Incarceration Nation

Message to the National Lawyers Guild

By Lynne Stewart

Note to readers: I’ve been approved for compassionate release by the doctors and staff that have seen me on a daily basis since April. I fulfill all the requirements in the latest regulation for compassionate release. I now have only a 14-month life prognosis.

Brothers and Sisters of the National Lawyers Guild, I wanted to send you this most important health bulletin—not personal, but on the steady evisceration of the right to counsel, the bulwark of all we do. Within the last weeks, a suspect was forcibly detained for crimes against the U.S. He was taken from Libya to an offshore ship where he was being interrogated, read tortured. When the Public Defenders of the Southern District of New York, where his case is ostensibly pending, attempted to have counsel appointed for him, they were turned down in no uncertain terms by Judges using the now all too common weasel words. But this is not a new phenomenon. It is apparent over and over again and the question remains, what are WE, who claim to be the last protection against an overreaching state, going to do about it?

How important is this? I need to tell a couple of anecdotes about lawyering. My dear deceased friend Bill Kunstler1, in the tumultuous years in which the FBI-Joint Terrorism Task Force was rounding up the remnants of the Underground, Sekou Odinga, a member of the Black Panthers and then the Black Liberation Army, related to me that he had been detained in a Queens, New York City precinct for many hours, was being water boarded by the police in one of the toilets, and was really feeling it badly when all at once he heard the booming voice of the Great Kunstler echoing through the hallways demanding to see his client, and he knew that he had been saved.

The other story was one that I told at an earlier convention and a young lawyer from San Diego wrote to tell me that it had turned her life around. After my arrest, Ralph [Ralph Poynter, Lynne Stewart’s husband] and I were stuck in Manhattan traffic, when a bicycle messenger pulled up and tapped on my window. When I opened it he said in an excited and joyous voice “You THE Lawyer! You the LAWYER!” Indeed I was and indeed it was and is my greatest ambition and accomplishment to be THE lawyer.

Back in the day and I mean way back, when this adversary system had its origins, the accused had the right to select a champion to fight for their rights and I mean fight—jousting, swordplay, mace and chain—OK, perhaps a little hyperbole, but the message is clear—we were hired for our brawn as well as brains, our courage as well as legal acumen. We need to get courage and creativity in combat, back into the equation. It’s not about schmoozing the prosecution or the Judge. How many courtrooms have I walked into where there was not one friendly face, there was just me, and the client? Even the stenographers were hostile! And that’s OK because I was there for only one reason, the one I took an oath to zealously pursue, the defense of my client. Was it fearsome personally? Of course. But to do otherwise was more so.

I urge everyone to return to the days of robust lawyering. Be Bill Kunstler in the precinct. Be “The Lawyer.” Be the champion who defends fearlessly. When I say that the right to counsel is being eviscerated I mean that the forces of the empire are very busy removing the nerves, the hearts and guts of the Fifth Amendment and leaving it a shell of what it was and can be. We are the opposition that needs to gather our shields and swords in its defense and be selfless and brave. Let us press forward. Instead of the derision we often face, let us all strive to be “the Lawyer”—respected and honored.

1 William Moses Kunstler (July 7, 1919 - September 4, 1995) was a radical lawyer and civil rights activist. Kunstler was a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the co-founder of the Law Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the “leading gathering place for radical lawyers in the country”.[1]

Kunstler’s defense of the “Chicago Seven“ from 1969-1970 led The New York Times to label him “the country’s most controversial and, perhaps, its best-known lawyer ...”[1] Kunstler is also well known for defending members of the Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, Weather Underground Organization, the Attica Prison rioters, and the American Indian Movement.[1] He also won a de facto segregation case regarding the District of Columbia‘s public schools and “disinterred, singlehandedly” the concept of federal removal jurisdiction in the 1960s.[1] Kunstler refused to defend right-wing groups such as the Minutemen, on the grounds that: “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.”[1]