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Walter Olson
Over the Edge
Hofstra Law School’s new guest lecturer on legal ethics: disbarred felon Lynne Stewart
5 October 2007

Given the hothouse ideological atmosphere of today’s legal academia, it’s quite possible that administrators at Long Island’s Hofstra Law School had no idea that they’d touch off a furor when they invited Lynne Stewart, the disbarred felon and radical lawyer, to lecture on legal ethics. It’s not, after all, as if they were bringing in someone really controversial—someone, say, like Larry Summers or Donald Rumsfeld.

Stewart, recall, was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to terrorists after a jury found that she had conspired with her client, the bloodthirsty “blind sheikh” Omar Abdul Rahman, to smuggle out messages to his followers. (She remains at liberty while her case is on appeal.) The followers in question had committed such atrocities as the first World Trade Center bombing and the massacre of 58 Western tourists in Luxor, Egypt, as well as plotting unsuccessfully to slaughter thousands more New Yorkers by blowing up city landmarks. Secret prison wiretaps leave no doubt that Stewart broke the law in the manner alleged; in interviews she has forthrightly acknowledged her ideological solidarity with Abdul Rahman as a foe of American imperialism, and her support for “directed violence” against “the institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism, sexism, and at the people who are the appointed guardians of those institutions.”

None of which has deterred Stewart’s supporters from insisting that she’s (to quote an Arizona State law student) “a high principled idealist who was singled out for her willingness to advocate for unpopular and controversial clients.” Inevitably, she has become a regular on the college circuit, addressing audiences at San Francisco State, Portland State, UC Davis, and many other institutions; one Minnesota event under putatively educational auspices was later described as a “rally for credit.” Only occasionally has the utterly unrepentant Stewart, who remains at liberty pending resolution of her appeals, been met with anything short of adulation—though she did miss out on the dignity of being named a “Public Interest Mentor” during her paid gig at Stanford, when law dean Kathleen Sullivan reversed the decision of underlings who had bestowed that honorific on her.

When Hofstra sent out the brochure for its conference, “Lawyering on the Edge: Unpopular Clients, Difficult Cases, and Zealous Advocates,” it did not mention Stewart’s conviction or disbarment, listing her merely as “high profile radical and human rights attorney.” That anodyne description led James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Web” to wonder whether the school really “regards a disbarred criminal as an expert on legal ethics and someone who has been convicted of giving material support to mass murder as a champion of human rights.” Taranto’s criticism sent Professor Monroe Freedman, a legal ethics specialist who’s among the school’s best-known law professors, into what looked like damage-control mode. “Ms. Stewart is not being invited to teach trial advocacy,” Freedman wrote to Taranto’s colleagues at the Journal’s law blog. “Implicit in lawyering at the edge is the risk of going over the edge, both ethically and legally. Like every speaker at our highly successful conferences, Stewart will speak for twenty minutes and then be subjected to sharp questioning for an equal twenty minutes. Students are more likely, therefore, to come away viewing her not as a role model, but as a cautionary lesson. That’s effective education in lawyers’ ethics, which is too often considered a dry, uninteresting, and unimportant subject.”

By suggesting that Stewart has been invited as an example of the “risk of going over the edge, both ethically and legally,” and that students are likely to come away seeing her “not as a role model, but as a cautionary lesson,” Freedman might leave the impression that Stewart will face a lion’s den of severe critics. Why, a hasty reader might even conclude that the decision to bring her on board was a Bollinger-and-Ahmadinejad “invite-her-to-refute-her” sort of affair.

A look at the October 14–16 conference schedule, however, tells a different story. Joining Stewart’s panel—the conference’s final one—will be attorneys Ron Kuby and Richard P. Mauro. Kuby, who probably needs no introduction to most readers, preceded Stewart in representing Abdul Rahman, and has stridently denounced Stewart’s prosecution in the press. Mauro, a Utah criminal-defense attorney, has been involved in unrelated controversies in which lawyers for unpopular defendants have encountered dangers of personal legal jeopardy—a theme, of course, that Stewart’s partisans would very much like to associate with her claims to martyrdom. Are we really supposed to believe that the point of assembling this panel was to send students away with the lesson that Stewart’s actions went “over the edge, both ethically and legally”?

What about the rest of the conference? Well, the banquet speaker turns out to be leftist lawyer Gerald Lefcourt, another of Stewart’s most vocal defenders. And the keynote speaker? None other than Michael Tigar, who represented Stewart at her trial. It’s true that the three-day conference will address various other topics, including Guantánamo, capital defense representation, and prosecutorial misconduct. But overall, the lineup looks very unlike the lion’s-den model, and perhaps a good deal closer to the “rally for credit.”

Critics, however, may have the last laugh. The conference brochure announces that “Hofstra Law School is an accredited NYS CLE provider. Continuing Legal Education credits and scholarships are available.” Yet as a commenter pointed out at Legal Ethics Blog, New York regulations declare that accredited continuing legal education courses and programs “shall not be taught by a disbarred attorney, whether the disbarred attorney is the sole presenter or one of several instructors.”

The Hofstra brochure designates Lynne Stewart among “conference faculty,” but does not warn registrants of the danger of partial or complete loss of CLE credit. Lawyers are asked to pay $475 to attend the conference. Were the conference organizers themselves lawyering a bit closer to the edge than they realized?

Walter Olson is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and edits PointofLaw.com. He is at work on a book about law schools.

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