A (Not So) Quiet Revolt In A Harvard House
May 15, 2019 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Last Saturday, Harvard announced that it would not be renewing the faculty dean appointment of Harvard Law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and his wife, lecturer Stephanie Robinson. The decision had been in part due to toxic behavior going back years, but had ultimately been precipitated by student response to Sullivan choosing to join the defense team of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein.

The move to dismiss the couple as faculty deans has generated a backlash, with a number of pundits criticizing the school’s decision, arguing that it weakens the Sixth Amendment's right to representation (and other critics rebutting those arguments.)
posted by NoxAeternum (44 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
The New York Times article on this issue is awful. It way oversells Sullivan's case. It includes details like, the Harvard black law students' association supports Sullivan, without mentioning details like, the Harvard black women's student association lead the charge in opposing him.

No-one is saying that you shouldn't be able to represent Harvey Weinstein. They're saying that when you decide to represent Harvey Weinstein pro bono, it is going to be hard to simultaneously hold a position in which your job is partially to support sexual assault survivors and adjudicate on sexual assault cases.

Perhaps someone could have gained enough student trust to be capable of doing these two things simultaneously. But Sullivan's communication has been poor from the start, and you only need to read the Winthrop climate article linked in the header to realise there is a lot more yikes about his behaviour.
posted by sidek at 7:37 AM on May 15 [32 favorites]


Weinstein has a history of using his legal counsel to abuse his victims and there is no doubt that he will be adequately represented. The Sixth Amendment angle is sheer nonsense. I respect it anyway when it comes from the limited set of people who spend their time dealing with Sixth Amendment issues for indigent defendants, because they basically have PTSD from watching the criminal justice system brutalize people on a daily basis. (Lara Bazelon, for example, has a serious stake in this issue.)

But every random professor, pundit, or mouthy jerk who suddenly is stricken with high-minded concerns about The Constitution because a highly-compensated defense attorney is being criticized for defending a sleazy rich dude who misuses his attorneys to punish other people can, truly, go piss up a rope.

(Somewhere between "piss up a rope" and "I get why you feel this way even though I disagree" is Randall Kennedy.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:39 AM on May 15 [14 favorites]


They're saying that when you decide to represent Harvey Weinstein pro bono,

I can't find this info---where did you get this? Not saying you are wrong but for some reason I thought he was being paid?
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:44 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Okay, the OP was me being even handed on this. Now for my actual position - the critics, such as Lara Bazelon, who are engaging in what the folks at LGM referred to as "Sixth Amendment fetishism" are making a dishonest, bad faith argument that they should be ashamed of, using a form of rhetorical legerdemain to do so - namely pushing a general position to avoid dealing with the actual specifics of the situation at hand.

For example, here's Bazelon in her piece:
It is possible to be a residential dean who is empathic and open to student concerns while simultaneously representing a reviled accused sexual predator. To act as if those two roles are mutually exclusive is to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be a criminal defense attorney and a dean of a student residence. It implies that an academic who dares stand up in court as an attorney to an accused rapist is pro-rape, anti-feminist, and sending a message to survivors of sexual assault that their pain and harm is not real.

As a feminist academic who defends young men accused of sexual assault, I can tell you that I do the work I do because I believe competent legal representation for the accused is a critical component of any adjudication system. That belief has driven the choices I have made throughout my career, including the formative seven years I spent as a trial attorney in the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Los Angeles where, yes, I represented men charged with very serious sex crimes. The idea that I can’t be a zealous defense lawyer to any client while remaining a feminist who is empathic to my students is anathema—in fact it’s sexist and reductive.
Now, you'll point out that she's right in what she's saying, and I agree - in the general sense. But the thing is, we're not talking about the general position of defending an unpopular defendant. We're talking about the defense of a specific individual.

Or more bluntly, we're talking about defending Harvey Weinstein. Defending a sexual predator who, as part of his toolkit, used the law as a weapon to beat down and intimidate his victims, and who has shown that he plans to use a legal defense of putting his victims and their sexual histories on trial. In this specific case, it is in fact quite reasonable to assume that, without public statement to the contrary, that any lawyer signing on to his team is doing so understanding his legal strategy and is okay with that. Given that the faculty deans at Harvard are part of the institution's reporting mechanism for sexual assault, it's not difficult to see why students are seeing the two positions as incompatible.

