation, Harvard is conducting a “climate review” that will survey attitudes of students in Winthrop House. Although the survey isn’t being portrayed as a plebiscite on Sullivan, it’s troubling to think that some of the students who respond will echo the petition’s assertion that a lawyer defending a client accused of a serious crime can’t serve as a mentor to students. That claim is false, a lesson that Harvard students need to learn.

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