For a man his age, Alan Dershowitz remains remarkably limber. Just last week the celebrated Harvard law professor emeritus and primetime attorney turned himself into a pretzel on behalf of his client, President Donald Trump.
Testing his opening argument in the court of public opinion on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Dershowitz said the two articles of impeachment approved against Trump and forwarded by the House, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, were invalid because impeachment requires proof of “an actual crime.”
In short order, CNN dug up a “Larry King Live” segment from 1998 in which Dershowitz took the opposite position, confidently noting that impeachment, “certainly doesn’t have to be a crime if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime.”
The social media world and nation’s commentary pages immediately erupted in accusations of “hypocrisy” and Dershowitz only fueled the criticism of his double-jointed position by returning to the airwaves and The New York Times letters page to over-explain his underwhelming legal reasoning. News consumers have been reminded often in recent days that Dershowitz called himself a liberal Democrat, voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, and testified in President Bill Clinton’s favor during his impeachment trial and was a consultant to his legal team. Widely slammed by constitutional scholars, he even had his bona fides challenged despite the fact he taught constitutional criminal procedure for decades at Harvard Law. It was a tough week for the professor.
But if you imagine Dershowitz is blushing even the slightest shade of Harvard crimson these days, you don’t know your man. Fact is, Dershowitz is well-practiced in the art of arguing opposite sides of a legal issue he’s previously embraced with great passion. And it hasn’t always been out of some lofty sense of principle that he’s gone Gumby. Sometimes an extremely well connected client is involved.
A favorite example occurred in March 2013 in a Las Vegas courtroom during a civil trial that pitted multibillionaire casino king and Republican Party sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson against a little-known former Las Vegas Sands Macau gaming license consultant named Richard Suen. Dershowitz represented the future Donald Trump puppet master Adelson in a losing and unintentionally humorous effort to keep cameras out of District Judge Rob Bare’s courtroom.
Adelson had already lost a $43.8 million verdict to Suen, but managed to win a second trial after the Nevada Supreme Court overturned the first verdict in 2010. By 2013, the lawsuit had attracted attention in Macau, where Suen argued he’d used his influence with Chinese government officials to help Adelson and Las Vegas Sands secure a lucrative gaming license. When camera crews representing media outlets sought access to the trial, Dershowitz stepped in to fog the legal record with meritless claims of potential security and privacy concerns on behalf of his client. With many thousands of photographs of Adelson on the internet and at least 6,000 videos on YouTube alone, the casino baron was a Republican Party star who had Charlie Rose hanging on his every word. Adelson was anything but camera shy as long as he was portrayed in a flattering light.
The argument against television news cameras in the courtroom was pretty rich coming from one of America’s biggest legal advocates for cameras in the courtroom. What happened next was a moment that hasn’t occurred often in Dershowitz’s legendary career: He was left essentially speechless when media attorney Donald Campbell used the professor’s own rhetoric against him.
“What better way to demonstrate to the public that its courts are fair and just than to say to the public, ‘Come and view the proceedings yourself and judge for yourself,’” Campbell said, initially keeping his source material to himself. He was reading from Dershowitz’s own 1996 book, Reasonable Doubts. Campbell continued, “’It makes little sense in my view to censor the only unbiased, direct, and only entirely truthful reporter of the trial – the courtroom television camera – while still allowing extensive coverage by more biased, partisan, and inaccurate human reporters.’”
Dershowitz could only smile. If his dog wouldn’t hunt, at least it could admire the sound of his master’s voice. Then as now, Dershowitz’s most difficult task wasn’t arguing against a previous legal stance – it’s what hired guns often do – but defending a virtually defenseless position.
You would think he might be at least a bit camera shy after taking part in the defense of sex merchant Jeffrey Epstein, whose obscene legal strategy led to a feather-bed decision. Worse yet, Dershowitz now finds himself repeatedly denying allegations of sexual misconduct by one of the late Epstein’s victims. The professor’s legacy is taking a beating.
Undaunted, he vowed in the Times, “I will continue to fight to protect the Constitution and justice as I have for more than half a century, regardless of party or person.”
Powerful words. But as the impeachment trial emanating from the Ukraine arms-for-political dirt scandal further exposes Trump as a well-practiced extortionist, Dershowitz may once again find himself dreaming of a courtroom without cameras.
Disclosure: Sheldon Adelson sued John L. Smith for libel in 2005 over his book, “Sharks in the Desert.’ The suit was dismissed with prejudice in 2008, and the judge declared Smith the prevailing party.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith