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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Circling the Legal Wagons

When attorney Lynne Stewart was charged with aiding terrorists, New York lawyers of all stripes came to her aid.

July 27, 2002|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — When FBI agents swarmed onto Lynne F. Stewart's front stoop in Brooklyn on April 9 with an arrest warrant, she thought they'd come for her partner of 34 years, Ralph Poynter, a longtime political activist. An agent informed her otherwise: "We're not here for him, we're here for you."

Stewart, a 62-year-old lawyer, was handcuffed in front of her neighbors and charged with helping one of her jailed clients--a blind Egyptian cleric convicted of plotting to blow up Manhattan landmarks--pass messages to his militant followers.

As agents took the plump, grandmotherly Stewart away, she shouted to Poynter: "Whatever this is, call the media."

The arrest put Stewart at the center of a controversy that has jeopardized her career but also brought her to the attention of the tight-knit defense bar. Despite annoyance with her anachronistic lefty ways, many of these lawyers are rallying around her on principle.

They are horrified that this lawyer, any lawyer, is being lumped in a conspiracy with the likes of militant Muslims who live to kill Jews and take down governments; they are convinced that the government is growing increasingly hostile toward them and the people they represent.

And little-known attorney Stewart, a former librarian who wears billowy tent dresses and unstyled gray hair, has come to personify all these concerns and more. She has the nation's top prosecutor to thank for her newfound fame.

Announcing her indictment, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the three-year investigation that led to Stewart's arrest inspired the Justice Department to assert new powers to monitor lawyers and their clients when the attorney general suspects doing so could deter terrorism.

"We simply aren't going to allow people who are convicted of terrorism to continue ... directing the activity from their prison," Ashcroft said later that day during an appearance on CBS-TV's "Late Show With David Letterman," before he performed "Can't Buy Me Love" on the piano for Letterman's cheering audience.

In charging Stewart with conspiring to aid terrorists, lying and breaking an agreement with the Bureau of Prisons, the government says she crossed the line from criminal advocate to criminal.

From a dingy office with a broken toilet, Stewart has spent 27 years representing small-time crooks and leftist radicals in the tradition of such legal bomb-throwers as the late William Kunstler, with whom she tried five cases.

Stewart is reveling in being pitted against the conservative attorney general, and says this case is the culmination of her life's work.

"I just never thought I'd be the one who could pull blacks, Chinese, environmentalists, American Indians, Arabs ... all these groups together in one case," she said during an interview in her Lower Manhattan office, referring to her natural allies over the years. "I thought I'd be the lawyer, not the defendant."

As she was released on $500,000 bail after a few hours, FBI agents searched her office, seizing files, computer disks--even her Rolodex.

Within days, Stewart's friends--$50-an-hour lawyers with clients accused of 60 rapes or worse--held a fund-raiser over a deli near her office. The mostly young lawyers drank wine from plastic cups, griped about the heat and slipped checks for her defense fund into a cardboard box.

Weeks later, a local law school drew a tonier crowd for a round-table discussion titled "The Attorney-Client Privilege at the Crossroads: The Indictment of Lynne Stewart." Panelist Michael Tigar, a nationally acclaimed defense lawyer, announced to great applause that he would take on her case.

These lawyers said they suspect Ashcroft of going after Stewart to intimidate them, and that she was picked precisely because she is not the most popular lawyer in town. Many see her as a throwback to 1960s rebelliousness and do not appreciate her habit of embracing her clients' causes.

"What I am doing here," said one of her frustrated but loyal backers, "is defending the right of a lawyer to represent a fascist--stupidly."

Stewart brushes aside criticisms of her and her unpopular client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, preferring to focus on her nemesis, Ashcroft, whose picture hangs above that broken toilet.

"He's a Midwestern Christian fundamentalist and I really think they view liberal Easterners as having horns and pointed tails and not being folks like he is," she said. "But he has grossly underestimated me. I'm not some lesbian lefty."

Certainly, a 24-page indictment put together by the New York U.S. Attorney's office marks her as the U.S. justice system's worst nightmare: A lawyer who exploits her protected role to commit a crime against the country.

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