Cash bail unfair to poor people, American Bar Association President says in interview in Clearwater

In an interview, the president of the American Bar Association talks about issues including drug abuses among lawyers and dearth of women as law firm partners.
Bob Carlson, a lawyer in Butte, Mont., is the 2018-19 president of the American Bar Association. [Courtesy of American Bar Association]
Bob Carlson, a lawyer in Butte, Mont., is the 2018-19 president of the American Bar Association. [Courtesy of American Bar Association]
Published February 13
Updated February 13

CLEARWATER — Chief justices of state courts from around the nation met at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach this week for their annual conference. Among the speakers: Bob Carlson, the 2018-19 president of the American Bar Association.

The ABA, with more than 400,000 members, is the world's largest voluntary professional organization. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Carlson, 64, a lawyer in Butte, Mont., spoke about issues facing the legal profession including substance abuse among lawyers and the dearth of women partners in major law firms. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

In light of some of President Trump's remarks and the contentious nature of the hearings on U.S. Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh, are there concerns that the judiciary is — or is perceived as — politicized?

The chief justice (John Roberts) made the comment that we don't have Obama or Trump or Bush judges, just dedicated public servants trying to apply the law to the facts in an appropriate fashion. I agree with him. I think for the most part, at any level, that's what our judges are trying to do — be fair and impartial.

A growing number of officials in Florida and elsewhere want to eliminate cash bail as being unfair to poor people. What is the ABA's position? ?

No one should be jailed just because they can't afford bail, fines or fees. Our house of delegates in 2017 adopted a resolution that does favor releasing defendants on their own recognizance or on unsecured bonds, and that the use of cash bail or security bonds should only be to assure defendants will appear. Holding people without bail where public safety requires, we're not arguing with that.

Although criminal defendants are entitled to a lawyer if they can't afford one, there's no such guarantee for poor people in civil cases. What's the ABA doing about that?

There are over 800 legal aid offices nationally, and fighting for and maintaining adequate federal funding for these offices is one of our top priorities year in and year out. Last year, we were successful in increasing funding to $410 million, which was $25 million more than the year before. We also have collaborative assets, such as pro bono efforts on a wide variety of issues including landlord-tenant and disaster relief. (After Hurricane Michael last year), a group of young lawyers in Tallahassee coordinated pro bono efforts to assist people with (Federal Emergency Management Agency) claims and other things that arise out of a disaster.

At a time when there are so many more women lawyers, why are so few women partners in law firms?

I am concerned about that, the ABA is concerned and we have an immediate past president from Florida (Hilarie Bass of Miami) who started a study on why are more senior women lawyers leaving the profession and how can we stop that drain and part of that does have some relation to the number of women lawyers who are partners at a major level. Probably more than 50 percent of law students are women, and we need to do something about increasing women partners in firms across the country. The additional side is to have more minority lawyers who are partners. We need to monitor who's going to law school. We need to figure out ways (to increase diversity) so the justice system reflects the communities where we live.

Florida has 12 law schools compared to seven in 2000. Nationally, there are about 200 law schools. Many students graduate heavily in debt and have a hard time finding good jobs. What is the ABA doing about that?

We know there are concerns about law school admissions, about curriculum, Bar passage rates and tuition. We have a commission on the future of legal education and we are expecting them to issue a report in August. They are trying to figure out whether there are some best practices to improve the law school experience (such as) electives on new technologies, more opportunities for practical experience, partnerships with employers. We're also working with the National Council of Bar Examiners, which assists states with Bar exams. We're not going to be changing overnight but I think that if a few of the states start adopting our best practices, others will follow.

There was an uproar among Florida lawyers a few years ago about reciprocity — allowing out-of-state lawyers to practice in Florida without taking the Florida Bar exam. Does the ABA favor reciprocity?

In the area of disaster relief, we encourage it where there is a greater need than states' pro bono or legal aid lawyers can handle. Our house (of delegates) passed the Katrina Rule (after Hurricane Katrina in 2005). It allows state supreme court justices to adopt the rule, which allows no-Bar lawyers to come into the state and assist people who need help. It's solely for a disaster and its aftermath; no-Bar lawyers can only do pro bono work. Otherwise, (reciprocity) is a state issue. Each state has to make the determination how to control the admission to its state.''

Lawyers accused of professional misconduct often claim that their judgment was impaired by alcohol and/or drug abuse. Is substance abuse really that much of a problem in the legal profession?

A. In 2016, the ABA along with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation did a comprehensive survey that included almost 13,000 lawyers and it (found) that the incidence of substance addiction and depression and anxiety was higher than in other professions and seemed to be even higher for recent graduates from law schools. Last year, the house of delegates recognized the magnitude of this issue and urged all law firms, law schools and state Bars to take specific steps to solve the problem. We also created a national task force on lawyer well being with 44 recommendations. Many of those are aimed at reducing the stigma that prevents many lawyer from seeking help.

President Trump has accused the media of being an "enemy of the people?'' Your thoughts on that?

We think that the legal profession and the justice system need to work together with journalists and the press to protect not only the constitutional guarantee of a free press but also the constitutional guarantee of access to justice and the rule of law. I think there's a lot of common ground for us to continue to work together.