Should you judge a lawyer by his clients? Until recently, Harvard Law School professor Ronald Sullivan was part of the defense team of Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul accused of numerous sexual assaults. Students at Harvard protested Sullivan's work for Weinstein while serving as faculty dean at Harvard's Winthrop House. Now, Harvard is not retaining Sullivan as a faculty dean when his term is up next month. They are keeping him on as a professor. Sullivan has since dropped Weinstein as a client, though he does say that he may still advise him. Robert Bloom is a law professor at Boston College. He spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about the case. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: So Sullivan and his wife served in Winthrop House, campus housing, for 10 years. In their role there, they advise students and they heard complaints. Only after students started protesting his legal representation of Weinstein did Harvard publicly criticize Sullivan. A campus spokesman told The Boston Globe that a review “revealed serious concerns about Sullivan's leadership.” Sullivan has denied these recent claims that are being made against him now. Does Harvard's decision to remove Sullivan send a message to other defense lawyers?
Robert Bloom: Well, a defense lawyer has an obligation to represent their clients. Not necessarily to join in with whatever the client did, or to agree with a client's position on anything, but they have an obligation to represent their client zealously.
Howard: How much does public perception of a defendant factor in to whether a lawyer takes him or her on as a client?
Bloom: It factors in, but it shouldn't. We all have an obligation under the constitution, if you're a criminal defense lawyer, to represent clients regardless of what they're charged with.
Howard: Do these students have a point? Should Sullivan have considered whether there was a possible conflict to represent Weinstein while serving as a faculty dean in that role?
Bloom: I certainly think students have a right to protest. But I also think that there's also a lesson for students to see that somebody in the role of a criminal defense attorney can represent anyone.
Howard: Does this case — where he's been removed now as dean — concern you?
Bloom: It concerns me because Harvard is giving reasons for why he was removed which don't have to do with his position in representing Harvey Weinstein. But the timing of it really looks like a pretext, given the number of protests with regard to his representation.
Howard: What's the sense you get from your fellow lawyers and law professors about all this? What have you been hearing?
Bloom: What I've been hearing is that Harvard isn't standing up for the sixth amendment, which says everybody is entitled to a right to counsel. You don't have to face the power of the state or the federal government without a competent lawyer. It kind of evens the odds, so to speak. And that's one of the absolute foundations of our constitution. Nobody should have to face the state without the help of an attorney.
Howard: That's Professor Robert Bloom, speaking with us about the case of Ronald Sullivan, the Harvard law professor who is being removed from his post as faculty dean following complaints from students, who took issue with his place on Harvey Weinstein's defense team. Sullivan is no longer representing Weinstein, though he says he may advise his remaining lawyers.