The world’s dumbest lawyer

May 18, 2012 • 11:28 am

From The Chicago Tribune via The Friendly Atheist we have this intriguing item.  Lawyer Cheryl Bormann is defending, in Guantanamo Bay, Walid bin Attash, accused of helping plot the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  While appearing in court, Bormann will wear an abaya, a Muslim garmet that covers everything but the face (God help her if she added a veil!).

For her, the issue is a simple one of respecting the religious and cultural beliefs of a client. She said that since she was appointed to bin Attash’s case last year, she has always dressed conservatively out of deference to a client who believes he will violate a religious tenet if he looks at a woman who is immodestly dressed.

“My client has never seen my hair, has never seen my arms, has never seen my legs,” Bormann said in an interview Monday. “All of the defense counsel, all of the guards and everybody who works in Guantanamo Bay camp has seen me dressed like this. … I never thought in my wildest dreams that this would become an issue.”

Bormann’s actions at Guantanamo Bay are especially interesting because the crimes bin Attash and his co-defendants are accused of have stoked hatred of their religion among some Americans. Expecting others to show the same respect she displayed seems bold to some. But for the 52-year-old attorney from Chicago, buying the abayas in preparation for meetings with her client and then donning them in court over a suit was the right thing to do.

“There is nothing provocative about what I did. This is a religious issue and a cultural issue for [some of these defendants],” Bormann said in the interview. “I want him to be able to fully concentrate on the proceedings at hand without any kind of interference or loss of focus.”

Regardless of whether the military judges who will decide this case are prejudiced against Muslims, having a veiled lawyer is not something that will do her client any good.  While respecting his beliefs, she’s inflaming any latent anti-Muslim sentiments. Now granted, maybe dressing that way in court will make her client more willing to trust her, but at some point Muslims will just have to confront the fact that in a U.S. courtroom one dresses in a way that makes a good impression on judges and jurors. (During my testimony in forensic-DNA cases a few years back, I would always wear a suit and tie.)  Lawyers regularly profile jurors to weed out those who are prejudiced against clients. Perhaps they should profile themselves as well.

Bormann was way off the mark when she said this:

“If because of somebody’s religious beliefs, they cannot focus when somebody in the courtroom is dressed in a particular way, I feel then incumbent on myself as his counsel to point that out and ask for some consideration from the prosecution.”

That’s an ideal world, not the world we live in.  She’s risking her client’s neck with her dress.  I agree with Hemant’s take on this:

Nope.  You don’t get to tell other people how to dress, Ms. Bormann.  Sorry.  Your client has an insane, misogynistic, religious philosophy, not an ankle-allergy.  You do what you think is best for him, and if that includes covering your body or doing back flips or setting yourself on fire, that’s all your choice and your prerogative as his legal counsel.  Please do not expect anyone else to bend over backwards to accommodate his irrational fear of women’s extremities.

Imagine being on trial for your life in Saudi Arabia, where all the lawyers,  judges or jurors (I doubt they have jurors) are wearing traditional robes.  Given a choice, would you insist that your Saudi lawyer wear a Western suit?

An abaya

h/t: Grania Spingies

61 thoughts on “The world’s dumbest lawyer

  1. “That’s an ideal world …”

    Hmm, bad phrasing Jerry? I wouldn’t consider there to be anything “ideal” about third parties being expected to modify their dress owing to someone else’s religious beliefs.

  2. Not that it matters, but in Saudi-Arabia, which only is four ranks above the US in the number of executions, the trial would take place in Saudia-Arabia, not in some semi-legal, farmed out camp…

    1. Agreed; it is a shame and a travesty that they don’t conduct these trials on U.S. soil and according to U.S. law.

      1. Seriously? Being Jewish (if I’m responding to Jerry), these people would murder you in a nanosecond with utter impunity, smiles on their faces and their heart rate wouldn’t even change. If they moved these trials onto US soil it would become a much more dangerous, even more absurd circus very rapidly. The trial location would attract terrorists like a pile of dog sh*t attracts flies on a warm summer day. Sorry, but I see it as a military matter, not a civilian matter.

        1. Yeah, because we all know that people who oppose the US are, by definition, sociopaths whose actions have absolutely nothing to do with all the death and destruction the US has been causing and supporting in the region over the last century.

          Further, you must think that the US is filled with absolute dummies who couldn’t figure a way or two to provide trials under minimum standards of civilization while dealing with any possible risks involved. So I guess kangaroo courts are okay…

        2. Thank you for demonstrating how cowardice undermines moral principles. That’s exactly the response the terrorists were hoping for.

