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Jewish World Review Aug. 24, 1999 /12 Elul, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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Econophone

The rise and fall of the American bar

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHY, WHY, WOULD THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION honor a scandalous leader who has just been found in contempt of court, and whose disbarment is being considered even now?

Like the adept advocate he is, Little Rock's own Philip Anderson now has explained why, as president of the ABA, he invited Bill Clinton to address its annual convention:

"Whenever the president of the United States -- who is the leader of the free world, as well as our country -- wishes to discuss the nation's business with the members of the American Bar Association, we should listen. We have always done so, most recently in 1985, when then-President Ronald Reagan spoke at our annual meeting.''

Always?

Then-President Richard Nixon wouldn't have been welcome at the ABA's convention when his disbarment was pending. Even before a House committee recommended his impeachment, the ABA resolved that the whole Nixon Gang be disciplined. Which spoke well of the bar.

Forget about just who's the Leader of the Free World these days -- in light of recent events in Kosovo, maybe the ABA should have invited Tony Blair or Wesley Clark if it had wanted to hear from that dignitary.

Just consider Mister Phil's generalization about the bar's always having been hospitable to presidents of the United States. Really? However much they abuse their office and the law? That impression isn't borne out by the bar's actions back in 1973-74. But of course the ABA had standards then.

And even if the invitation to a president whose disbarment is only pending, and who has just been found in contempt, could somehow be excused in these times when anything seems excusable ... how, how, justify this year's invitation to Webster Hubbell III to appear on the official program, too?

Here was a guest speaker who is not only a convicted felon, but consider what he was convicted of, among other things: stealing not just from his friends and law partners, but from his clients.

What kind of advertisement for the profession of law is that?

Even if you don't consider failing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes very serious, which is a strange enough attitude on the part of a profession that's supposed to have something to do with upholding the law, how possibly justify giving a platform to someone who has confessed to stiffing clients -- the very people whose interests our advocates are supposed to advocate, to represent, to defend, to protect?

It was like a convention of stockbrokers' extending an invitation to an insider trader, or a seminar of neonatal specialists asking an abortionist for guidance, or law enforcement honoring a police chief on the take.

The bar's decision to provide a platform for a Webb Hubbell goes to the rotten root of the public's perception of law and lawyers these days. It would be like the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association's extending an invitation to a member in poor standing who made a habit of stealing from the subscribers or advertisers. How explain that?

It would be an education to hear Phil Anderson defend this invitation to Mr. Hubbell with his customary eloquence. Just to see how a pro handles a real challenge. Just for the entertainment value it would offer. Just to appreciate, or maybe only apprehend, what the American Bar Association stands for these days.

It is never prudent to disagree with as distinguished and admirable an advocate as Mister Phil, a gentleman and a scholar here in Little Rock whose counsel I myself have come to rely on. I feel ungrateful writing this, and I would feel guilty if I didn't, forever reproved by an awareness of duty less than faithfully performed.

Why not just pass over this incident, swallow the usual spin, not say a word and pretend that all is well with the American bar? Maybe because somebody's got to scrub all those statues in the park, and it might as well be some inky wretch still naive to enough to believe the inscriptions on their base, the old words about law, justice, honor.

Yes, it's unfortunate that just when an Arkansas lawyer finally becomes president of the American Bar Association, his term of office should coincide with that of a native son who finally makes it to the White House only to be (a) impeached, and (b) cited for contempt by a judge who finds that he testified falsely, deliberately to obstruct the judicial process.

Then the ABA convention that Phil Anderson would preside over turns out to be the same one at which a convicted felon from Arkansas is invited to talk about white-collar crime -- and proceeds to paint himself as a victim, rather than a perpetrator of same.

Yes, embarrassing. Or it would be if a normal sense of shame still obtained in American society.

What a pity all this had to happen on Phil Anderson's watch at the ABA. He's a good man and a jolly good fellow. At this stage of the Clinton administration, a lot of Arkies have let a little home-state pride make suckers out of 'em.

But this may be the first time a whole profession has been suckered. When that happens, you know the profession was asking for it. You can't cheat an honest man, and you can't embarrass an honest profession. Seduced by the glitz of high office and maybe its own partisan prejudices, the bar got what it deserved: still another snow job by the nation's best at it.

One can understand Phil Anderson's discomfiture at this downturn of events, and maybe even a natural, defensive impulse on his part to overlook some things, however glaring to the rest of us.

But there are times when it wouldn't hurt to show a little restraint, a little taste, maybe even a little courage, and not go along with the declining mores of the day and age. If for no better reason than to show a measure of respect for the law, and for the honored place lawyers used to occupy in our society.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate