Richmond attorney David Baugh has never shied away from a big case, whether it's defending a cross-burning Klansman or Mohammed Rashed Daoud al'Owhali, a convicted terrorist associated with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya. Baugh sat down with Style to discuss the legal philosophy that has defined his career.
Style: You once said that racism is different in Virginia, that it is unique. You said that while Texas racists were rednecks and the Klan, Virginia's racism consists of politicians and business leaders. Is that still the case?
Baugh: [long pause] Hmmm. Yeah, I think it is. It's just not so much just Virginia anymore. I think you see more of that nationwide now.
Yeah, I think so. It's been a while since I've thought about this, but I wouldn't be surprised. I would say that Ronald Reagan and the existing Supreme Court have re-institutionalized some really bad judgments.
Do you have any real broad examples of that?
Everything William Rehnquist writes. Everything Clarence Thomas writes. And it's not just racial issues. I mean when you stop to consider that the Supreme Court justice takes an oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States to ensure that those protections go to everybody, and then you read opinions where people on the court say today we are lessening this protection or we are reducing this protection. That's a certain amount of hypocrisy.
When the Constitution was written, African-Americans and women were not envisioned as coming under the protection of the Constitution. So, the fact that African-Americans and women are under the protections means that the Constitution is not written in stone. You see, expanding the protection is proper; it was envisioned. Reducing the protection is not. When you bring more people under the umbrella, when you strengthen the umbrella, when you widen the umbrella, that's the Constitution evolving and changing. When you reduce it, that's not changing it, that's destroying it.
That leads to my next question then. How many times have you been in contempt [of court]? Four, five times?
That said, how willing are you to go out on a limb for your clients?
I'm willing to go out on a limb for the law. It's not just the client. You know, you have a tendency to look at your client and say this is what it's all about, but it's not. Every time anybody is accused of anything the Constitution is being tested, and you can't afford to forget it even with the little cases. When it comes to the baseline of the law you can't go below this [Baugh holds his hand out]. It's the same in the basement of the public safety building as it is in the Supreme Court. This is the line.
The law shouldn't go below that line, but can you push against it?
You can kick that son of a bitch. There is a much more important issue here than whether or not your client goes free. I mean, literally, the Constitution of the United States is tested in every trial. As long as the judge draws the line it's not a problem.
Like I said when I was a prosecutor, I can lean on the line, I can beat it, I can kick it, I can try to jump over it, the judge makes sure it doesn't go too far. That's his job. His job is to maintain the line. And the line doesn't move based on the charge. It isn't based on the judge's perception of the value of the defendant to society. The line is blind.
Is that why you defended a Klansman and a terrorist?
Not only to give them the same kind of protection, but as my mother reminded me, your principles aren't really yours until they are tested. It's the hard cases that should test them. The measure of a person, like the measure of a nation, is the ability to adhere to principle in times of chaos and strife. I mean who is the hero? The guy who leads the lynch mob or the guy who stands up against the vigilante, even to protect the guilty? The hero is a person who would stand against his friends.
Like Robin Hood?
Robin is one of my heroes. And all cops are the king's men [laughs].
You picked up the Klansman case and you got flak from it from a lot of people.
I wouldn't say that.
There were some vocal people that I read were against it.
There is an ancient, ancient African saying that if you're going to be a lion you've got to expect the barking of the jackals.
Were you satisfied that the Constitution was upheld in those two cases?
No. You see, whether the Constitution was protected is not determined by the verdict. Justice is not a verdict, justice is the process. If the Constitution is not viewed the way it should be and you get a favorable verdict, that doesn't fix it. That's nice, but justice is the process, not the result, and people don't think that. "Oh, he was found guilty, he was found innocent, the Constitution was upheld." Wrong.
What happens now? Do you keep doing what you're doing? Do you retire?
When I was in New York, I knew it was going to be a transition period because I didn't know what was going to happen in five months. Maybe become a judge, maybe a professor. Maybe shave my head, move to the islands, you know, hook up with a cheerleader named Trixie. Um, I didn't know I'd be getting a divorce when I got back. But one of the things I realized while I was gone was that I love this job. I feel so vital. I have such a sense of worth. So what is my future? I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing.
Would you defend Bin Laden?
I would defend anyone who is accused of a crime unless I couldn't do it effectively, whether because of him, or because of me or because of societal pressures where a conflict is generated.
But you would consider it then?
I'd defend a judge. I'd defend a Republican [laughs].
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