Daniel Sheehan’s Riveting Legal Memoir Is a Real Education

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One of the most storied civil liberties attorneys of our time, Daniel Sheehan’s riveting memoir, The People’s Advocate, reveals the hard work, intense opposition from public officials, and even physical danger faced by those who go to the mat for the rest us. His book is much more than a great entertainment. It is essential education for anyone who wants to understand the tasks and trials confronting the American people today.

by Dan Hamburgimage

      Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.
              —Hannah Arendt

Daniel Sheehan’s vital and compelling memoir, The People’s Advocate: The Personal and Legal Memoir of America’s Most Courageous Public Interest Lawyer, shows us the author and his friends in spirited combat with the bald-faced lies of government —combat conducted through our legal system, the last and ultimate venue in which our democracy publicly adjudicates the truth. His book is clear testimony to the enormous difficulty of this mission in the face of the vast means possessed by government, industry, and, on occasion, even the judiciary itself to prevent the truth from willing out.

Sheehan takes us inside many of the most important civil liberties legal battles of recent decades—beginning with two of the five cases he litigated while still a student a Harvard Law School, then moving briskly towards the case that electrified the country, United States v. New York Times (better known as “The Pentagon Papers trial”), followed by the Watergate burglary, several critical cases surrounding the American Indian Movement’s coming-of-age at Wounded Knee, the American Sanctuary Movement, the Greensboro massacre, the infamous Karen Silkwood trial (about which Sheehan makes stunning new, headline worthy revelations), and culminating in the epochal investigative and legal battles surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal. His storytelling is gripping as a John Grisham thriller. What makes The People’s Advocate so thoroughly unique, however, is that Sheehan’s passion for the law carries him into precincts few associate with the lawyer’s craft and calling anymore—namely philosophy and religion. 

Judges are allowed to pose as philosophers, but we are not used to seeing lawyers take that role. Yet Daniel Sheehan readily abandoned what any ambitious lawyer would have regarded as the job of a lifetime—he was one of just three litigators in the office of F. Lee Bailey, at the time the world’s most famous trial lawyer—to return to Harvard to study of all things the philosophical and religious foundations of ethics. Sheehan had happened across the Harvard political philosopher John Rawls’ profoundly influential A Theory of Justice, a dense tome that he read in a single weekend. Affter a long private meeting with the good professor, he enrolled in Harvard Divinity School to study the spiritual foundations of a true social ethics—hardly a move we associate with lawyerly ambition.This is but one moment in what turned out to be a life of notable departures from the normal career path.

Whether it be courtroom antics worthy of a Perry Mason episode (in one of the book’s most hilarious passages, Sheehan snatches an envelope from the lap of a prosecution witness, dumps its contents on the defense table, and holds up to the court an audio tape exonerating his client that the prosecution had been consistently swearing did not exist), his revelatory moment of transcendence on LSD, dangerous clandestine meetings with CIA whistleblowers, or joining his soul mate and enormously talented lifelong collaborator, Sara Nelson, in giving birth and raising their first child while the couple lived in a recently celibate Jesuit rectory, we can understand why sometimes the author himself seems amazed to be playing a role in such an over-the-top movie.

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