Untrue, Unfair, & Unproductive: The Attacks on Hillary Clinton as Defense Attorney

“Hillary Clinton is an advocate for rapists. Not for women and children.” Those are the closing words of a meme that has been shared millions of times on Facebook since last May. The meme refers to the real case of Thomas Taylor, whom Hillary Clinton represented as court-appointed counsel in 1975 on charges of raping a 12-year-old girl named Kathy Shelton. Shelton recently appeared at Donald Trump’s side in an unorthodox press conference before the second presidential debate. The false narrative that Clinton is somehow more pro-rapist than pro-women is disappointing and problematic within the confines of the 2016 presidential race. But the thought process that sustains this narrative extends much further into the American psychology than just one election. The false dichotomy upon which it relies – that you are either pro-survivor or pro-rapist – only serves to undermine the very ideals upon which America was founded: that everyone is owed due process and a zealous legal defense.

The notion that Hillary Clinton is forever precluded from being a true advocate for women and children because of the 1975 Taylor case is ludicrous. The alt-right can devalue the currency of truthfulness as much as it wants, but the facts remain clear all the same. Clinton was appointed counsel for Taylor and dutifully fulfilled her ethical and legal obligations; at the end of the day, Taylor pled guilty to lesser-included-offenses. Now, by no means is Clinton a perfect feminist; her feminism hasn’t been as inclusive of women of color and LGBTQ folks as it should have been over the years. But despite her shortcomings, Hillary Clinton has nonetheless dedicated her life in public service to fighting for women and children.

Some may dismiss this meme and the attacks on Clinton for defending Taylor as simple partisan politics at the end of a hard-fought election. But the truth is that these false attacks are not just unfair to Clinton as an individual. They also reflect an even greater shortcoming of our society: the de-valuation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the spirit that energizes it – the belief that justice and due process require that the accused always receive a zealous defense, no matter how heinous the charge.

When we think of American constitutional values, people instinctively reach for the First or Second Amendments, unfairly neglecting the Sixth Amendment in the process. John Adams – who later served as the second President of the United States, by the way – represented and won acquittals for six of the eight British redcoats charged for their role in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Even our favorite Founding Father here on the Hill, Alexander Hamilton, made a name for himself in his early legal career defending Loyalists to the Crown against lawsuits from American revolutionaries. So I applaud Adams and Hamilton, and I applaud Hillary Clinton, just as I applaud any other individual with skin thick enough to handle indigent criminal defense work.

I still remain deeply troubled, however, by cases like Thomas Taylor’s. They bring to the surface a conflict that I do not yet know how to resolve: the tension between supporting survivors of sexual assault and simultaneously remaining committed to the due process of law and the right of a zealous defense for all. Perhaps the only people who get a worse shake in the criminal justice system than criminal defendants are the survivors of sexual violence themselves – the very people whom the police and prosecutors are supposed to protect and serve. Coming forward is discouraged; police reports reach dead ends; rape kits get “lost” or destroyed. Sexual violence is a real, credible issue – on this college campus and others, as well as in cities and towns across the nation. So it’s easy, perhaps even natural, to see the world in black and white: you’re either pro-survivor or pro-rapist.

But as Thoreau once wrote, “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.” This false dichotomy mistakenly pits principles of feminism against principles of criminal justice reform. It chills support of one movement in an attempt to bolster the other, and it needs to stop. For it is an equally American principle that we do not sacrifice our ideals when they come under pressure. That is when we double down on our principles: when it’s hard, when it’s inconvenient, when it hurts.

We must remember the spirit that John Adams brought to court in the Boston Massacre trials – even, and especially, when dealing with an issue as emotionally fraying and important as curbing sexual violence. I applaud those who fight for the noble and important cause of advocating for survivors of sexual assault. All the same, I applaud those who fight for the cause – one equally noble and important – of advocating for the rights of the accused in all judicial proceedings, including the right to counsel and to due process.

So let’s hope that there comes a day when a constructive alliance can be forged between these two groups of passionate advocates. That day may not be today. It may not be tomorrow either. But one thing, surely, remains clear. When we sling hateful rhetoric, when we peddle unfounded lies and misleading half-truths, and when we denigrate a woman for her commitment to our constitutional rights, we all take two steps backwards.

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Conor O’Shea ’18 is a Philosophy and Government double major, and a registered Independent in the state of New Hampshire. The author’s views are his own and not necessarily the views of any organization for which he currently works, or for which he has worked in the past.