This dishonest argument needs to be pointed out for what it is, because it is a reprehensible argument that dodges the actual question.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:45 AM on May 15 [30 favorites]


I had no idea the history of troubles at Winthrop far predates the Weinstein thing. I'd only seen this in the context of right wing Facebook outrage about "lack of due process". Thanks for posting this extra context.
posted by Nelson at 7:48 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Sullivan just seems like not a very good dude. My law school ethics professor defended prominent serial killers and other horrible people, and everyone wanted into his ethics section, and a lot of that was that he could explain cogently why he took on those cases, and could deconstruct both the legal ethics and the general ethics of doing so, and he lived his life in general in a way that supported his claims that his primary desire was ensuring access to justice for everyone.

Sullivan has consistently abused his authority to treat those subject to it (dorm employees) in an arbitrary and capricious manner, which rather dramatically undermines his claims to be all about the justice. (As though extremely wealthy white dudes are really lacking in access to justice or competent legal counsel to begin with.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:50 AM on May 15 [31 favorites]


critics, such as Lara Bazelon, who are engaging in what the folks at LGM referred to as "Sixth Amendment fetishism" are making a dishonest, bad faith argument that they should be ashamed of

I won't defend Lara Bazelon's argument except to say --- for the last time because I don't want to take over the thread --- that criminal defense attorneys who actually are in the trenches, like she is, are exposed to so much horrifying shit on a regular basis that they typically become radical criminal justice abolitionists. I agree that her argument is likely to be somewhat in bad faith, mainly because I think that she is not admitting, either to herself or to the audience, that she categorically reviles prosecutors and supports every defense attorney, categorically, in every situation, no matter what. Many of my friends who are defense attorneys are essentially impossible to reason with on this point, and I understand why and have a lot of respect and sympathy for their position.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:53 AM on May 15 [12 favorites]


Pro bono? Harvey's got a right to council, but that motherfucker has been stealing from talent for decades. He can afford to pay a fucking lawyer.
posted by vibrotronica at 7:56 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]


I agree that her argument is likely to be somewhat in bad faith, mainly because I think that she is not admitting, either to herself or to the audience, that she categorically reviles prosecutors and supports every defense attorney, categorically, in every situation, no matter what. Many of my friends who are defense attorneys are essentially impossible to reason with on this point, and I understand why and have a lot of respect and sympathy for their position.

This is why the practice of defending rapists using the "not guilty on account of the victim is a slut" defense continues to be treated as legitimate by the defense bar, which in turn erodes the legitimacy of their overall position. Nobody is above reproach, and to act as if one should be is blindness.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:59 AM on May 15 [15 favorites]


This doesn't seem like much of a controversy to me. I'm generally not the most hospitable person to campus protestors, but I have a hard time seeing how they're not 100% right here. Clear-cut case of someone wanting to be insulated from the consequences of their decisions. The fact that this dude is apparently an asshole too is just icing on the proverbial cake that he wants to both have and eat.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:04 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I don't see any evidence of pro bono legal services. Could this be cited before it becomes treated as fact.
posted by avalonian at 8:07 AM on May 15 [11 favorites]


Sullivan has consistently abused his authority to treat those subject to it (dorm employees) in an arbitrary and capricious manner, which rather dramatically undermines his claims to be all about the justice. (As though extremely wealthy white dudes are really lacking in access to justice or competent legal counsel to begin with.)

This is pretty much where I'm at on this. If Sullivan didn't have a history, I'd say that even Harvey Weinstein deserves a defense and shitting on a defense attorney for doing their duty isn't great. However, in this particular case, his choice to defend Weinstein isn't really the issue. The issue is that Sullivan has a history of shittiness and the only thing Weinstein has to do with it is that his high profile brought Sullivan scrutiny he had previously escaped.

Unfortunately, it is both true that prosecutors are generally terrible and are perfectly happy to manipulate evidence in a fundamentally dishonest manner that misleads the jury and that shitty defense attorneys are also perfectly happy to put victims on trial in a fundamentally dishonest manner that misleads the jury.

