Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. made a name for himself as one of the most high profile criminal defense attorneys in the United States and as the first African-American faculty dean of Harvard College. Sullivan, once again, made headlines this past January after agreeing to join Harvey Weinstein’s defense team.
Sullivan’s decision to defend the man who has become a central antagonist to the #MeToo movement has sparked outrage amongst Harvard students and beyond. Many of these students feel that Sullivan’s decision to defend Weinstein will interfere with his ability to be a resource for the undergraduate students he is responsible for as a faculty dean. Shortly after Sullivan joined Weinstein’s defense team, over 50 students marched outside of Massachusetts Hall — the oldest surviving building at Harvard — and demanded that the law professor be removed from his role as the faculty dean of Winthrop House. Additionally, over 300 individuals signed a petition to have Sullivan removed from his position at the College. Harvard’s administration has been largely responsive to student concerns, and is currently conducting a “climate review” of the Winthrop House to determine whether Sullivan should remain faculty dean.
Individuals on both sides of the debate have weighed in on whether the decision of Sullivan to accept this representation is at odds with the #MeToo movement and whether a Harvard law professor and faculty dean is morally justified in taking Weinstein’s case. In most cases, it is dangerous to judge a criminal defense attorney on the person they are defending. This is because the criminal justice system guarantees everyone the right to a fair trial and operates under the assumption that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. However, this is a unique case because as a faculty dean at Harvard, Sullivan is responsible for overseeing undergraduate students who live in Winthrop House. In choosing to represent Weinstein, Sullivan is compromising his ability to be a resource for these students, who should feel comfortable coming to him with instances of sexual assault and harassment.
The Los Angeles Times Editorial Review Board wrote an article on March 6, 2019 supporting Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein and dismissing the concerns of students who said they would feel uncomfortable reaching out to Sullivan if they were a victim of sexual misconduct.
The article reads in part, “The idea that lawyers should be judged by their clients is a familiar — and dangerous — one. During the Obama administration, prominent conservatives objected to the fact that lawyers in the Justice Department previously had represented or advocated for suspected terrorists. Never mind that the American legal system depends for its legitimacy on an adversarial process, and never mind the fundamental tenet that accused criminal defendants deserve to be represented by counsel.”
An editorial published by Stephen Clark at Bloomberg News also criticizes Harvard students for objecting to Sullivan’s representation. He even compares critics of Sullivan to those who smeared the lawyers who represented Communists during the McCarthy Era. “Judging the morality of lawyers by the morality of their clients carries echoes of the McCarthy Era, when Red-baiters would smear lawyers who represented Communists,” he writes.
The Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News have a point. It is true that the American legal system gives every criminal defendant the benefit of being assumed innocent until being proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This concept is embedded in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. If every attorney declined to represent clients who are accused of unthinkable crimes, how would individuals defend themselves against charges levied against them by the state? The right to counsel is fundamental to our legal system, and editorials like the ones written by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News are correct to point out these fundamental truths.
However, this is where the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News are wrong. Ronald Sullivan is not just a criminal defense lawyer who works for the state or the federal government. Nor is he an attorney who works for a law firm and has agreed to take on this case. He is more than that. He is a professor at one of this country’s most esteemed universities. Additionally, as a faculty dean of a residential house, he is the primary faculty member an undergraduate student should feel comfortable reaching out to in instances of sexual misconduct.
Harvard students’ objections to Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein, which are shared by other students across the country including at Wellesley College, should be heard and considered. His decision to represent Weinstein, who is arguably the most prominent alleged sexual harasser in recent times, is a slap in the face to the #MeToo movement and to the students at Harvard. While Sullivan can try to take refuge in the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, by doing so he is missing the point. He cannot have it both ways. If he wants to represent defendants who are accused of committing despicable crimes, then he should be free to do so. But, as long as he is working as law professor and a faculty dean at Harvard University, his allegiance should be to the students and on the side of this critical social media movement that is exposing the real problem of sexual harassment within our society. His decision to defend this client, as well as the media outlets supporting him, reflect the tone-deaf attitude which has allowed sexual harassment within our institutions to fester and continue unchecked until the birth of the #MeToo movement. If Sullivan wants the fame and money that arguably will come from representing Weinstein, that is his choice. However, he should not be permitted to stain the reputation of Harvard and the #MeToo movement and should step down as faculty dean of Winthrop House.