Guest Columns

From Boston to Guantanamo, Adams’ legacy is alive in lawyers of today

Special to The Colorado Statesman

After the Boston Massacre, John Adams recalled his representation of the British captain and eight soldiers accused of murder following the skirmish involving a crowd of protesting colonists that left five dead.

Adams, who was a supporter of American independence, wrote in his diary three years following the bloody evening that while his decision to defend the soldiers invited “popular suspicions and prejudices, which are not yet worn out and never will be forgotten as long as history of this period is read. … 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 my country.”

Paul H. Chan

His advocacy paid off. The trials of the troops went forward in 1770; in the end, all but two men were acquitted and the two who were convicted of manslaughter received a branding on their thumbs. From then on, it would seem that the notion of the tireless defender was born with Adams.

On May 1, we celebrate Law Day, an annual tradition since its establishment by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958. This year, the American Bar Association theme honored “The Legacy of John Adams, from Boston to Guantanamo” and celebrated his tenacity during the Boston Massacre trials to advocate for a group of unpopular clients while protecting the rights to due process and defending the rights of the accused.

This dedication to the rights of the accused continues today. We see it in attorneys like Judy Clarke who defends those some would call the “undefendable.” We see it in perhaps the thorniest issue of our modern legal history: addressing the rights of those detained at Guantanamo Bay. The Center for Constitutional Rights has coordinated with hundreds of attorneys to provide legal assistance to detainees in Guantanamo, including seven attorneys from Holland & Hart’s Denver office. They represented five detainees pro bono, or at no charge, which has led to two being freed and two others to be designated for release with no charges.

Outside of the courtroom, Law Day also offers us an opportunity to continue our dedication to philanthropy and service to our community. It was Adams, after all, who asked, “If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind, whom should we serve?”

That dedication to service and philanthropy is a notion older than Adams, and one that is echoed in the state’s Oath of Admission for attorneys, where those joining the ranks of the legal profession affirm their commitment to professionalism, the betterment of society and taking on the cause of the defenseless.

Attorneys across the state dedicate thousands of hours of pro bono service to people who could not otherwise afford an attorney. In the last month the Colorado Supreme Court has honored attorneys and firms who have met or pledged to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono service (the goal outlined within the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct for the legal profession). There are too many to name (though you can see a full list of those recognized on the Colorado Judicial Branch’s website), but I would like to extend a personal thanks to those who year-in and year-out give their time and services to help someone in their community.

Additionally, judges and lawyers visit local universities, libraries and community centers to educate adults about the court system through Our Courts Colorado, a statewide public education program spearheaded by the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Judicial Institute. As of May 3, 287 presentations have been made to more than 9,300 people in the state of Colorado and Wyoming.

Last, and perhaps most important, we spend time on boards, associations and in community organizations that have nothing to do with the law, but everything to do with our community and its future. I am fortunate to serve as a trustee of a charitable foundation; through that work I encounter a number of attorneys who give their time to local nonprofits, foundations, and schools of all kinds. Together, we serve our communities and work to improve them.

Though the work of Adams can seem distant with the passage of time, I hope that as we celebrate Law Day, as a community and not just as legal professionals, we will keep its message in our minds year-round and his message of service and protection of personal rights will continue to ring clear.

Paul H. Chan is the president of the Colorado Bar Association. He serves as general counsel for the University of Denver.