Apparently nothing matters except winning, however shady the tactics. For whatever reason it's something we've come to accept in this country.
posted by wierdo at 8:08 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Above The Law: Harvard Law School Makes Right Call To Oust Dean For Repping Harvey Weinstein
This isn’t a blow to the rights of the accused unless you think so little of the legal profession that every lawyer must be a mercenary in a world with no memories. If Ron Sullivan were in private practice there would be no quibble over his involvement. But he was a public face for an institution whose professional reputation relies on serving, first and foremost, its students. Having someone those students might approach to address an episode of sexual violence publicly arguing that women aren’t to be believed undermines his obligation to the school.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:10 AM on May 15 [20 favorites]


Yeah, the problem isn't that he's rendering services pro bono (because he sure as hell isn't), it's that he signed on to a defense built around abusing victims of sexual abuse, and then wondering why people no longer trust him as a reporter for sexual abuse at Harvard.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:10 AM on May 15 [16 favorites]


Justice? -- You get justice in the next world. In this one you have the law. ― William Gaddis
posted by chavenet at 8:19 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


“Those calling for Sullivan’s resignation or dismissal as a faculty dean solely because he is serving as Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer in a rape prosecution are displaying an array of disturbingly widespread tendencies. One is impatience with drawing essential distinctions such as that between a lawyer and his client. Another is a willingness to minimize or dispense with important safeguards like fair trials. Yet another is a tendency to resort to demonization.”

'Solely'? Not solely. Going by the Crimson article, he's also a terrible administrator. And he is not being dismissed or forced to resign, his contract is not being renewed. He is not being re-hired for a job he wasn't very good at, and that's not even looking at the Weinstein stuff.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:20 AM on May 15 [18 favorites]


There's also a nomenclature issue here. Before 2016, Harvard faculty deans were simply called 'House Masters' because their primary role is in overseeing an undergraduate House. They advise students, set the tone for the House, for its social and administrative affairs.

Harvard isn't removing him from Harvard Law school where he teaches. They are removing him as the chief administrator of an undergraduate House because undergraduates feel they cannot trust him. Aside from his other history, he has a clear conflict of interest here. That is sufficient reason enough.
posted by vacapinta at 8:27 AM on May 15 [27 favorites]


And the reason for that is because his decision to willingly join a defense that has been very clear about attacking sexual assault and rape victims as a defense strategy has made it impossible for him to be trusted as part of Harvard's system for reporting sexual harassment.

One of the reasons, yes. Others include that he has shown that he cannot be trusted as part of Harvard's system for reporting anything, because he has a history of retaliating and carrying grudges.
posted by Etrigan at 8:32 AM on May 15 [13 favorites]


[One deleted. NoxAeternum, please take a step back and don't threadsit.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:33 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I expected to sort of roll my eyes at the concerns about treatment of staff, but they seem really serious. As just one example:

Since the spring of 2016, Proctor has served as the point person for Winthrop’s tutor hiring. Proctor has been employed by the Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute, which Sullivan directs, since 2011.

If Proctor is being asked to do this as part of his job (and when you're asked by your incredibly powerful boss to do something, it is basically always part of your job) it constitutes the meaningful diversion of staff resources from a criminal justice clinic that provides pro bono defense services to indigent children. It is shockingly bad behavior. Even if Proctor was just asked to do it as a favor, on his own time, it's super inappropriate for him to be asked to do something like this for his boss.

I expected Proctor to be an office assistant or something similar, but he is a criminal attorney (!!!) who surely has better things to do than help his boss hire glorified RAs. Furthermore, institutes like the Criminal Justice Institute are funded with grants, donations, funds, etc. made specifically in service of their mission. Funded staff are to be used to further that mission which is, you know, kind of important.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:44 AM on May 15 [12 favorites]


A relevant side note, I have no doubt the counter argument pundits are all in favor of at-will employment states and running their corporations like fiefdoms. But a (PRIVATE) institution of higher education doing it to protect vulnerable populations? TIME TO OWN THE LIBS.
posted by avalonian at 9:08 AM on May 15 [10 favorites]


Persecuting defense lawyers based on who they defend is toxic to the justice system, and is a signpost on the road to fascism.
Each party in court has a right to a lawyer, even the guilty and the unpopular. It does not imply that the lawyer endorses the client's alleged actions or thinks they are innocent.
posted by w0mbat at 9:20 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Here is Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy (earlier) criticizing Harvard's decision.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:22 AM on May 15


Persecuting defense lawyers based on who they defend is toxic to the justice system, and is a signpost on the road to fascism.

