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A Conversation with Daniel Sheehan

Nationally known civil rights attorney talks politics and progressive litigation

Attorney Daniel Sheehan played a significant role in more landmark 20th century court cases than most people could even name—from Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and the Greensboro Massacre to Three-Mile Island, Iran-Contra, the Karen Silkwood case, and more. The Harvard-trained constitutional lawyer now works on other high-impact cases from his Santa Cruz-based nonprofit the Romero Institute.

“With new technology, we can do what we do from virtually anywhere,” says Sheehan in reference to himself and his wife, Romero Institute co-founder Sara Nelson. “And if you can work from anywhere, why not do it from Santa Cruz?”

Named for an assassinated El Salvadoran archbishop who spoke out against government-sanctioned death squads, the Romero Institute engages in legal consulting, litigation and public education. Cases are chosen carefully; the website states that the institute aims to “honor the spirit of Oscar Romero, looking for cases where injustice is severe and systemic and where people lack the resources to get help elsewhere.”

With two degrees from Harvard, Sheehan has placed an explicit focus on civil rights litigation, and makes a point of tackling cases that, in his view, will have lasting structural impacts upon their resolution.

As one of the co-founders of the nonprofit Christic Institute law center (the spiritual progenitor of the Romero Institute), Sheehan is a strong proponent of “progressive litigation,” and rejects the term “activist litigation.”

“All litigation, if effectively done, is activist,” laughs Sheehan. “Reactionaries are activists. The John Birch Society is activist. The Heritage Foundation is activist.”

“Progressive” is a term to which Sheehan assigns a very specific meaning.

“Progressive, for me, is attempting to isolate out a lot of the ideals elucidated in the constitutional system that we have, and move them in a direction that more fully informs judgments that are made,” Sheehan says. “The intent of the Constitution is to effectuate a natural law worldview. In its original form, it didn’t go as far as it should have, but it was pregnant with those promises.”

Sheehan sees the Constitution as a sort of blueprint that has yet to be fully realized.

“There’s a certain progression in which these things need to logically go,” Sheehan says. “We [the Romero Institute] are attempting to carry out the ideals that are implicit in the Constitution.”

Sheehan recently finished teaching a class and lecture series at UC Santa Cruz titled “Eight Cases that Changed the United States.” Drawing from his extensive background in civil rights litigation, Sheehan offered an insider’s view of the mechanics and dealings of Iran-Contra to students and the interested public. For those born well after the events of 1986, Iran-Contra involved the U.S. sale of arms to an embargoed Iran in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras—both actions were illegal. Through the Christic Institute, Sheehan and associates were some of the first to file a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act against several individuals who figured prominently in the Iran-Contra scandal. The case failed to secure a judgment, but succeeded in drawing attention toward illicit government activities surrounding the scandal.

Sheehan’s role in many of the other aforementioned cases also ran deep: In the Watergate Burglary case, for instance, he represented James McCord, one of the Watergate burglars who blew the whistle on President Richard Nixon’s involvement (leading to Nixon’s eventual resignation).

“I’ve done all these cases, and people would always ask me ‘How did you ever become involved?’” says Sheehan, who was approached by UCSC Cowell College Provost Faye Crosby about teaching a course on these cases. “The major questions raised by the course were ‘What are the implications for our future?’ and ‘What are the chances of enacting major social change through litigation?’”

Social change through litigation was at the heart of his discussion with GT.

“The overall theme of my work has revealed that there is this element in American society that has existed since the founding of the country that basically does not believe in the basic ethos of constitutional democracy,” says Sheehan. ‘They never did believe in it. They believe in an aristocratic ruling class that gets to make all the decisions.”

It’s not hard to understand Sheehan’s position, considering his history of exposing government cover-ups with regard to Watergate, Iran-Contra and company. But there is one more recent piece of legislation that has Sheehan particularly worried.

“On New Year’s Eve, at 11:55 p.m., [Barack] Obama goes into the Oval Office and signs the National Defense Authorization Act. And only one-one-thousandth of the American people even know that it happened,” sighs Sheehan.

Government covert action is something that Sheehan has studied and worked on exposing for decades, and he says the passage of the NDAA is particularly troubling for him.

“[The NDAA] explicitly authorizes the arrest of any American citizen in the country with no probable cause, no right to a jury trial, no habeas corpus. You can be executed without appeal,” says Sheehan. “How could that possibly have happened? How does that make any sense at all?”

For Sheehan, it all comes back to a certain trend that he’s observed in American politics and legislation. It’s a trend that he’s worked on throughout his extensive case history, and that was reflected in his recent course.

“With the Pentagon Papers case, the entire military industrial complex was lined up to stop the revelation of the content of the papers. It was the same in Iran-Contra,” says Sheehan. “Both political parties, Congress, the Executive branch, almost all of the major news media—none of them wanted it talked about.”

The common theme uniting the cases?

“The thread dragged through all these cases is the unfolding of all these layers, like an onion, to discover that we’re actually living in a national security state,” says Sheehan.

Sheehan sees the current situation regarding national security as stemming directly from the slew of cases he was involved in during the latter half of the 20th century. And he’s not alone in that.

“I tend to agree with Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra case,” says Sheehan. “In his final reply, he said ‘Mark my words, the failure of the Constitution and the entire judicial system to address what is at stake in Iran-Contra is going to come back to haunt you. In the future, you’re going to see the assertion of the need to defend against terror, and that will be used to sacrifice fundamental rights all because you weren’t cognizant enough to stop it here.’”

The remarks were prescient, but what are we to do about it now? For Sheehan, litigation and legislation have a special power to effect change past the obvious legal reasons.

“People are trained to engage in the dialectic—there are good guys and bad guys, red team blue team, Lakers versus Thunder, they get engrossed in it as entertainment,” explains Sheehan. “So if you can track people into a courtroom, people get caught up in the energy of that and pay attention. If you can successfully craft the case so that the jury can decide what’s going on, then the viewing audience puts themselves in the position of the jury. And that can be revelatory.”

Currently, the Romero Institute is engaged in a case in South Dakota regarding the abusive foster care conditions faced by thousands of Native American children in the state. The situation, for Sheehan, is just another example of government neglect and corruption.

“It was intentional on the part of the U.S. government to destroy the [Native American tribes] system of self governance,” says Sheehan. ”If you take the 11 poorest counties in the United States, seven of them are on South Dakota reservations. So the government says, ‘we’ll take your land away, but then we’ll take care of you.’ But how are they taking care of them? They have 85 percent unemployment, 80 percent adult onset diabetes, and the highest rates of youth suicide in the country. The life expectancy for a male on a reservation is 42 years old, and for women it’s 46. That’s the condition that [remains] there.”

In Sheehan’s eye, conditions like those demand attention. And if his history is any marker, his attention will bring results.   

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