Daniel Sheehan’s Riveting Legal Memoir Is a Real Education

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Sheehan also angered some movement leftists because he willingly worked with anyone who could help him research and thereby win his cases. Since these included active members of the CIA and activists in right-wing organizations, not to mention his own extraordinary chief investigator, William Taylor, a Marine Corps veteran of three combat tours who had been a criminal investigator while in the Corps, the Christic Institute took a few barbs from its left flank while at the same time undergoing a concerted attack from right-wing government operatives. This all came to a head in Sheehan’s protracted and ultimately unsuccessful prosecution of the Iran-Contra case. That epic journey is, fittingly, the final case in the book and it clearly exacted its toll on Sheehan and all his collaborators.
If most of Sheehan’s legal career has had him war against the political evils perpetrated by Republican administrations, it seems that the complicity of Democrats draws the greater ire. The final portions of the book suddenly shift from the bracing narratives of his investigations and trials to his summary analyses of the incoherence (or, perhaps more accurately, non-existence) of the political philosophies animating both parties and thus the profound disconnection of our governance altogether from any of the root considerations of law and morality required to give our legal system its legitimacy. Worthy as these reflections are, they are a bit dry and I suspect intended to be an historical and philosophical primer for activists who want to right our now badly listing ship of state.
Although The People’s Advocate advertises itself as Daniel Sheehan’s “life and legal history”, we really do not get much of the former. We never hear about a movie he liked or a record album he loved, nor what it was like to be a father to two children whose parents’ own working lives were all but consumed by some of the most perilous and important legal battles of our time. For all his interest in the spiritual nature of reality, he tells us very little about his own inner life or the very human trials that must have beset him and his family through all these years.

Even so, his good character comes through on every page. There is never a venal moment in the entire book, even after he is betrayed and abandoned by leading Democrats whose political cowardice cost both Sheehan and his country dearly. But that’s part of the total picture painted by the book that makes it such a profound and compelling education.

The civil liberties battles fought by Daniel Sheehan were but a prologue to the massive tests facing the American people today. As a lawyer at the center of many of the most fiercely contested trials of the nineteen sixties, seventies, and eighties, Sheehan was a central player in the conflicts that set the stage for our post-9/11 era.

It’s a whale of a story that should not only force us to rewrite our history books but also start paying close attention to the massive encroachments on our civil rights and political freedoms coming from our elected officials.  The People’s Advocate is an essential document for our times and should be read by every American who wants to understand the trials of conscience, character, and will we avoid only at great peril.

Dan Hamburg is a former Congressman representing California’s 1st congressional district and was the California Green Party’s first gubernatorial candidate. He is currently serving Mendocino County as the First District Supervisor.

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