Declining to re-up a contract for a job that is unrelated to the law is not persecution and has nothing to do with the justice system. This is true even if we are disregarding the fact that Sullivan and Robinson had previously displayed behavior that was related to the actual job that Harvard declined to re-offer them at the expiration of their current contract.
posted by Etrigan at 9:36 AM on May 15 [19 favorites]


There are two different issues and situations being conflated here. Some are charging Sullivan with bad behavior as house master/faculty dean, which should be addressed on its own merits. A separate issue is discomfort among some students with a house master/faculty dean representing someone accused of sexual assault.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:43 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


The arguments about how not having this guy be in charge of a dorm anymore is bad for society more broadly are really weird to me. How many defense attorneys are currently heavily involved in undergraduate life at any colleges at all? In order to posit a chilling effect you have to assume that most people in his position would want to do this specific sort of thing, which really does not seem to me to be the case at all.

Also, just generally, the US media could stand to care a lot less about the internal affairs of Ivy League (and similar) institutions. 99% of it is just the absolute worst kind of navelgazing clubbiness.
posted by Copronymus at 9:53 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


Persecuting defense lawyers based on who they defend is toxic to the justice system, and is a signpost on the road to fascism

Posting drive-by comments ignoring the links and discussion is toxic to the Metafilter community, and is a signpost of laziness and disrespect for the people you are supposed to be conversing with.
posted by Nelson at 9:58 AM on May 15 [24 favorites]


There are two different issues and situations being conflated here. Some are charging Sullivan with bad behavior as house master/faculty dean, which should be addressed on its own merits. A separate issue is discomfort among some students with a house master/faculty dean representing someone accused of sexual assault.

I thought this too until I read the issues with staff treatment. After that I determined that they are related. One reason why his representation of Weinstein matters is that students (reasonably) believe, based on his mistreatment of staff, that he is not the kind of person who is likely to be fair or dispassionate when he is dealing with people over whom he has power, like students. Instead, he is a "my way or the highway" person who does not seem to take his professional obligations seriously if they conflict with his personal interest. That makes his representation of Weinstein particularly concerning for students.

I have profs who I would 100% trust to represent criminal defendants accused of sexual assault and still be a good resource should I experience sexual assault or harassment. That is because they have a reputation for being fair and conscientious, and I know that they'd take their responsibilities seriously. Everything I know about this guy points the other way.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:07 AM on May 15 [7 favorites]


Persecuting defense lawyers based on who they defend is toxic to the justice system, and is a signpost on the road to fascism. Each party in court has a right to a lawyer, even the guilty and the unpopular. It does not imply that the lawyer endorses the client's alleged actions or thinks they are innocent.

But defense lawyers don't have a right to any job they want. If you're going to choose to defend a wealthy man who has a history of using the law to abuse women, it's fair for people at your other job (where you have to treat complaints of sexual abuse fairly) to wonder if you can do both. Some people may be able to handle both roles fairly, some people may not. It sounds like Sullivan may not. It's not persecution or fascism to judge people by their choices.
posted by Mavri at 10:21 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]


The arguments about how not having this guy be in charge of a dorm anymore is bad for society more broadly are really weird to me.

The underlying argument is that in order to preserve our right to counsel, defense attorneys should not have their clients held against them. This is because even the most heinous of criminals deserves a proper and robust defense, and because if social opprobrium starts pushing lawyers away, it now becomes possible to strip away legal counsel from someone without doing it outright. As a general principle, it's a good one. But the thing is, no general principle covers all situations completely - there are always edge cases, and this is an example of one.

For most cases, a lawyer taking on the defense of a client can be handled as value neutral for the lawyer, but that doesn't hold here, because of both the specific client and the defense he's running. As pointed out earlier, Weinstein used the law as a weapon against his victims, both to further brutalize them and to silence them; and now that he's facing criminal charges, the actions of his lawyers indicate that he plans to run an odious but all too common defense for sexual assault and rape - put the victim's sexual history on the stand, and try to win a "not guilty on account of the victim is a lying slut" decision. Signing on to this defense means that, at the very least, you are okay with it and willing to look the other way. This is a position that is incompatible with the requirements of the faculty dean, who has to be a resource for victims to go to for the purpose of reporting sexual assault, and thus has to be trusted to support and more importantly believe victims. Combined with his previous behavior, it was clear that the students in the house no longer trusted Sullivan, and thus his appointment was not renewed.

