By: Robert McClure
June 24, 2019
One of my favorite shows of all time is HBO’s “John Adams.” It took less memorable pieces of American history and presented their human aspects. We got a glimpse into the emotions, family dynamics and overwhelming frustrations of the colonists on the cusp of declaring independence.
A favorite segment highlights a fundamental element of the success of the American experiment. As a young Boston attorney, and one of the earliest alumnae of Harvard, Adams does the unthinkable – he defies the emotional sentiments of the entire colony and takes on the defense of eight British soldiers charged with murdering five colonists during a riot.
The 1770 event is commonly referred to as the “Boston Massacre.” Prior to seeing it on-screen, I hadn’t recognized the degree to which a future Founding Father was vilified by friends and colleagues. The stand he took was principled, courageous and important.
The concepts of due process and the rule of law are so important they were enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These concepts have stood the test of time. Without them, the powerless have no protection and we become a nation governed by mob rule – left to the whims of the emotions of the day.
I was reminded of this episode as I read about the firing of Ronald Sullivan, the first African American faculty dean of Harvard University’s Winthrop House.
His offense? Joining the defense team for Harvey Weinstein.
Sullivan’s background would make any mother proud: Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse and Harvard Law. President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. Helped draft a new constitution for Kenya. Worked with the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. Helped design the indigent defense delivery system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Chaired the criminal justice advisory committee for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
Apparently those credentials are insufficient in the “woke” culture and the “outrage industrial complex.”
This is no defense of Weinstein but rather the principles of due process and the rule of law. Harvard abandoned its principles as an institution dedicated to teaching law, and also the most fundamental precept of our nation: Individuals are innocent until proven guilty.
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? Will the wrongfully accused be denied access to adequate defense in the wake of emotionally charged accusations?
I do not know Weinstein. I don’t know the first thing about movie production, or how he managed to go as long as he did with the type of behavior he is accused of. But if he is guilty of a fraction of what he is accused of, he should be sent away for a long time. None of those sentiments is incompatible with a belief in due process or the rule of law.
Harvard alumnae Adams served as 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 alumnae Sullivan served as legal counsel for a man accused of horrible crimes. He subsequently was fired for doing the thing his alma mater has taught men and women to do for more than 200 years.
Dr. J. Robert McClure III is president and CEO of the James Madison Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Tallahassee. This column first appeared in the Washington Examiner.