We object: SC lawyers fight back over campaign ads (+video)

ashain@thestate.comApril 23, 2014 

  • Legal support

    Both the major-party candidates for governor have received contributions from attorneys and law firms

    •  Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has collected more than $220,000 from legal-related donors since 2011 — 4 percent of her contributions, according to state Ethics Commission data.

    •  Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen has collected more than $500,000 from law firms and attorneys — about a quarter of his contributions since entering the race a year ago.

Attack lawyers — and they might fight back.

The S.C. Bar has launched a web site, sclawyerfacts.org, to combat “recent political campaign ads (that) have waged an attack against the legal profession.”

The site’s launch comes days after the Republican Governors Association started airing a television advertisement that criticizes Democratic gubernatorial challenger Vincent Sheheen for representing criminal defendants.

“The uncivil, misleading political rhetoric clouds the opportunity for honest debate on substantive issues important to our state,” sclawyerfacts.org says.

The Bar site does not name Sheheen, a Camden attorney and former city prosecutor. The professional association, which represents 11,665 S.C. attorneys, is nonpartisan, state Bar president Alice Paylor said.

The group had the site ready in case of a political attack on the legal profession. The site is not meant to defend a specific candidate but “to protect lawyers in general,” Paylor said. “We were hoping we were not going to need it.”

Sheheen’s work as an attorney is a talking point for supporters of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley — seven months ahead of their rematch in November. Haley defeated Sheheen by 4.5 percentage points in 2010.

S.C. Republican Party chairman Matt Moore held a news conference this month questioning Sheheen’s judgment in representing violent criminals. “Vincent Sheheen could have stood with abuse victims and exploited children, but instead he took a paycheck to defend dangerous criminals,” Moore said Tuesday.

The Republican Governors Association — chaired by a lawyer, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — said the ad is not about the right of the accused to a defense. “It’s about Vincent Sheheen’s deliberate choice to protect and work to set free violent criminals who abused women and children,” RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said.

Sheheen, a state senator, has said criminal work makes up a small part of his law practice, which focuses on civil work.

Most of the cases questioned by Republicans are more than a decade ago. Democrats say the criticism of Sheheen’s legal work is an attempt to distract voters from the Haley administration’s problems, including an ongoing state Senate probe into the S.C. Department of Social Services.

The S.C. Bar site says representing criminal defendants should not disqualify attorneys from elected office. “Lawyers’ legal education provides a strong background for the task of helping our legislature craft laws.”

In a message on the Bar website, Paylor encouraged attorneys to battle attacks.

“When you encounter smear tactics against lawyers in your community, I encourage you to help the Bar fight back,” she wrote. “Lawyers promote good government and economic growth.”

Meanwhile, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow spent a segment of her national cable news show Tuesday criticizing the Republican Governors Association ad.

Maddow and a former acting U.S. solicitor general said the ad’s message runs counter to the constitutional right of due process.

“I don’t know if this ad campaign in South Carolina is going to become a scandal,” Maddow said. “For totally nonpartisan reasons, I hope it does.”

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