How Political Scandals Can Distort Reality

In a heated campaign, political scandals can make or break a candidacy. They often cast a shade of suspicion upon a candidate’s activities, with the connotation of wrongdoing or the unethical. Often implicit is the assumption that if only said candidate had done things slightly differently, all this need not happened.

Take Kirsten Gillibrand, the current hard-working Senator from New York. Before entering politics, Ms. Gillibrand used to work as a hard-charging lawyer. Upon being appointed senator, she was criticized for representing tobacco firms during her job as a lawyer.  A New York Times editorial, for instance, skillfully argued that:

She tries to play down her role and suggests that she had no choice. In truth, she had plenty of choice.

Her law firm allowed lawyers to decline work on tobacco cases if they had a moral or ethical objection. It wasn’t simply a matter of working “for the clients that were assigned to her,” as an aide explained. Tobacco duty was optional. She opted in. Others did not.

The editorial goes on to detail the numerous ways in which Ms. Gillibrand “worked closely with company executives.” It is a persuasive argument, a classical political scandal. Why didn’t Ms. Gillibrand just refuse to take the case?

Such was the recent topic at the political website swingstateproject, with several users discussing Ms. Gillibrand’s tobacco connections. One individual posed the same concern as the Times: Ms. Gillibrand should have just refused the case. Then an actual Washington lawyer stepped in:

Well, what the firm “clearly states” might be bullshit……

I’m a lawyer in D.C., and while I’ve never worked in a firm I know a lot of people, including my wife, who do or have worked as attorneys in firms.  A lot of written policy is just bullshit.  Money talks, and money rules.A large law firm often gives its attorneys 4 weeks of paid vacation per year.  Do you know what you call a lawyer who actually uses it?  FIRED.

If you’re a woman, forget about ever suing for sexual harassment, you’ll just be blackballed.

So regarding a policy allowing the right to refuse a particular case, in real life turning a case down can be a career-ender.

This post provides an outline of the context that too often is missing from a political scandal. At first glance, it was entirely possible for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to voluntarily avoid representing tobacco companies. But “in truth,” as the New York Times might say, the unwritten rules that defined her workplace prohibited it. Reality is often quite different from the world inhabited by the Washington Beltway.

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