COLUMBIA - An ad attacking Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen's work as a defense attorney has prompted the South Carolina Bar Association to fight back against what it calls an unfair smear of the legal profession that should have no place in the governor's race.
The bar launched a website counteracting a Republican Governors Association ad, which began airing statewide Monday, that condemns Sheheen as protecting criminals. It's an unprecedented move for a nonpolitical organization to which every South Carolina attorney must belong, with more than 15,000 members statewide.
RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said the ad is about Sheheen choosing in the past to represent a sex offender and several men accused of abusing women, as he's trying to woo women voters.
Association President Alice Paylor said campaigns should be about issues, not bashing lawyers for providing people their constitutional right to legal representation.
"That's a basic tenet of the Constitution," she said Wednesday. "What they're attacking is the whole basis for the U.S. and the U.S. Constitution. According to them, I guess everyone accused of something is automatically guilty."
The association does not take sides in a political campaign and generally doesn't get involved. It has previously provided publishable letters opposing "lawyer-bashing ads," but the website is a first, Paylor said.
It doesn't support Sheheen, but rather defends lawyers in general and opposes the notion that someone who has represented criminal defendants is unworthy of being governor, she said.
"Lawyers have a professional duty to ensure that justice is not rationed but is available to everyone," the website reads. "It is the job of a criminal defense lawyer to ensure his or her client has a fair trial, not to defend the crime."
Sheheen and Gov. Nikki Haley, both 42, are in a rematch this November. Neither has a primary opponent.
The ad is the Republican Governors Association's fourth in the campaign. Its latest ad followed a news conference earlier this month by the South Carolina Republican Party attacking Sheheen for five of his previous clients.
"This is not about due process or the right to have counsel. It's about someone who wants to represent South Carolina not standing up for our citizens," state GOP Chairman Matt Moore said. "He could have stood with abuse victims and exploited children and instead took a paycheck. Vincent Sheheen made a choice that was wrong."
Cases he criticized Sheheen on included a man charged with having sex with a minor between the ages of 11 and 14. He pleaded guilty in 2000 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which was suspended for 38 days already served and five years' probation. The other clients Moore discussed also involved guilty pleas, with the latest being in 2004.
Sheheen, who has also been a prosecutor in Camden, said the ad shows the Haley campaign is desperate. He said lawyers are obligated to defend their clients to their best ability, and judges have final say over the sentence.
"I tried to experience every type of case I could whether it was prosecution, defense, or civil because that's what I think a lawyer should do," he said. "It's a lawyer's obligation to take on many types of cases during their career to uphold the values of the Constitution."
Sheheen says most of his work over the past several years has been in civil cases, not criminal. His law firm's website lists his practice areas as civil litigation, worker's compensation, employment law and criminal law.
Haley's campaign spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said Sheheen has every right to choose how he makes his living, "just like South Carolinians have the right to know exactly who Vince is and who he chose to represent when they vote for governor."