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Joking that they represented two of the most reviled elements in American society, politicians and lawyers discussed the role of lawyers in American politics before an audience of 25 last night in Harvard Hall.
The panel, titled "Law and politics: An Unhappy Marriage?" was sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Pre-Law Society and the Harvard Political Union (HPU).
Panelists included Renee M. Landers '77, an attorney with Ropes & Gray in Boston; Associate Professor of Government Edward Schwartz; Jonathan Schwartz, associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department and former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson, director of the Institute of Politics.
Hannah Choi '01, chair of HPU, hoped that the panel discussion would be "a good substantive discussion about how law affects politics, noting more than the fact that a lot of politicians are lawyers and re-enter the legal profession after politics, but seeing how this affects politics as it works."
The discussion, moderated by Tanya L. Barnes '00, co-director of the pre-law society, centered on the question of whether legal or political considerations should take precedence in the mind of legally trained politicians.
Relating his experience arguing that Secret Service agents could not testify against President Clinton, Schwartz explained that politics often find their way into the courtroom.
"It was a situation in which you got to go into court against the independent council arguing about who was even representing the United States" he said.
Landers, who used to work for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and worked in recent years on cases of state referendums legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana, said that there is often a conflict between popular politics and federal law.
"It raises fundamental questions about law and policy," she said. "What do the voters decide? What do the elected officials decide?"
Jonathan Schwartz said he once believed that purely legal considerations should always take precedence in such cases.
"I thought [law was above politics] coming out of law school, when I was thinking like a lawyer," he said. "But when you go to a place like Washington and deal with medicinal marijuana, thinking like a lawyer, it's a no-brainer. It's flat-out illegal."
But nonetheless, cases involving marijuana are never clear-cut, Edward Schwartz said.
"Law is of politics," he said. "Erosion of public support for a law, whether it remains on the books or not, forces us to re-evaluate it."
Simpson, though he said politicians must think like human beings, said he believes they should have knowledge of the law.
"I would think you would want lawyers passing the laws rather than people who know nothing about the law relying on staffers who know nothing about politics."
As far as public mistrust of lawmakers goes, Simpson said that it can only be fairly applied to five to 10 percent of Congressional delegates.
"There are at least 10 percent of people in America who are screwballs, lightweights and boobs," he joked. "These people need to be represented."
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