MSNBC's Joan Walsh Corrects Mischaracterization Of Clinton's Court-Appointed Defense Work


MSNBC political analyst Joan Walsh corrected attempts to cast doubt on the fact that Hillary Clinton served as defense attorney on a decades-old criminal case at the direction of the court, pointing out that, in fact, the judge had compelled Clinton to take the case.

The July 8 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews rehashed Hillary Clinton's work as a court-appointed defense attorney in the 1975 prosecution of an alleged rapist, a role that, while known publicly for years, is reemerging in wake of the conservative Washington Free Beacon's improper appropriation and publication of an interview Clinton gave in the mid-1980s discussing the case.  

During the discussion, frequent MSNBC guest and president of the conservative Bernard Center for Women Michelle Bernard repeatedly suggested that Clinton had elected to represent the defendant of her own volition. Joan Walsh, Salon editor and MSNBC analyst, attempted to correct the record on Clinton's court appointment, pointing out that "she was court-appointed" and that the judge had forced her to take the case. Bernard, however, continued to imply Clinton may have voluntarily accepted the role after speaking with the prosecutor.

The fact that the court appointed Clinton to represent the defendant is not in doubt. The judge -- not the prosecutor -- directed Clinton to take on the case, as Glenn Thrush established in a 2008 Newsday report:

On May 21, 1975, Tom Taylor rose in court to demand that Washington County Judge Maupin Cummings allow him to fire his male court-appointed lawyer in favor of a female attorney. Taylor, who earned a meager wage at a paper bag factory and lived with relatives, had already spent 10 days in the county jail and was grasping for a way to avoid a 30 years-to-life term in the state penitentiary for rape.

Taylor, 41, figured a jury would be less hostile to a rape defendant represented by a woman, according to one of his friends. Cummings agreed to the request, scanned the list of available female attorneys (there were only a half dozen in the county at the time) and assigned Rodham, who had virtually no experience in criminal litigation.

"Hillary told me she didn't want to take that case, she made that very clear," recalls prosecutor Gibson, who phoned her with the judge's order.

"I didn't feel comfortable taking on such a client, but Mahlon gently reminded me that I couldn't very well refuse the judge's request," the eventual first lady writes in "Living History."

Clinton had no choice but to accept the court's order, despite voicing reservations, a fact the case's prosecutor reiterated to CNN:

Mahlon Gibson told CNN on Wednesday the then 27-year-old Hillary Rodham (now Clinton) was "appointed" by the judge in the case, even though she voiced reservations.


Gibson said that it is "ridiculous" for people to question how Clinton became Taylor's representation.

"She got appointed to represent this guy," he told CNN when asked about the controversy.

According to Gibson, Maupin Cummings, the judge in the case, kept a list of attorneys who would represent poor clients. Clinton was on that list and helped run a legal aid clinic at the time.

Taylor was assigned a public defender in the case but Gibson said he quickly "started screaming for a woman attorney" to represent him.

Gibson said Clinton called him shortly after the judge assigned her to the case and said, "I don't want to represent this guy. I just can't stand this. I don't want to get involved. Can you get me off?"

"I told her, 'Well contact the judge and see what he says about it,' but I also said don't jump on him and make him mad," Gibson said. "She contacted the judge and the judge didn't remove her and she stayed on the case."

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties
Joan Walsh
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