  3. Considering that she is a woman, I am surprised that the religious defendants agreed to let her defend them. After all, a woman’s place is not in the courtroom.

    1. Let’s summarize:
      1. not, in fact, “Hemant’s take”
      2. not, in fact, “veiled”
      3. No evidence that the client “demanded” anything.
      3. assertion of unsupported opinions as facts: “she’s inflaming any latent anti-Muslim sentiments” and “She’s risking her client’s neck with her dress.”
      4. not, by a longshot, the “world’s dumbest lawyer”.

  4. As ridiculous as this is (defefence to guanophrenic, retrograde, patriarchal attitudes of pious, irrational men) . . . .
    As a lawyer, I sympathize with this attorney, and I do not consider her “dumb,” let alone “dumbest.” The proceedings at Gitmo only loosely resemble jury trials under the constitutional American system of criminal justice. If the evidence (evidence that would be admissible in a U.S. criminal trial before a jury) clearly shows his guilt, then I shed no tears and express no regrets for this particular defendant. But is this not a Kafka-esque, new-and-improved military commissions proceeding, where much of the government’s evidence is secret and not shared with the defense? I think it is highly unlikely that her wearing of the abaya is going to prejudice this particular tribunal against her client; the deck is already stacked against him.

    Given all of this, her duty as a lawyer is to represent her client zealously, honestly, and with as much care and skill as she can. If she has concluded that by wearing an abaya, she will have a better rapport with her client, and will be able to better represent him in light of all of the other factors that put these defendants at a distinct disadvantage, then as a fellow lawyer, and as an atheist, I have no problem with it.

    So long as she doesn’t complain about what other people in the “courtoom” are wearing, or argue that any other women in the court room should show similar “respect” to the defendant, she can wear what she wants, for whatever reason she wants.

    1. I wonder if she’s doing it so that anti-Muslim sentiments become dulled. Hearing her (assumed) American voice, absorbing her (assumed) American body language through the abbaya, and acting as though it is all perfectly normal might subconsciously begin to make it seem normal to the judges, as well, thereby blunting or at least confusing prejudices. It’s an hypothesis, anyway.

    2. As a solicitor (retired) (and fortunately in the UK rather than the US where lawyers are seen as a disease) I fully agree with you. Subject to one’s duty to the Court, one’s duty to one’s client is paramount.
      BTW, Jerry, she’s not wearing a veil.

    3. It seems very hard to believe that this will be good for her client. It seems more like what one would do if, secretly, you wanted to see your client hang.

      1. The strategic point is not her decision to make — it’s her client’s. She agreed to her client’s request; if she explained the risks and she is agreeable to do so, then it’s not for her to make the ultimate decision. She can only advise as to strategy; she’s can’t dictate it.

        1. I don’t think that how one’s lawyer dresses is a decision that is up to the client.

          1. No, it’s ultimately up to the judge to permit it or not. (Obviously, if the lawyer didn’t want to go along with it, she could withdraw or tell the client she won’t and let him decide whether to petition for a new lawyer.)

            My point was that if the client requested it, believeing that it is in his best interest and the lawyer agreed to do it, that is not a reflection on the lawyer’s competence. It could be a stupid strategy, but it’s ultimatly up to the client to decide what strategy to follow, with the aid of the attorney.

            1. Bingo. The military tribunal didn’t have to allow the lawyer here to wear the abaya, but apparently it did allow it.

              Again, my only objection is to the notion that “respect” must be practiced or shown toward religious beliefs or customs of any kind, as distinct from practicing respect for the rights of human beings (Simon Blackburn wrote about the slippery-slope problem of “respect creep” in his terrific essay, “Religion and Respect,” collected in the anthology Philosophers Without Gods, edited by Louise Anthony. It may have been the insidious effects of “respect creep” that led Ms. Bormann to go too far, and to ask that female members of the prosecution team also cover up.)

  5. And from New York Times:

    Cheryl Bormann, another lawyer for Mr. bin Attash, wore a traditional Muslim clothing that covered everything but her face throughout the hearing and at one point asked the women on the prosecution team to consider dressing more modestly. Appearing in Western clothes in talking to reporters, she said she always wears Muslim garb in her client’s presence out of “respect for his religious beliefs.”

    Yeah, respect is a one way street.

    1. If I were a lawyer and the opposition asked me to dress more modestly for the sake of their client’s religious beliefs, I would show up in a short, skin tight suit, with my (magnificent) boobs on full display as far as decency would allow.

