The Magazine

Obama's Injustice Department

The irresponsible Office of Professional Responsibility.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By MICHAEL STOKES PAULSEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

3. Incompetently assessing lawyers' professional roles: OPR seemingly has no comprehension of the basic principle of legal ethics that a lawyer does not endorse everything his client may wish to do, within the bounds of the law. A lawyer acts properly when he seeks to help his client figure out exactly where the lines are. ABA Rule 1.2(d) provides that lawyers may not counsel clients to engage in conduct they know is illegal, but that a lawyer "may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law." It is plain from reading the memos involved that this is exactly what the Bush Justice Department lawyers were doing--discussing with their clients the legal consequences of what they proposed to do and endeavoring to assist them to ascertain the meaning and scope of the laws and constitutional provisions involved.

The leaks suggest that OPR has reviewed internal emails and found what it thinks are indications that the client agencies (the CIA or the White House) wanted the Department of Justice attorneys to come out a certain way or consider specific issues or arguments--that they had a desired or preferred outcome, which would permit harsh interrogations to go forward. Surprise! Clients always have a desired result in mind and would prefer that their lawyers say yes rather than no. Government agencies are, in my experience, no different from any other client in this regard.

But so what? In the absence of smoking-gun evidence that the lawyers had concluded that a proposed course of conduct was illegal, but that they then agreed to provide a "cover" memo whose advice was contrary to that conclusion, there is no ethical problem here at all. There is nothing wrong with a lawyer exhaustively studying all plausible legal avenues that might sustain a client's desired course of conduct. There is nothing wrong with exploring additional arguments that may support a client's proposed course of action, even if those might not have been part of a lawyer's initial thinking. There is nothing wrong even with a lawyer reconsidering or modifying his initial views in the course of such a process.

For OPR to suggest anything else--to suggest that this is a violation of legal ethics principles--would be, in my opinion, an incompetent analysis of the law of legal ethics.

4. Incompetence about competence: Which brings me to a fourth huge flaw in what OPR is said to be reporting: the suggestion that the Bush administration lawyers' legal work failed to satisfy professional standards of "competence." The notion is that failure to cite some specific case, or to discuss some historical precedent, renders the Bush team's legal analysis incompetent.

As a matter of legal ethics law, as applied to the memos in question, this is simply ludicrous. One may well disagree with the conclusions reached in one or more of the memos, or with some of the arguments contained therein. One may well think that the memos should have been written differently--discussed certain points not included, omitted certain arguments that were included; said less, said more. But there is a world of difference between Monday-morning quarterbacking and incompetent lawyering. Anyone who does not recognize that is not thinking straight--is either not himself a good lawyer or is blinded by a partisan agenda. One can make many fair criticisms of the legal memos, but incompetence is not a charge that can fairly be made.

5. Incompetence about the underlying law: Constitutional law, in addition to legal ethics, is one of my areas of teaching and scholarship. In my opinion, the most basic problem with any suggestion of incompetence is that the memos' essential legal conclusions are correct. There is a fundamental distinction in the law between what constitutes actual, legal "torture" under applicable standards and what may be harsh, aggressive, unpleasant interrogation tactics but not, legally, "torture." Reasonable people will come to different conclusions as to where that line is, but the Bush administration's lawyers' conclusions are certainly defensible and, I think, ultimately correct. As a matter of constitutional law, moreover, the Bush administration memos' most sweeping and categorical conclusion--that at all events no statute or treaty may limit the president's sole constitutional powers as military commander in chief to direct and conduct the use of U.S. force--is in my opinion unquestionably correct.