Daniel Sheehan’s Riveting Legal Memoir Is a Real Education

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There are truly funny moments in Sheehan’s book, whose good humor throughout is of a piece with his pluck. In a Constitutionally fraught First Amendment obscenity trial in state court on behalf of an Idaho Falls movie theatre owner, who had dared to show Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris in a Mormon-dominated community, Sheehan, working pro bono for the ACLU, finds himself up against an irascible judge clearly determined to seat a jury that would find for the local District Attorney. The young attorney’s expert questioning of the president of the town’s city council, who had put in a claim to professional expertise on the matter at hand—namely, the local “community standards” regarding obscenity—angers the judge who summarily throws him out of the court. What follows belongs on a movie screen, not in a book review.

What most comes across throughout the book, however, is Sheehan’s passionate love for the law, the American Constitution, and, most unexpectedly, his fervent faith in the spiritual underpinnings of our legal system. The cases provide all the drama you could want, but periodically throughout his book Sheehan takes breaks in the narrative to discourse on the “natural law” basis of our common law, the need for a higher vision of human politics, and other, well, edifying topics that clearly rule over his soul. Reading his book you get the sense that he would love to live two lives simultaneously—one as the crusading litigator he’s always been, the other as an inspiring philosopher-preacher raising us all up to a holy vision of the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Readers will learn a great deal about what goes on behind the scenes in a high profile contest over our constitutional rights from his gripping account of the Pentagon Papers trial, a high-stakes battle between the Nixon administration and the legal team representing the New York Times regarding the Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, given to them by the famed whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg. The issue at hand was the Times’ right to publish the documents without first undergoing government censorship. The core of Sheehan’s account here is concerned with the debate that went on within his legal team, by contrast with which the actual trials are a bit anti-climactic. He gives us a brilliant portrait of the hard work, political calculation, deep legal thinking, and intense internal debate that an event like that requires from the lawyers we entrust with the defense of our civil liberties.

Even so, the Pentagon Papers concerned a world-renowned newspaper that had both the funds and the platform to command the public eye. There was far less money around to serve the plight of the refugees from some truly sadistic Latin American dictatorships (regimes, it must be said, that were cruelly abetted by a deeply cynical Republican foreign policy establishment) who were all but guaranteed execution if they were returned to the countries they had fled, especially El Salvador. The American Sanctuary Movement was initiated by Catholic bishops, aided by clergy from other denominations, who were well-informed by their counterparts in Latin America about how deeply imperiled those who sought refuge in America truly were. When the newly elected President Ronald Reagan issued a secret executive order abrogating the 1980 Refugee Act, America’s amnesty law, Sheehan was brought in by the Catholic archbishop of South Texas, John Fitzpatrick, to defend two Catholic church workers who had been arrested while driving two political refugees to sanctuary in that state. In the ensuing trial, Sheehan is pitted against “a xenophobic, fear-mongering” newly appointed Republican U.S. attorney who, concealing Reagan’s unconstitutional order, accused the women of being well-intended dupes but nonetheless lawbreakers. Sheehan tells us:

If I analyzed a case carefully enough, there was always one big factual truth on our side. American juries don’t do well at remembering, or strictly applying, the law. What they are very good at, however, is searching out lies. The key is to figure out how to get the entire case to turn on which of the two sides is telling the jury the truth on one very big and important fact. American juries can tell that better than anyone would ever expect.

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