The part that really bothers me is the dishonesty in actually grappling with the position that we see from many of the critics. For example, here's Kennedy from an earlier link:
Student opposition to Mr. Sullivan has hinged on the idea of safety — that they would not feel safe confiding in Mr. Sullivan about matters having to do with sexual harassment or assault given his willingness to serve as a lawyer for Mr. Weinstein. Let’s assume the good faith of such declarations (though some are likely mere parroting). Even still, they should not be accepted simply because they represent sincere beliefs or feelings.
First, note that he's showing bad faith with his backhanded manner of "showing good faith", basically outright stating that he thinks a number of the students are lying. So already we have a bad argument. Second, he dismisses them as being simply "sincere beliefs or feelings", instead of actually grappling with the real issue - that Sullivan, by joining Weinstein's defense, has created a conflict of interest between his duties as defense counsel and faculty dean - a conflict which is at the heart of the lack of confidence the students have. It's a dismissive bad faith argument, and thus should be given no respect and dismissed.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:45 AM on May 15 [11 favorites]


Saying that someone who disagrees is being "dishonest" is unfair. Rather than continue the chain of "No YOU are arguing in bad faith" (it's turtles all the way down!), let's just engage with the substantive argument. Some students feel uncomfortable living in a house with a faculty dean who has agreed to be a defense attorney for someone accused of sexual assault. Others say the two should be unrelated and denying a routine renewal of someone's campus role due to their legal work is misguided.

The complicating factor is it turns out there have been other, earlier, apparently unaddressed complaints about Sullivan's performance as faculty dean over the past decade. If Harvard had not renewed his House role earlier, for these reasons, his legal work would not be part of the conversation. Even now, if Harvard had been less circumspect (nay, weasely) in detailing the full range of issues that led to Sullivan not being renewed in his House role now, I bet there would be a clearer understanding for everyone about how this instance is an edge case, and not a threat to the right every accused criminal has to representation. Harvard treating unrelated issues as a "last straw" is what's prompting a lot of the heat in this situation.
posted by PhineasGage at 11:48 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


... let's just engage with the substantive argument. Some students feel uncomfortable living in a house with a faculty dean who has agreed to be a defense attorney for someone accused of sexual assault.

Not for "someone." For Harvey Weinstein, the famous and monstrous face of the #metoo movement. That is a very important distinction.
posted by col_pogo at 12:05 PM on May 15 [7 favorites]


Some students feel uncomfortable living in a house with a faculty dean who has agreed to be a defense attorney for someone accused of sexual assault.

In my experience, descriptions of situations in generalities are attempts to move away from specifics, because dealing with the specifics would fatally undermine the speaker's preferred outcome.

Some students feel uncomfortable living in a house with Ronald S. Sullivan for a faculty dean who had agreed to be a defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual assault.

The people, and the news outlets, who have a vested interest in selling and promoting stories about (broadly) "liberal college student overreach" while wrapping themselves in vague "Free Speech" trappings, have decided that this is a story to sell. They also never happen to get around to non-elite institutions, which compromise the vast majority of college students, nor instances of conservative student organizations engaging in the same tactics.

Weird.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:18 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]


Saying that someone who disagrees is being "dishonest" is unfair.

It's a good thing that I'm not saying that, then.

I'm saying that his (and your) argument is dishonest because you both are engaging in trying to generalize the issue, so that you can avoid dealing with the actual argument. The students are not uncomfortable with Sullivan because he's defending "someone accused of sexual assault", they're uncomfortable because he signed on to defend Harvey Weinstein, a sexual predator who routinely dragged his victims' names through the mud and painted them as liars as a means of control, and whose defense is showing every sign that they will be using similar tactics in the court. And that makes them uncomfortable because the faculty dean is part of the reporting chain for sexual assault at Harvard - something that victims depend on the people in said system believing them.