  6. Sorry, old news. She’s already been shredded on all the anti-Islamist websites.

    Can’t we all just get along and submit to Islam … wah, wah, wah …

    That’s fine, she can represent her savages to the best of her ability, but that doesn’t translate into trying to require that the whole proceedings change to submit to Islam. Screw her clients. They have no honor or sensitivities as evidenced by their behavior and actions. That is nothing but dhimmi bullsh*t. I hope it has a reverse effect and they get fried. Sorry, but this warped sh*t pisses me off.

    1. “Screw her clients. ”

      They’ve already been tortured. Which the defense aren’t allowed to mention.

  7. I’ve been following this blog ever since the Ehrman-Carrier flap, and this is the very first post in which I strongly disagree with Jerry Coyne. The lawyer isn’t asking anyone !*else*! to dress like a Muslim, and if her doing so is less likely to sway the judge/jury significantly than effect the co-operativeness of her client, then this is the right thing to do.

    1. correction: She is also asking a woman on the prosecuting team to do the same. Still, this doesn’t drastically change my feeling on the issue.

      1. Would you feel the same way if a client demanded she defend him in a bikini? The objectification that results is really the same… he clearly sees her normal dress as immoral, and while I could understand wanting her client to be as cooperative as possible, its *he* who is in trouble, and *she* who elected to represent him. Maybe *he* could respect her cultural traditions.

          1. In clothes-ist Britain, our Militant Nudists defend themselves. Nude.
            Stephen Gough
            And then they do the time for contempt of court.
            I rather suspect that the law is on the losing side in this battle. And I suspect that they know it. I’ll have to remember this one to bring up next time I have dinner with a uni friend who is one of the local Procurators Fiscal.

            1. Unfortunately they guy is copping a longer and longer sentence each time he walks out of prison and strips off in the car park.

              (Except one time – “The ruling judge, Isobel Poole, found that there was no evidence of “actual alarm or disturbance”, adding “I can understand this conduct could be considered unpleasant to passers-by had there been any but there is a lack of evidence to that effect.” Well done that judge).

              But for his own sake he really needs, not jail time (which he apparently has to spend in solitary confinement since he refuses to wear clothes – this can’t be good for his mental health) but some form of therapy. Someone should sit down with him and convince him that his repeated protests are only hurting him. There should be a less self-destructive way for him to promote his cause.

              1. If I recall the guy correctly, he’s an ex-soldier who is perfetly well aware of what he’s doing. To be honest, I think the response to his continuing (I haven’t seen him in the news for ages – still in clink?) campaign has moved from out rage, and is generally at the amusement level these days. Meanwhile, he’s also gaining considerable respect for sticking to his guns.
                It won’t be long (no more than a couple of decades) before he gets hauled up in front of another beak, who calls the prosecuting authorities over and says “What the fuck is this. Take it away and bring me a real case. Case dismissed!” And Gough seems to have taken a choice to take that long walk.
                I should note also that he does his case a lot of good by having completed his original walk in Feburary, in Scotland, in the nude. Gough is one tough guy ; no questions asked.
                At some point, the state is going to ask “is the cost of trying and jailing this guy worth the piblic humiliation that we (the government) are heaping upon ourselves each time we try to break this particular butterfly upon this particular wheel?”
                I think he’ll win.
                (BTW, I gather he has the same girlfriend now as he did at the start of his campaign. So I guess that she agrees with what he’s doing. No therapy necessary.)

              2. I just saw the comment about cold weather in Scotland juxtaposed to the one about “sticking to his guns”.

              3. @gravelinspector

                I didn’t mean to suggest the guy had any mental problem, just that years in jail in solitary confinement can’t be good for him. He must be pretty mentally tough for it not to have sent him bonkers. I do have some sympathy for him.

                That said, I think he may be pushing his cause a bit too far. (Not sure what he’s campaigning for?) I’m fine with designated nude beaches for example where you know what to expect, I think if I saw a nude guy on an ordinary beach or in the street I’d be a bit taken aback. I have mixed feelings about the law’s reaction, I think jail time for nudity is a bit excessive, but he won’t stop. It’s a tricky question.

        1. Would you feel the same way if a client demanded she defend him in a bikini? The objectification that results is really the same


        2. “Maybe *he* could respect her cultural traditions.”

          She is his lawyer. Her job is to advocate his position. If he believes that the best way to do that is for her to dress in this garb, and she is willing to do it, and the court permits it, then what the hell do you care?

        3. She has no cultural tradition dictating from on high that she dress in what is de facto normal Western wear, so I don’t think that analogy works.

