Whose side are they on, anyway?

Newsweek reports (*) that Baker, Botts — James Baker’s law firm — is defending Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister, against a lawsuit filed by families of the 9-11 victims. (Thanks to Tapped for the pointer.) Baker was last seen, you will recall, making sure that the votes didn’t get counted in Florida. One of Baker’s former partners, who was George W. Bush’s personal lawyer, is now Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

It seems the defense is going to be that whatever aid Prince Sultan gave to the terrorists was part of his official duties.

Apparently the Administration has decided that it can’t take the political heat that would come from having the Justice Department intervene on the Saudi side of this dispute, and some national-security officials are sufficiently fed up with Saudi stonewalling to be helping the plaintiffs. We can hope for a series of interesting revelations coming out of the lawsuit; the Baker, Botts filing already has lots of detail about how the Saudi government funneled money to various Islamic “charities.”

The Newsweek story doesn’t raise the question that pops into my mind: Do the plaintiffs have standing to ask to see the 28 pages of censored material from the 9-11 report?

On the one hand, this suit may change some people’s view of the plaintiffs’ tort bar. If you think about capping Saudi liability for 9-11 to direct financial losses plus $250,000 a victim, “tort reform” suddenly doesn’t sound so enticing. On the other hand, in case you wanted to know why people make lawyer jokes, just read the list of top law firms that have decided to back the perpetrators against the victims: Wilmer, Cutler; Jones, Day; Ropes & Grey; White & Case; King & Spalding; Akin Gump ; and Fulbright & Jaworski. And I haven’t heard of a single lawyer resigning from one of those firms in protest. Just backs up my long-held belief that almost all the major law firms are actually subsidiaries of a single institution, the Platonic Form of a law firm: Pig, Pig & Pig.

I was glad to see that one Clinton Administration alumnus at a major firm — both unnamed in the story — decided that $5 million wasn’t enough money to make him take the case.

Update Conrad, the Gweilo Diarist, challenges me (*) on two points, one factual and one ethical. Ethically, he wonders whether I think unpopular defendants should be denied legal representation. Factually, he wants to know why I’m sure the 9-11 report demonstrates the Saudis’ guilt, since obviously I haven’t read it.

Second things first: I base my evaluation of what’s in the report on what Senator Bob Graham, one of its authors, has said, and on a report in the New Republic based on a conversation with someone who has read it (*). [If you don’t want to bother with NR’s sign-in, here’s my summary.] (See also this report by Conrad on a speech by Ashcroft, which doesn’t speak to what’s in the report but does speak to the truth of the accusation in the victims’ lawsuit.)

As to the ethical question, everybody’s entitled to a lawyer. But no particular lawyer is required to take on the ethical burden of “zealous advocacy” for any particular client in any particular case.

If, as I believe, the Saudi government knowingly contributed to and otherwise supported al-Qaeda, with the knowledge that al-Qaeda had attacked, and was planning to continue to attack, the United States, that support constituted an act of war. Countries who make war on us are our enemies. Citizens who voluntarily work for the enemies of our country — especially rich, influential citizens — can, I think, justly be criticized for disloyalty, even if they undertake those acts of disloyalty in the course of the practice of law.

If respectable, skilled, connected lawyers such as those at the firms I named refused to take this case, the Saudi defendants would wind up being defended by less respectable, less skilled, less connected lawyers, to their detriment and our benefit. Remember, “zealous advocacy” doesn’t mean just in the courtroom: part of what Prince Sultan is buying here is Baker’s influence in Washington.

[I concede that the ethical issues would be somewhat different in a criminal case. But the defendants in this case have nothing to lose but their honor and some of their excessive supplies of money.]

Really, Conrad: how hard is it to figure out that the former Secretary of State of the United States shouldn’t be carrying water for the foreign power responsible for the largest massacre of Americans ever carried out?

More here *

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com