CULLOWHEE — One of the nation’s most high-profile attorneys told a crowd at Western Carolina University Thursday (March 1) that lawyers are the “last bastion” of defense protecting the public and individual civil liberties against the government.
Alan Dershowitz spoke before nearly 1,000 people at WCU’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center. After meeting in a students-only session earlier in the day, he took the stage at 7:30 p.m. to address the issue: “Why Good Lawyers Defend Bad People.”
A professor of law at Harvard University, Dershowitz is a prolific author perhaps best known for having defended such controversial clients as O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Michael Milken and Claus von Bulow.
Dershowitz said the work lawyers do can be compared to physicians helping the sick, and rabbis and ministers aiding sinners. “That’s our job. We are a very important part of the system of checks and balances on the excesses of government,” he said.
Dershowitz, visiting the campus through the WCU Chancellor’s Speaker Series, said there is “historical justification” in the Bible for the role that lawyers play. The Old Testament, in particular the book of Genesis, “is all about bad people doing terrible things to each other. It shows us what the world would be like without law,” he said.
“God can distinguish between the innocent and guilty. Human beings generally can’t distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, so we need a process. We need a system. The system requires that we make mistakes. You’re either going to convict some innocent or you’re going to acquit some guilty,” he said.
The Old Testament story of Abraham’s argument with God concerning the fate of the sinners of Sodom indicates “it’s better to choose a system in which the guilty are swept away with the innocent, rather than the innocent swept away with the guilty,” Dershowitz said.
Turning to current political trends, Dershowitz said, “We live in a very unusual age. For the first time in my adult life, all the branches of government are controlled by one party — the Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, in my view, and most governorships and many state legislatures. It’s become all the more important for checks and balances to exist outside of government.”
Dershowitz said he believes “the three most important sources of checks and balances today are our churches, the lawyers and the media. The problem with churches is the government’s trying to buy them. I see all over the place, when churches and money mix, the temptations are just too great.
“I think the media is no longer an effective watchdog, in some ways, because there’s so much conglomeration that in the next few years there’ll be four or five media companies. When you have so few media outlets, it becomes easier for the government to have some control over them,” he said.
“That leaves lawyers. There’s a lot of problems with lawyers, too, but at least we’re independent. We’re independent probably because nobody wants us. We are a necessary evil, and I think it’s very important that we retain our independence,” Dershowitz said.
More than 200 WCU students met with Dershowitz Thursday afternoon in the Grandroom of the A.K. Hinds University Center. He was introduced by Bill Hyatt, WCU professor of criminal justice. “We can debate whether the clients he has defended are bad people, but there is no debate about whether he’s a good lawyer,” Hyatt said.
Dershowitz began the session by engaging the students in a “brief Socratic dialogue,” turning the tables on the students by asking them a serious of difficult ethical questions, a tactic he uses when teaching law at Harvard University.
“If you go into law, don’t look for simple answers. Law does not supply simple answers,” he said.
“The notion that you find simple answers by flipping open a book defies experience. It defies the way life works. We are given not just individual rights, but intelligence, too. You have got to use that intelligence to get the answers to the tough questions.”
Western’s Chancellor’s Speaker Series is designed to bring significant figures to campus to discuss major issues of the day, and to provide WCU students with an opportunity to interact with some of the people who shape and influence our world.