Jeff Jacoby

None of us would want to live in a society in which mob passions made it impossible for unpopular criminals to be represented in court. Just as the right to free speech is meaningless if it doesn't protect the expression of cruel and loathsome ideas, so the right to counsel would be hollow if it didn't extent to cruel and loathsome clients.

But that doesn't mean individual lawyers are obliged to defend anyone, or that it's never fair to judge an attorney by the clients he is willing to represent.

I'm not suggesting that Anand and Sharma now abandon their clients. The Delhi lawyers who heckled them for agreeing to take the gang-rape case had no excuse for breaching courtroom etiquette. In any event, if no lawyers had volunteered, the court would have had to appoint defense counsel, whose duty it would have been to zealously advocate for the clients assigned to them, no matter how odious or obviously guilty.

Yet other than cases assigned to a lawyer because due process requires it, why shouldn't attorneys expect to be characterized by the caliber of the clients they take? Lawyers who make a career out of representing the interests of, say, abortion clinics or gun manufacturers or labor unions can hardly complain if they come to be seen in the public eye as pro-abortion, pro-gun, or pro-union. Columnists are judged by the opinions they express, venture capitalists by the enterprises they bankroll, directors by the movies they make. An attorney who specializes in representing crooked politicians or jihadist plotters may have not a shred of personal sympathy for his clients' views. But reasonable people may draw a different conclusion.

"I personally despise criminals and always root for the good guys except when I am representing one of the bad guys," defense attorney Alan Dershowitz has written. In a fair legal system, even the worst bad guys – serial killers, child abusers, gang-rapists -- are entitled to have a lawyer in their corner. But only certain lawyers seek out such clients.

Does that mean they're bad guys too? Maybe not, but people are apt to wonder.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for