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The Bar association's bad choice

Published Sep. 29, 2005

The American Bar Association picked an odd choice to deliver the keynote speech at its convention in Atlanta. It picked a lawyer who had only recently gotten himself in considerable trouble by lying in a civil deposition in the presence of a federal judge and then lying again before a federal grand jury investigating his previous behavior. It picked a lawyer who was held in contempt of court and fined by the judge whose case he had corrupted and who was then referred to his state Bar for possible disciplinary action. Even as he spoke to the ABA's membership Monday evening, this lawyer faced possible disbarment for his lies. Of all the lawyers in the United States, the ABA decided to hear from Bill Clinton.

One does not even have to accept the harshest possible formulation of the allegations against the president to question the propriety of this invitation. President Clinton's own lawyer described his testimony as "evasive, incomplete, misleading, even maddening." Is this the sort of respect for court proceedings that the ABA wishes to encourage in its membership?

The association's president, Philip Anderson, defended the invitation by saying that "whenever the president of the United Stateswishes to discuss the nation's business with the members of the American Bar Association, we should listen." But inviting a perjurer to speak to a professional association of attorneys is a move that could not be better calculated to entrench the larger public's contempt for lawyers as people who twist the truth for selfish ends.

The incongruity of the invitation is so glaring that it obscures the message that Clinton delivered in his speech. The president spoke about the judicial nominations process and the work it needs. President Clinton has not spoken often enough about the able and moderate judges he has appointed and the partisan resistance they have met. This resistance has often been unfair to the individual nominees, and it has hurt and continues to hurt the judiciary as an institution. It is an issue sufficiently serious to warrant both the president's attention and the ABA's. The price of delivering this message about the integrity of the judiciary did not have to involve honoring a man who himself famously dishonored the courts.