        4. “its *he* who is in trouble, and *she* who elected to represent him. ”

          And *she* is a part of a society which tortured these people.

          I suspect the defendant isn’t terribly inclined to trust or cooperate with an American lawyer.

          The lawyer is most likely wearing the abaya, and asking other women to do the same, in an effort to win the trust of her client, so that, if nothing else, when convicted he feels she did her best and wasn’t an enemy going through the motions.

      2. Nor should it. It’s a pro forma motion and she, no doubt, knows that there is no way it will be granted.

        She makes the request; the court denies it; they move forward.

  8. I wonder if Ms. Bormann has considered having her clitoris and labia removed with a broken piece of glass sans antisepsis and anesthesia in deference to her client’s sensibilities ?

  9. Well, that’s assuming that the aim is to represent the client. If you just wanted money out of it you’d go through all the antics you can to prolong the hearings. This quasi-military court has me all confused – is it a military court or not? It sure is one big circus and this lawyer’s just another freakshow.

  10. Wait, she is asking the prosecution to cover up? Ha ha ha ha!! Still, world’s dumbest lawyer, I don’t know… A member of the CT bar once told that me gay rights were covered under religious rights because what we are is defined by what we do and what do is shaped by what we believe and what we believe is protected under religious freedom. (yeah, he was a Republican, how’d you guess?) I looked at him, asked if he really believed that and when he said yes, walked away. It wasn’t an argument with holes, it was a pit of ill-logic and fallacies. Yet, he passed the bar. The CT actually scares me with some of it’s members.

  11. No one has posted “the obligatory Jesus’n’Mo”. So …
    Choices, choices … two :
    Protect me from lust! and I’m protecting you from lust!
    (Personally, I wouldn’t call the lawyer dumb : it’s pretty plain that she’s “up to something” ; whether that something is sensible or not is a different question. Her client is already pretty far down the rabbit hole, so what may seem a sensible plan in her Looking Glass may not look particularly sensible from our side of the Looking Glass.Maybe she’s talking to Saudi Arabian public opinion, planning to use them as a short-cut to controlling the actions of the american politicians who’re intending to execute her client?)

  12. I don’t think she’s dumb. I think she may be grand-standing. Does anyone believe the guy will get a fair trial? In an American court most of the evidence would be thrown out as having been obtained by illegal means (coercion and so on). I suspect that’s why he’s not being tried in the US.

    I wouldn’t trust that court any more than I’d trust a Saudi Arabian or an Iranian one.

  13. In divorce cases, the standard is apparently that you get a female on the male’s side and vice versa. The contra sex angle is already covered here, but by the same logic she ought to be making her case in a pinstripe suit.

  14. I think she’s just playing fancy dress. It would probably be a good thing for her client if she grew up soon.

    1. Despite the name, it’s rare that a “LOL” is actually out loud. In this case, for me it applies in the literal sense. LOL!

  15. From a transcript of the 5 May Guantanamo hearing:

    Bormann: Cheryl Bormann on behalf of Mr. Bin’Attash. I have one issue to address with the judge that has some implication for going forward with respect to my client.

    Judge: Little bites.

    Bormann: That is that Mr. Bin’Attash was, as you already know, denied, at least in part, some of what he wanted to wear today, and there are some issues with respect to cultural sensitivity here.

    Judge: Wait for the translation.

    Bormann: Now, I am not suggesting that everyone in the room wear what I am wearing, but I am suggesting that the prosecution make decisions, appropriate decisions about how …

    Judge: Ms. Bormann, speak into the microphone.

    Bormann: I’m sorry. I am suggesting that the prosecution team make decisions regarding appropriate dress of their female members so that our clients are not forced to not look at the prosecution for fear of committing a sin under their faith. Although I will not …

    Judge: Wait.

    Bormann: Although my client understands that this is — this Commission is in the form of a westernized court system, he and I are asking that the prosecution use some discretion in wearing clothing appropriate for a courtroom proceeding.

    1. I think this comes back to the fallacy in Jerry’s comment that “She’s risking her client’s neck with her dress.” Realistically, nothing she or her client does now has any bearing on what is likely to happen to her client’s neck. I would be astonished if anybody on the defence team expected their acquittal, and equally astonished if anything done during the trial had any bearing on sentencing.

      So what motive do the defendants really have to play within the rules of the system? Their best tactics are to spin out the trial for as long as possible, so (a) delaying any ultimate sanction and (b) giving themselves the best opportunity to get across their point and expose the show-trial nature of the proceedings.

      So coming up with silly motions like this can actually be in the clients’ best interests. And that, for their attorneys, is paramount.

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