ABA heads for San Francisco

As 20,000 lawyers prepare to travel to San Francisco, Anne Gallagher considers some of the issues on the agenda. Anne Gallagher is a freelance journalist.

As the climax of the American Bar Association's year draws near, the 340,000-member organisation comes to San Francisco ready to debate how it can influence national policies.

During ABA president Lee Cooper's term of office, four issues have emerged as priorities for the association: juvenile justice; disability payments to children under the social security system; the continuing existence of the partially government-funded Legal Services Corporation; and the ABA's role in recommending candidates for the federal judiciary.

While all these issues have occupied the ABA's governing board during the year, it is the association's push for continuing involvement in the selection of candidates for the judiciary that is likely to heat up the annual meeting in San Francisco.

Responding to a new round of criticism from lobbyists and politicians about the ABA's alleged liberal bias in selecting candidates for judgeships, Cooper has stressed that the views of the ABA's standing committee on the federal judiciary reflect those of the legal community rather than any political organisation.

“The ABA is neither liberal nor conservative,” says Cooper. “On the contrary, we're one of the few national associations that do not make campaign contributions. We don't even endorse candidates for public office.”

As part of its work, the committee speaks with hundreds of lawyers, judges and academics who know the judicial candidates. The committee rates the candidates based on these interviews, the nominee's legal writings and a personal interview, and the ABA's approval can significantly influence the confirmation process.

The ABA has long been active in influencing national public policy and this year it began actively soliciting the views of its members for their views on legislative priorities.

In a survey of members, Cooper asked for views on issues such as the erosion of the judicial process, federal gun control, immigration policies, legal remedies to eliminate discrimination, funding for indigent defendants and the welfare of the Legal Services Corporation.

The survey concludes by asking members to identify “any members of Congress with whom you have a strong relationship and would contact on behalf of the ABA”. Findings are due to be discussed at the annual meeting and later used as part of the ABA's efforts in contacting members of Congress.

Cooper says: “The 105th Congress is pursuing an agenda of issues of vital importance to lawyers and the justice system. In order for the ABA to be successful in its legislative advocacy program, we need the help of ABA members to assist in implementing association policies and priorities.”

These issues will be discussed on 5-6 August by the ABA's policy-making house of Delegates. Other issues on the agenda include conflicting resolutions on physician-assisted suicide. One recommendation, offered by the Beverly Hills Bar Association, would support legislation by states that would legalise physician-assisted help in dying for terminally ill adults.

A second resolution, from the ABA commission on legal problems for the elderly, urges that states refrain from considering adopting physician-assisted suicide legislation until further research on the “end-of-life experience” has confirmed what care alternatives are available to the terminally ill.

Among other resolutions facing the House of Delegates are those recommending that it:

support the removal of legal barriers to the establishment and operation of needle exchange programs;

support the principle that the government permits the use of languages other than English to improve communication with it and to promote understanding of duties under the law; and

support the reinstatement of services and aid for legal immigrants.

Of the ABA's 22 sections, many will also present reports on their initiatives. For example, the litigation section's 60,000 members are inviting comment on proposed standards to govern the role of jurors in the courtroom. At issue is whether jurors should be allowed to take a more active role in asking the judge, witnesses and lawyers questions during a trial.

These issues follow the section's extensive projects on jurors in the courtroom, including a study supported by a national television network on how jurors deliberate. As part of the study, cameras were placed in the jury deliberation room and results of the process were shown on a national television programme.

It seems that ABA members support the discussion of these broad-ranging public policy measures. For the first time since 1991, the ABA's membership has grown – it shows a 0.7 per cent increase to 341,999 in 1996.

As the association notes in its treasurer's report: “Clearly, the larger the member count, the more dramatic is our influence on the administration of justice and the legal system.”

What's on at the ABA

From the ethics of cloning, to high-tech mock trials and awards for top lawyers, the seven-day ABA annual meeting provides continuous activity for the 20,000 lawyers expected to attend.

Among the highlights are the litigation section's annual meeting, from 3-6 August, which includes outings to the recently opened San Francisco Public Library and the new Museum of Modern Art. In its substantive programming, on 5 August the section is sponsoring a lunch with Michael Tigar, the lawyer representing Oklahoma bombing suspect Terry Nichols.

On 4-5 August the section is conducting a two-day mock trial entitled: “High tech, high stakes: star lawyers conduct the trial of a technology case in the courts of the 21st century.”

In it, a live jury will hear evidence and come to a decision in a high-tech courtroom armed with computer and video technology. Jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, who was involved in the selection of the OJ Simpson jury, will provide commentary and analysis.

As part of its programming, the business law section is sponsoring Dr Edward Penhoet, a leader in the field of biotechnology, who will speak on “The ethics of cloning and other issues in biotechnology” during a lunch on 5 August. Penhoet is a member of the scientific advisory board to the US Congress subcommittee on science and has provided testimony on biotechnology issues and the role of federal funding in research.

On 2 August the ABA will present its highest national honour, the ABA Medal, to US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The first woman to serve in the nation's highest court, she was appointed by President Reagan in 1981.

In addition to her judicial responsibilities, O'Connor is active in the Central and Eastern European law initiative, a project dedicated to supporting emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In other ABA awards ceremonies, two Cuban lawyers who have represented dissidents in human rights cases, will receive the annual International Human Rights Award at a lunch on August. Gomez Manzano and Morejon Almagro, who founded independent organisations seeking to promote the rule of law in Cuba, are expected to attend the ceremony provided they are allowed to travel to San Francisco and then return to Cuba.

In addition to programming, the ABA also hopes to begin promotion of its year 2000 annual meeting, which will be held jointly in London and New York.

The last ABA meeting in London was in 1985 and more than 15,000 lawyers attended. The year 2000 joint meeting will be held in New York on 6-12 July and in London on 15-20 July.

The ABA has already created a home page for the meeting at www.abanet.org, with updates on programming information and travel programs in the UK and on the continent.