Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

A Proud Tradition: Representing the “Unpopular Cause”

Law Day, celebrated on May 1st each year, is a national day set aside to celebrate the rule of law.  It underscores how law, our legal system, and yes—lawyers, have contributed to the freedoms that all Americans enjoy.

In 1957, then-ABA President Charles Rhyne envisioned a special day to celebrate our legal system.  In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day to strengthen our great heritage of liberty, justice, and equality under law.  Congress, by joint resolution in 1961, designated May 1 as the official date of Law Day. Ever since then, Law Day is celebrated in communities across the country through programs designed to reach citizens and help them understand how laws and the justice system keep us free.

The Civic Education Committee needs lawyers in our schools to bring civic education to life. Volunteer for Law Day at:
Law Day 2011

The theme for Law Day this year is “The Legacy of John Adamsfrom Boston to Guantanamo,” celebrating American lawyers’ proud tradition of standing up for unpopular causes.  Adams was a resistance leader and patriot, advocate and diplomat, constitutional theorist and political activist, and became our nation’s first lawyer-president in 1797. In 1770, just five years before the American Revolutionary War began, he represented the British officer and soldiers charged with firing into a crowd of protestors and killing five civilians in what has become known as the “Boston Massacre.” Although already a prominent leader in the American colonial resistance to British parliamentary authority, Adams agreed, nonetheless, to take on the very unpopular case.

Representing the Unpopular

Because he felt that Captain Preston and the British soldiers deserved effective defense, Adams agreed to take on the case. Captain Preston was acquitted after Adams cast doubt as to whether Preston gave orders to shoot.  Later six of the eight soldiers were also acquitted, and two, who were proven to have fired their weapons, were convicted of manslaughter. Their punishment was to have their thumbs branded.

Writing in his diary three years after the trials, Adams remarked:


The Part I took in Defence (sic) of Cptn. Preston and the soldiers, procured me Anxiety and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered to my Country.  Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of Quakers or Witches, anciently.  As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.


Adams’ role in the 1770 Boston Massacre trials has come to be seen as a lawyerly exemplar of adherence to the rule of law and defense of the rights of the accused, even in cases when advocates may represent unpopular clients and become involved in matters that generate public controversy. I’m pleased to say that legacy lives on.


Living the Legacy

Is there any more emotionally charged recent memory than September 11, 2001?  Every American seeks justice on behalf of the victims of the terrible events of that sadly historic day.  Persons who are alleged to be complicit in the planning and execution of the events of that day are unpopular indeed.

Principally as a result of the investigations, war, and military actions that followed 9-11, the Bush administration established a detention facility for “unlawful enemy combatants” at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Approximately 800 detainees have been imprisoned at this facility.  Fewer than 200 currently remain.

Lawyers sought to represent the detainees almost from the beginning, notably including Joe Margulies, a Minnesota lawyer now teaching at the Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.  The legal status of the detainees has significantly been determined through a series of key Supreme Court cases since 2004. Those rulings have made possible the active legal representation of those held in Guantanamo. To date, hundreds of lawyers have committed their time, principally on a pro bono basis, to the detainees’ legal defense. In March 2010, 19 prominent lawyers signed an open letter supporting the role of lawyers in defending Guantanamo detainees by declaring,


The American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams’ representation of the British soldiers in the Boston [M]assacre.


The courage of countless American lawyers in taking on unpopular causes and defending unpopular or hated persons is, in the tradition of John Adams, the most gallant of actions and the highest form of service to justice in the United States.  Now there’s something to honor and celebrate on Law Day!


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Terry Votel

Terry Votel was the 2010-11 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The division attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department of Farmers Insurance Group, he practices in the area of insurance defense. He received his J.D. degree from William Mitchell College of Law.