My problem with the argument is not that I disagree - it's that it is built on a lie of omission. As for why, I think it comes down to the fact that the defense bar knows that Weinstein's defense strategy is unethical, and that supporting it continues to damage the moral underpinnings of the defense bar - but they can't get away from it, because it sadly works.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:23 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Yes, specifics versus generalities are the heart of this - "any accused" versus "Harvey Weinstein" is exactly the point. Our legal system is premised on the idea of equal treatment, especially for the most publicly reviled defendants. Sullivan's defenders (of which I am not one, BTW) are saying that a lawyer choosing to defend one of the MOST heinous accused criminals is part of the system that helps ensure EVERY defendant's constitutional protections.
posted by PhineasGage at 12:28 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


It may not be the case that literally any lawyer could defend literally any defendant on literally any charge both effectively and ethically. And indeed, various conflicts of interest exist and are recognized, such as family members, financial relationships, or
a lawyer's duties of loyalty and independence may be materially limited by responsibilities to former clients under Rule 1.9 or by the lawyer's responsibilities to other persons, such as fiduciary duties arising from a lawyer's service as a trustee, executor or corporate director.
Perhaps it may be more useful to think of this like a conflict of interest between Sullivan's duties as a defense attorney and his duties as a dean/house master

One of the links I found on this story was from the US branch of The Spectator, who attempts to 'gotcha' the students by noting they didn't object to Sullivan's defense of Aaron Hernandez. They don't engage with the differences between the crimes, which to me seems pretty important.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:40 PM on May 15 [8 favorites]


The underlying argument is that in order to preserve our right to counsel, defense attorneys should not have their clients held against them. This is because even the most heinous of criminals deserves a proper and robust defense, and because if social opprobrium starts pushing lawyers away, it now becomes possible to strip away legal counsel from someone without doing it outright. As a general principle, it's a good one. But the thing is, no general principle covers all situations completely - there are always edge cases, and this is an example of one.

Yes. As a lawyer, I feel very strongly about the general principle, and I also know that it, like every single principle ever, is not utterly universal. This is a difficult case and, while I think it is possible to come out in favor of Sullivan's keeping the position, I lose respect for people acting as if the Harvard students are just being shrill and fragile. This specific representation of this very unusual client and this specific position can understandably be taken to conflict. How any sexually-assaulted student could go for advice and assistance to what is now called a faculty dean knowing that he has no problem taking bags of cash from Harvey Weinstein (*) is beyond me.

Also as a lawyer, I do in fact think less of a relatively small group of counsel who choose to spend their talents helping the extremely wealthy and powerful push this world along to being a burning desert presided over by a brutal and lawless oligarchy. What you do with your life reflects on your character. (And how any scrupulous lawyer could join a legal team that acts the way Weinstein's already has is beyond me.)

(*) Let's be very real here. Sullivan is not representing Weinstein to uphold the idea that everyone is entitled to counsel. This is not some hypothetical where no one but Alan Dershowitz is willing to defend Hitler. There is no scenario in which Weinstein will not have very competent counsel now or in the future, regardless of what Sullivan does. Sullivan is doing it for lots of money, as with his other wealthy defendant clients (like a Platinum Partners principal). He may well have or have had other, pro bono, indigent clients accused of rape; in those cases, the analysis would be significantly different.
posted by praemunire at 1:56 PM on May 15 [15 favorites]


Some people are making it about his defense of Harvey Weinstein specifically. Some are doing it to score cheap political points. I'm not sure why anybody else is, but some are for whatever reason choosing to loudly express the opinion that he should have been fired solely for representing Weinstein. I'm very much against criticizing defense lawyers over who they represent, but random people on the Internet cheering Harvard on for the "wrong" reasons is not evidence of any improper influence on the decision not to renew his contract.

That Sullivan came under scrutiny for prior bad acts because he chose to represent Weinstein is irrelevant to the right of legal representation because the conduct for which he is actually being held responsible is entirely unrelated. Lawyers don't get out of disciplinary proceedings or their own legal hot water just because they have a client whose interests might be impacted.
posted by wierdo at 2:08 PM on May 15


There's a piece in the New Yorker by Jeannie Suk Gersen in which she insists she was unable to join Weinstein's defense team because she wanted to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, being a New Yorker contributing writer as well as professor at Harvard Law, and yet completely skips over the conflict of interest issue with regards to Sullivan's position as house master / dean and his duties to students.
The position taken is very strong - "a defense lawyer’s duty to insure that the most hated individuals in society receive the fair legal process that is due to anyone against whom the state’s punitive power is arrayed."

But I don't think we really believe this. We certainly don't fund and budget like we believe this. I'll spare you the litany of offenses against common sense, decency and justice that occur in our courtrooms every day - but we do not structure our society in a way consistent with believing people deserve a fair legal process. Good luck with your public defender and the lopsided plea bargain.

