I am not at all offended by the sentence imposed on Lynne Stewart, the New York defense lawyer convicted of having helped an imprisoned Islamic fundamentalist communicate with the outside world. The sentence chills me not one bit in zealously representing persons accused of crimes. But it does serve as a reminder: I am an advocate within the rule of law. I don't get to make up the rules as I go along.
Apparently, federal prosecutors hoped Ms. Stewart would be sentenced to as much as 30 years for her role as information courtesan to Abdel Rahman, now serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks. Ms. Stewart apparently helped smuggle messages from him to loose cannons elsewhere in the world. For this, she deserves a felony conviction.
But 30 years would have been an obscenely long sentence. Twenty eight months is about right.
Ms. Stewart was not sentenced, penalized or in any way chilled from behaving as a lawyer. What she was penalized for is acting outside the law. A simple example will illustrate what was at stake here.
Suppose your client is accused of digitally penetrating an infant. He's a sex pervert. It is right and proper to challenge the state's evidence. Suppress a confession if you can. Challenge the expert whose testimony damages. Move in limine to preclude prior acts of misconduct. Question potential jurors. Object to improper questions. Meet with your client. Explain his options and the likelihood of success. Explore a plea.
Do all this and more. But do not go out and solicit mothers to bring their babies to what amounts to conjugal visits.
That is what Lynne Stewart did. She was seduced by her client, and abandoned her role as counselor and advocate to become little more than a groupie.
She was sentenced by United States District Judge John G. Koeltl to 28 months imprisonment. The Government was disappointed. Ms. Stewart, expecting worse, appeared ecstatic. "I could do [the time] standing on my head," she told throngs of supporters.
The 67-year-old war horse is one of my idols. She is tough, committed and has survived many fights. But in this fight, I part company with her. She broke the law. Rather than standing on her head giggling she ought to be asking herself what arrogance led her to think she was not subject to the same rules all of us must follow. Like one of my other idols, Tony Serra, who views the payment of taxes as a mere option, she is now apparently off to the slammer.
Ms. Stewart is out pending the results of her appeal. I am rooting for her to win it. Not because I think the criminal defense bar needs protection. We're doing just fine. No, I want her to win it because she looks unhinged. I keep hoping she'll come to her senses.