by J. Robert McClure III

June 07, 2019 10:48 AM

One of my favorite shows of all time was HBO’s miniseries on the life of John Adams. I remember watching it more than 10 years ago when it first came out. It took pieces of American history that may not have been among the most memorable and presented them in the context of what was happening in the colonies at the time — the human aspect. We got a glimpse into the emotional sentiments, the family dynamics, and the overwhelming frustrations of the colonists on the cusp of declaring independence.

A favorite segment of the series is in an early episode, because it highlights a vital and fundamental element of the success of the American experiment. As a young Boston attorney, and one of the earliest alumni of Harvard University, Adams defied the emotional sentiments of the entire colony and defended the eight British soldiers charged with murdering five colonists during a riot. The March 1770 event is commonly referred to as the “Boston Massacre” in history books, and prior to seeing it unfold onscreen I hadn’t recognized the degree to which a future Founding Father was vilified by many of his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries for his involvement.

The stand he took was not only principled and courageous, but also immensely important. The concepts of due process and the rule of law are so vital to our national success that they were enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These concepts have stood the test of time. Without them, the minority, the powerless or those out of favor have no protection and we become nothing more than a nation governed by mob rule.

I was reminded of this episode (both in the series and in history) as I read about the firing of Ronald Sullivan — the first African American faculty dean of Harvard University’s Winthrop House.

His fireable offense? Joining the defense team for Harvey Weinstein.

Reading over the Harvard Law School web page outlining Professor Sullivan’s background would make any mother proud. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse and Harvard Law School. President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. He helped draft a new constitution for Kenya. He worked with the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. He helped design the indigent defense delivery system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He chaired the criminal justice advisory committee for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and was subsequently appointed to the president’s Justice Department transition team.

Apparently, those credentials are insufficient in the wake of the “woke” culture and the “outrage industrial complex” demanding its pound of flesh for whatever the perceived injustice of the day happens to be. To be clear, this is no defense of Harvey Weinstein, but rather of the principles of due process and the rule of law that require him to have a fair trial. Harvard decided to abandon not only its principles as an institution dedicated to teaching law, but also the fundamental principle that individuals are “innocent until proven guilty” and that due process is a sine qua non of any fair legal system.

The same university that graduated Adams, a Founding Father who defended British soldiers accused of murder, has now fired an alumnus and dean for defending an accused sexual predator. I am saddened for the ripple effects this action will inevitably cause. Will exceptional legal minds begin pulling back from cases in which public sentiment may harm their future career ambitions? Will the wrongfully accused be denied access to adequate defense in the wake of emotionally charged accusations? What happens when the accused client isn’t a sexual predator, but someone accused of “hate speech” or some other more nebulous offense?

I do not know Weinstein. I don’t know the first thing about movie production, or how he managed to carry on as he did for as long as he did. What I have heard of his personal life is solely a result of limited news articles, and it is disgusting. If he is guilty of even a fraction of what he is accused of, he should be sent away for a very long time. None of those sentiments are incompatible with a belief in due process or the rule of law, and that our future as the single greatest experiment in self-governance hinges upon these very ideas.

Harvard alumnus John Adams served as the legal counsel for British soldiers accused of murdering the sons and fathers of his neighbors. He subsequently helped direct the founding of our great nation. Harvard alumnus Ronald Sullivan served as the legal counsel for a man accused of horrible crimes. He was subsequently fired for doing the very thing his alma mater has taught men and women for over 200 years. It is a sad commentary on a once-revered institution.

Dr. J. Robert McClure III is president and CEO of the James Madison Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Tallahassee devoted to research and education on public policy issues. 

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