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Op-ed: Ronald Sullivan and the Case for Due Process of Law

(Julio Cortez, AP)

This is not about defending Ronald Sullivan or any one individual; it is about affirming the right for lawyers to defend their clients without facing condemnation in their personal and professional lives.”

Harvard has decided not to renew its contract with professor Ronald Sullivan to continue as Winthrop House’s faculty dean.

The professor, who had joined Harvey Weinstein’s legal team at the beginning of 2019, faced a strong backlash from some Harvard students for his decision to represent the embattled film producer. Those who protested him argued that,“Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein conflicts with his role as a faculty dean.”

The case opens a discussion not only on the due process of law but also on moral trials promoted by mobs. When these groups dismiss long-standing and well-established— principles and institutions cave to their demands—intellectual insecurity becomes rampant. 

Due process requires the State to apply and respect a person’s legal rights, providing a fundamentally fair procedure. In the past, many questionable actions were taken by judges and prosecutors, hence the need for due process, which has been evolving since the composition of the English Magna Carta in 1215, a document written to limit the powers of the monarch—and a document which has influenced several constitutions all over the world.

Regardless of the identity of the accused—or the crime he or she has allegedly committed—this is a constitutional guarantee extended to all, and even the most repugnant criminals must be properly advised by a lawyer. In the case of particularly egregious criminals, perhaps this is a hard pill for the general public to swallow, but a failure to respect the need for the accused to receive competent counsel makes for an extremely dangerous legal and political climate. 

Lawyers play a fundamental role in ensuring a fair process and maintaining our legal order. A lawyer’s client does not reflect his counsellor’s beliefs and ideas. Sullivan himself observes that, “Lawyers are not extensions or alter egos of their clients. Also, lawyers do not represent the ideology of their clients…Just as surgeons don’t decline to work on people because they’re bad, lawyers too have these same obligations once they undertake a representation.”

Harvard students seem not to understand this, but they should. They also fail to understand that long-established principles ought not be bended in response to their emotions and outbursts. However, as institutions fail to stand up to these mobs and instead embrace their demands, these radical groups are encouraged to proceed with trials by outrage. 

As Greg Lukianoff put it in his March interview with Merion West, “In order to stop these cases cold, you need some [university] presidents that will stand up early and often and say, ‘I understand you may not want this man to be the head of a dormitory, but he is going to be that; and we are not going to undermine his freedom of speech and his ability to defend people that you may dislike.’”

Although it is important to listen to what protesters have to say, some of their demands should not be accepted, particularly when such demands contradict the fundamental pillars of liberal democracy. Failure to oppose these mobs and allowing situations similar to Sullivan’s to happen again will fuel this new digital inquisition descending on our world. 

This is not about defending Ronald Sullivan or any one individual; it is about affirming the right for lawyers to defend their clients without facing condemnation in their personal and professional lives. It is also a call against feeding an ochlocracy that seeks to destroy the reputations of those who do not agree with its radical ideas.

Julio Araujo is a law student at FMU. He writes about politics, economics, and society.

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