The lynching and disbarring of civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart, who because she has terminal cancer was recently released from prison after serving four years of a 10-year sentence, is a window into the collapse of the American legal system.
Stewart—who has stood up to state power for more than three decades in order to give a voice to those whom authorities seek to crush, who has spent her life defending the poor and the marginalized, who wept in court when one of her clients was barred from presenting a credible defense—is everything a lawyer should be in an open society. But we no longer live in an open society. The persecution of Stewart is the persecution of us all.
Stewart, 74, is living with her husband in her son’s house in New York City after being released from a Texas prison a month ago. Because she is disbarred she cannot perform any legal work. “Can’t even work in a law office,” she said softly last week when I interviewed her at the Brooklyn home. “I miss it so terribly. I liked it. I liked the work.”
Her career as one of the country’s most renowned civil rights lawyers coincided with the fall of our legal system. She said that when she started practicing law in the 1970s it was a “golden era” in which a series of legal decisions—including rulings affecting police lineups and what information and evidence the government had to turn over to defendants on trial—created a chance for a fair defense. But these legal advances were reversed in a string of court decisions that, especially after 9/11, made the state omnipotent. As citizens were stripped of power, she said, “a death of the spirit of the bar” occurred. Lawyers gave up, she said. They no longer saw defending people accused of crime as “a calling, something that you did because you were answering a higher voice.”
“I don’t want to make anything a kind of religious thing, it wasn’t that, but you know, you defended people because they were up against the mightiest organism in the universe: the government of United States, whether they were state or federal,” she said Thursday evening as we sat with her husband, Ralph Poynter, at her son’s dining room table.