Bazelon makes the same error too: "Sullivan is a criminal defense lawyer, which means his job is to represent the accused—no matter how despised, no matter how heinous the accusation" and more specifically "It is possible to be a residential dean who is empathic and open to student concerns while simultaneously representing a reviled accused sexual predator."
But these students are not protesting the concept of defense attorneys. They are protesting this particular attorney, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. Is it possible for this particular residential dean etc. etc.?
Don't even bother working on the specifics - everyone picks a level of detail they think will be conducive to their arguments, as we see above, where we are suddenly informed that if we want to talk specifics, we must separate Sullivan's performance as house master/dean from his decision making in taking Weinstein as a client.1

and of course I'm reading national publications. What about locals?
#MeToo: Why I Didn’t Want Winthrop has details:
In joining Weinstein’s legal defense team, I believe Sullivan has signaled to students that he does not support survivors of sexual assault. He is actively working as Weinstein’s lawyer to discredit witnesses who have come forward, and, in doing so, discouraging others from telling their stories. Even setting aside his work on the case, which could be explained as a desire to uphold the constitutional rights of all defendants, there are other indicators suggesting his predisposition against survivors. Sullivan has accused witnesses testifying against Harvard Economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., who is currently under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment, of being coached. Sullivan stated that the process through which Harvard is investigating “shows what the current [#MeToo] movement, some blood in the water, and good coaching [of witnesses] can produce.” I fear he would accuse me of lying as well.
Why We're Leaving Winthrop House
We do not question the author’s narrative, however it is simply not true that we, students and survivors of sexual assault residing in Winthrop House, do not have the right to speak out against Sullivan’s choice. His representation of sexual assault survivors in the past does not disqualify him from criticism, nor does it guarantee that current Winthrop students will not and do not feel uncomfortable residing in Winthrop House. By deferring all sexual assault reporting responsibilities to Winthrop Resident Dean Dr. Linda Chavers, Sullivan has acknowledged his compromised ability — in the eyes of the Winthrop Community — to listen to, acknowledge, and support them in such matters. That Sullivan sent us Op-Eds in defense of his professedly separate role as an attorney, including an open letter attacking our very right to speak out about the issue at all, is a clear abuse of his position as a Faculty Dean.


Mass. Criminal Defense Lawyers Release Statement Condemning Harvard’s Decision Not to Renew Winthrop Faculty Deans
MACDL President Derege B. Demissie cited lawyers’ duty to represent defendants regardless of their popularity in remarks Sunday, according to the group’s press release. MACDL is the “pre-eminent” association of criminal defense lawyers in the state and is an affiliate of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, according to its website.

“A defense lawyer should never face adverse consequences for representing a person accused of a crime, no matter how reprehensible the crime or repugnant the person may be,” Demissie said in the release.
This proves too much. Do conflicts of interest not exist? Do we excuse any and all behavior by attorneys under the guise of a zealous defense? No, we do not. Sometimes attorneys go to prison for the things they do while defending clients. "That's different!" Is it?

back to The New Yorker. A Harvard Law School Professor Defends His Decision to Represent Harvey Weinstein, Isaac Chotiner interviews Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. I'm just gonna select bits here and there.
To the extent that your question is “Am I the only lawyer who can represent Mr. Weinstein,” the answer is clearly no. That’s never been the argument I have made.
...
What do you say to people who say that this role at Winthrop House is specifically a role in these students’ lives, and it’s about making a community, it’s not about the classroom, and so the standard should be a little different?

I say it is correct that it’s not just about the classroom, but it’s not just about being a thermometer and registering the temperature of students at any given time. Rather, it’s about being the leader of a living learning center where we live together and we learn together. This is Harvard University. Ideas have to continue to be paramount. To the degree that we police certain ideas and don’t police others, we are in trouble as a university. That pains me the most.

As evidence of that, I think I told you at the beginning, last year, I tried a very high-profile sexual-assault case in Missouri. Not a peep from the administration about this being antagonistic to the pastoral role of the faculty dean. This feels very much like a form of content policing from administrative voices. If it were a problem, it would’ve been a problem earlier, which leads me to think that this has everything to do with a small but vocal group of protesters.
Is he really arguing that this work as a consultant for the prosecution of former Governor of Missouri Grietens should be, like, inoculative? Fascinating.


more Gersen [twitter]:
Actually, Sullivan's motion to withdraw as Weinstein's counsel states it's bc court moved trial date from this summer, to Sept, when Sullivan has teaching obligations at @Harvard_Law and he can't be in two places at once. He didn't leave team bc of student/Harvard pressure.

