Radical Sheik At CUNY Law

A number of ideologues-in-training at City University’s law school thought it would be, like, cool and radical to honor the egregious Lynne Stewart as its public-interest lawyer of the year. Ms. Stewart is under federal indictment for assisting her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, organize terrorism from his prison cell. The sheik was convicted in 1995 of directing plots to bomb New York landmarks, and several of his followers are serving time for bombing the World Trade Center 10 years ago.

Luckily for the school’s reputation, a dean at CUNY Law ruled that the students were out of order. So Ms. Stewart will not be accepting the plaudits of CUNY Law graduates this spring. An apparently shattered and disillusioned student asked The New York Times : “What message does this send to us?”

Well, I can think of several:

1) When selecting a public-interest lawyer to celebrate, see to it that the lawyer does, in fact, work for the public’s interest. Ms. Stewart specializes in the defense of cop killers, mob drug dealers and terrorists. It’s hard to discern the public benefit from her work. Public-interest law, as I understand it, involves the unglamorous but decidedly important work of suing polluters, looking after the rights of workers, monitoring abuses in nursing homes, calling attention to bad government, advocating for mass-transit riders-that sort of thing. Thousands of lawyers perform this admirable work, although their names apparently are unknown to the scholars at CUNY Law. Here’s a friendly suggestion for next year’s public-interest lawyer of the year: Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group. If you need to ask why, you’re not doing your homework.

2) While Ms. Stewart is entitled to a presumption of innocence and may well be a victim of government harassment, her past statements should debar her from the company of decent-minded law students. In talking about the atrocity of Sept. 11, Ms. Stewart infamously told The New York Times Magazine : “I’m pretty inured to the notion that in a war or in an armed struggle, people die. They’re in the wrong place, they’re in a nightclub in Israel, they’re in a stock market in London, they’re in the Algerian outback-whatever it is, people die.” The problem with Sept. 11, she said, was that people took the attacks personally. If only they knew the truth-“actually, it wasn’t a personal thing,” she said. What a comforting thought.

Ms. Stewart had every right to articulate a barely veiled effort to justify the Sept. 11 attacks, but doing so ought to win her nothing but contempt-and, certainly, not the congratulations of CUNY Law.

3) It is one thing to provide legal counsel to terrorists and cop killers in the name of “armed struggle”; it’s quite another to offer aid and comfort. Ms. Stewart believes that attacks on American and/or Western institutions and civilians can be explained away as a response to the oppression and various -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) that exist, in Ms. Stewart’s view, only in the United States or other Western countries. Again, Ms. Stewart has every right to denounce the U.S. and the West while celebrating the cause of Islamicists, cop killers, Third World thugs and the like. But is this the kind of public-interest lawyer CUNY Law students wish to honor and emulate? If so, there’s a much larger problem on campus.

4) Ms. Stewart and lawyers like her are not what they claim to be-that is, the defenders of society’s outcasts. If that were true, we could expect battalions of self-proclaimed radical lawyers eagerly defending, say, a white supremacist’s right to assembly and free speech. Although Ms. Stewart celebrates the right to armed struggle and politically minded violence, she and lawyers like her would never defend a pro-life zealot accused of bombing abortion clinics.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union do not pick and choose whose rights they will support. They believe that civil liberties apply to all, not just the groups with which they agree. Ms. Stewart and other radical lawyers defend only the rights of those they find agreeable. In a recent interview, Ms. Stewart said that she wouldn’t defend, for example, Charles Schwarz, one of the police officers accused of assaulting Abner Louima. But she has defended the Black Liberation Army and others accused of killing police officers.

If CUNY Law’s students wished to demonstrate how much they abhor John Ashcroft’s assaults on civil liberties, they could have selected the most articulate and principled civil-liberties advocate I know: journalist and author Nat Hentoff. Of course, there are two problems with Mr. Hentoff. First, he believes that civil liberties extend to unborn children, and even CUNY Law is not so avant-garde to honor a pro-life civil libertarian.

Secondly, Mr. Hentoff is not a lawyer.

Then again, based on bar-exam results, neither are many of CUNY Law’s graduates.