“Hillary Clinton took me through hell” is the sort of jarring quote you expect conservatives and political journalists salivate over — but not one you expect to come from a survivor of sexual assault. Last month, The Daily Beast published an interview with a rape survivor whose assailant was defended by Hillary Clinton, who was then a legal-aid lawyer in Arkansas. It was 1975, it was her first criminal defense case, and the details are sure to make core Clinton supporters squirm. In an affidavit, she wrote that the 12-year-old victim was “emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men.” To top it all off, in a taped interview from the early ‘80s, Clinton had admitted she personally thought the man was guilty and defended him anyway.
This week, Clinton came out and said she tried to get out of defending the accused, but could not. “But, at least in our system, you have an obligation,” she said, “and once I was appointed, I fulfilled that obligation.” A Clinton representative had said something similar when asked about the case in 2008. Her explanation is understandable, though disappointing given her record of supporting victims of sexual assault. This, after all, is a woman who helped create an Office on Violence Against Women with the Department of Justice.
It all came down to a clash between personal values and professional obligations — the same question at the heart of last week’s Hobby Lobby ruling. Clinton is saying that in order to do her job, she had to violate her personal beliefs. Which is pretty much what the Supreme Court told the Hobby Lobby owners they didn't have to do. As a legal aid lawyer, defending (sometimes guilty) people was Clinton’s job; legally, everyone has a right to representation. Likewise, Congress has said that everyone employed by a for-profit company has a right to insurance-covered contraception. Yet — because of personal beliefs — that’s something companies like Hobby Lobby no longer have to provide.
The Supreme Court decided to simplify matters for the Hobby Lobby owners (and complicate things for workers who need contraception). But it’s a safe bet that things are going to remain complicated for those of us who want to address the needs of sexual-assault survivors and guarantee that defendants face a fair trial. Which is why I wish Clinton had acknowledged this incident earlier, and spoken frankly about how tough it is when your feminist beliefs clash with other values you hold dear, such as the right — yes, even for accused rapists — to representation in court. The justice system is broken and inadequate in many ways when it comes to sexual-assault cases, and we see the effects of its deficiencies in everything from college campuses’ sexual-assault policies to accusations against powerful men that play out in the headlines. Improving the way we handle such cases will help accusers and accused alike.
But treating Clinton’s past as an occasion for disingenuous outrage won’t. “Why are rapes/sexual assaults hugely under-reported? Because of defense attorneys like Hillary Clinton,” tweeted Alyssa Farah, who describes herself as a “GOP communications professional.” She’s right that the harrowing experience of seeking justice in the existing legal system is a major reason victims do not come forward. It would be easier to take such conservative arguments seriously, though, if they came with support for judicial reform. It’s feminists — including Clinton — who are more likely to care about rape reporting rates, to be skeptical of the system’s ability to bring justice without re-traumatizing survivors, and to work to educate judges and lawyers. If more victims don’t come forward, it’s not just because they fear defense attorneys like young Hillary Clinton; it’s also because they fear a skeptic like George Will, who might dismiss what happened to them as “the ambiguities of the hookup culture.”
The words of the assault victim who is still dealing with the consequences 40 years after she was raped are heartbreaking. She’s been through hell, and she deserves to tell her story if she chooses to. It’s also fair for conservatives to call attention to Clinton’s decision to put her profession over her beliefs. But they can only do so credibly if they’re serious about reforming the system to make it easier for assault survivors to come forward and seek justice — whether they’re active-duty military, students on college campuses, or 12-year-olds in Arkansas.