1: this is just me but I always liked the sea services' use of "loss of confidence in ability to command" phrasing because it is both anodyne and brutal.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:51 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]


Thanks for the broad range of additional links and commentary, TMOTAT. One clarifying point: conflict of interest doesn't seem the right label to use re: Sullivan - that has specific legal meaning, as in Jeannie Suk Gersen's own detailed explanation for her decision not to get involved: "Primarily because The New Yorker had, famously, investigated and published various allegations against Weinstein that led to his being charged, and, because I am a contributing writer to The New Yorker, I declined to represent him, wishing to avoid any possible appearance of a legal conflict of interest." (italics mine)

The issue re: Sullivan is broader and deeper, and not as simply evaluated: students saying they don't feel comfortable with his leadership role in their community versus his and others' view that this reaction is unreasonable and undermines intellectual freedom. I am not arguing a case on either side, just suggesting "conflict of interest" isn't the right label for this situation.
posted by PhineasGage at 5:14 PM on May 15


The principle that's being undermined is not "intellectual freedom." That's, frankly, a bullshit right-wing gloss (though it's understandable that non-lawyers first coming upon the argument might be confused). The principle that's being undermined, if any is, is "right to counsel." Pretty depressing that that vital principle (because it really is vital) is so insignificant to the right-wing shriekers that they skip right past it for the wrong, trendy one.
posted by praemunire at 8:47 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


Beyond that, the folks at LGM (last link in the OP) point out why the "free speech"/"intellectual freedom" argument is false on its own merits as well:
But beyond this, the notion that universities are under some institutional prime directive to defend “free speech” is both wrong-headed and harmful. Universities are supposed to be pursing the acquisition and transmission of knowledge, which are pursuits that require the vigorous and continual suppression of false ideas. Higher education would be impossible if colleges and universities did not engage in pervasive intellectual content discrimination, of a sort that would certainly qualify as illegal censorship if it were carried out by the government in a different context.
Sullivan's statement about "policing certain ideas" shows that he doesn't understand how the academy actually works. The academy is not (and should not) be in the business of defending the indefensible out of a misguided notion of "freedom".

The other thing that disturbed me was Sullivan's imperiousness with announcing and defending his joining Weinstein's defense team - he did so in the manner of a feudal lord, with what amounted to a decree. There seems to be a growing argument that students should know their place and defer to their professor betters. What's amazing is when you actually interrogate the argument, it becomes clear that there really is nothing there - the students have legitimate grievances and arguments that are dismissed, and the arguments are blind appeals to institutional norms without consideration to why they no longer work. It's literally "I'm your superior (which, in the context of the faculty dean role, really isn't the case), so you should accept my decision as is," and then the person making the argument wonders why everyone is angry at them.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:39 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


This is the crux of so many disagreements between conservatives and progressives about the state of contemporary academia:
The academy is not (and should not) be in the business of defending the indefensible out of a misguided notion of "freedom".
I say this absolutely sincerely, NoxAeternum, that is a fantastic summary I will cite often.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:39 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


This is the crux of so many disagreements between conservatives and progressives about the state of contemporary academia:
The academy is not (and should not) be in the business of defending the indefensible out of a misguided notion of "freedom".
I say this absolutely sincerely, NoxAeternum, that is a fantastic summary I will cite often.


Likewise.

And further, the academy includes many different contexts. When professors and students are in the classroom, the job of professors is to create an environment conducive to student learning, and the responsibility of students is to do their best in their own learning and avoid interfering with classmates' learning. When professors or student researchers are conducting research, there are necessary standards of academic freedom but also that discernment or discrimination against know falsehoods, as NoxAeternum so effectively described. When professors are doing the bureaucratic work of departments and committees, they are acting as any other office worker/middle manager, with attendant responsibilities or colleagues. This Dean position at Harvard is yet a fourth context, with additional responsibilities toward students.

The conservative or alt right argument that university faculty should be able to act in discriminatory or harassing manner toward students or each other at any time because "free speech" flattens and ignores the varied contexts involved in the job of university faculty, and in which faculty and students may be interacting.
posted by eviemath at 1:43 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


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