Published on: Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Can a neonazi fairly represent a Jewish client? Can a Blue Lives Matter believer zealously serve a Black client? Article available here.

Those were some of the hypotheticals Massachusetts’ top court justices lobbed out in a fervent debate over whether a Black, Muslim defendant deserves a new trial because of his lawyer’s racist, Islamophobic Facebook posts.

The issue under debate is whether a public defender’s bigotry, evidenced by 20 racist social media posts that he made while representing his client, constitutes a conflict of interest. That would grant the defendant an automatic new trial, without having to pinpoint specific ways in which his attorney’s representation impacted his case.

A lower court judge ruled that the appellant had not proven how his former defender’s racism amounted to ineffective representation.

In a sign of how impactful the decision could be, 10 groups—including national civil rights organizations, criminal justice advocates, and bar associations—are pressing the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to declare that it won’t take a chance on a lawyer’s personal beliefs infecting the criminal justice system.

“Fundamentally, if you hate the person that you represent, that’s a conflict,” Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt said during oral argument Wednesday.

“How do we ensure that people have confidence in our criminal legal system” if the court rules this kind of racism isn’t a conflict of interest, Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd asked the attorney representing the state of Massachusetts.

The public defender represented more than 6,000 indigent defendants in his career that spanned two decades. The state worries an opinion in the defendant’s favor would entitle all of those clients to new trials.

The state’s Committee for Public Counsel Services suspended the lawyer in 2018 after learning about his posts that disparaged Black and Muslim people.  The defendant told the court he was unaware of his lawyer’s racism and Facebook posts until 2021, court records show. He asked to withdraw his guilty plea and get a new trial.

The case is Commonwealth v. Dew, Mass., No. SJC-13356, Oral argument 2/8/23.