In deciding not to refer charges to state bar committees, Margolis does not tell us that Yoo and Bybee behaved admirably or according to the high standards that we should expect from Justice Department lawyers. Indeed, he says the opposite. Yoo and Bybee exercised poor judgment and let the Justice Department down. But Margolis argues that the Office of Professional Responsibility chose too high a standard to judge the professional responsibility of Yoo and Bybee. The OPR argued that Yoo and Bybee had "a duty to exercise independent legal judgment and to render thorough, objective, and candid legal advice." This standard, Margolis explained, is much too high a requirement and not one that Yoo and Bybee were previously warned was the standard to which they would be held.
I know what you are probably saying: shouldn't every government lawyer have to live up to this standard? Of course, they should, but the point is that this is a disciplinary proceeding. It's not about what people should do, but about how badly they have to screw things up before they are subject to professional sanctions.
Instead, Margolis argues that, judging by (among other things) a review of D.C. bar rules, the standard for attorney misconduct is set pretty damn low, and is only violated by lawyers who (here I put it colloquially) are the scum of the earth. Lawyers barely above the scum of the earth are therefore excused.
Margolis concludes that Yoo and Bybee exercised poor judgment and made bad legal arguments. But lawyers often make arguments that are bad or even laughably bad, and this by itself does not violate the very low standard set by rules of professional responsibility. These rules are set up by jurisdictions to weed out the worst offenders, leaving the rest of the legal profession to make entirely stupid, disingenuous and asinine arguments that normal people with functioning moral consciences would not make. That is to say, rules of professional misconduct are aimed at weeding out sociopaths and people driven to theft and egregious incompetence by serious drug and alcohol abuse problems; they do not guarantee that lawyers will do right by their clients, or, in this case, by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America. In effect, by setting the standard of conduct so low, rules of professional conduct effectively work to protect all those lawyers out there whose moral standing is just a hair's breadth above your average mass murderer. This is how the American legal profession simultaneously polices and takes care of its own.
Monday, February 22, 2010
On Not Punishing Yoo and Bybee
The Justice Department's internal report on the behavior of John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who wrote memos saying the President did not have to obey the laws about torture, has been released. That report urged that Yoo and Bybee be sanctioned for misconduct, which would likely have led to the end of their careers in the law. But David Margolis, Associate Deputy Attorney General, overruled the report's authors. Jack Balkin: