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May 2005

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


ABA's Grey Finds Rewards In Issues

Robert Grey is the American Bar Association President for 2004-2005. A partner in a Richmond, Virginia law firm, Grey has long been active in the ABA, as chair of the policy-making House of Delegates in 1998-2000, the association’s second-highest office, and as a member of the Board of Governors. Grey’s service as House of Delegates chair made him the first person of color to serve in a top ABA office. He is the second consecutive person of color to serve as president, the association’s highest office.

Q You’ve said you would devote your term as ABA President to creating better justice through better juries. How will you do this? And why focus on the jury system?

A The jury system is vital to America’s justice system: few activities in our civic life involve as many people, have as great an effect, or give citizens such direct involvement with our democracy as jury service. But despite their importance, we’ve been taking juries and jurors for granted for far too long.

A public opinion poll from last summer showed that Americans believe strongly in the jury system; but even so, courts across the country report low response rates to jury summonses. We must take steps to move jury service into the 21st century. We need to make it easier for people to report for jury duty when called, make it convenient and comfortable while they wait, aid their understanding of the evidence once they are selected, to help them reach well-reasoned and fair verdicts, and protect their privacy all along the way. And we must do all we can to encourage people to put their belief in the system into action.

I appointed the American Jury Project and the Commission on the American Jury to work on just those issues. I am honored that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined me in this effort and has served as Honorary Chair of the Commission. And I am deeply proud of the jury principles drafted by the American Jury Project and adopted as policy by the Association. These principles are designed to improve jury trials and the experience of jury duty. Together, I believe that these two efforts will have a great impact on improving understanding of the importance of jury duty and improving Americans’ experiences with it. You can find the principles online at www.abanet.org/juryprojectstandards/principles.pdf.

Q How does the ABA decide on its legislative priorities and then work to accomplish them?

A One of the most rewarding things about my experience with this great Association is the breadth, scope and importance of the issues addressed by the dedicated volunteers and staff who give life to the ABA. The ABA lobbies on well over 100 issues each Congress, reflecting the great breadth and diversity of the legal profession. From among those policies, our Board selects 10-12 each year as legislative priorities for the Association for a particular year. The selection is heavily influenced by a survey of about a thousand bar leaders we do each fall on this subject. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that a set of issues we call “Judicial Independence” is always at or near the top of the survey results and is always one of our highest priorities.

We implement policy in a variety of ways. We have a very able staff of 10 lobbyists in Washington who guide our efforts. ABA officers, section officers, and other ABA experts come in to Washington regularly to testify and meet with Members of Congress and their staffs. We utilize an extensive grassroots network of ABA members around the country who help us with our issues.

It’s important to know that we carefully maintain our nonpartisan approach. We do not have a PAC, do not otherwise make campaign contributions, and do not endorse candidates for elective office. Despite that fact, we have been on the prevailing side 85 percent of the time on enacted legislation on which we lobbied over the last six years.

Q In his year-end reports for 2003 and 2004, Chief Justice William H. Rehniquist focused on the need to repair the relationship between the judicial and legislative branches.

Do you have any thoughts and/or suggestions on how the tenor of conversation between the courts and Congress might be improved?

A The ABA is deeply concerned about the deteriorating relationship between some in Congress and the courts. While the recent vitriolic verbal attacks on judges for particular decisions have highlighted this problem, this is a problem that has been years in the making. It is evident in past and present efforts to strip courts of jurisdiction to hear cases involving certain controversial issues, in efforts to tell judges what they can and cannot make reference to in their opinions, in aggressive congressional oversight of particular judges, in Congress’s lack of consultation with the Third Branch before passing legislation that profoundly affects the federal Judiciary, and in the tensions caused by Congress’s refusal to deal adequately with judicial pay and court funding issues.

Our three branches are indeed separate and co-equal, but they also are interdependent. In order for our government to function, there needs to be mutual respect and restraint among the branches so they can work cooperatively to serve this great nation. The success of any cooperative relationship ultimately requires ongoing, constructive dialogue. Productive communication between the courts and Congress may not eliminate the tensions rooted in their different institutional roles, but it will mitigate misunderstandings, encourage proactive problem-solving, foster greater understanding and appreciation, and advance common purpose. Restoring a respectful relationship between the branches will require many approaches: for instance, reinvigorating previously effective channels of communication like the Williamsburg Conferences and the Office for Improvements in the Administration of Justice, and establishing new forums for effective, ongoing dialogue. The ABA is committed to pursuing approaches like these.

Q The ABA’s role in screening federal judicial nominees has changed with this Administration. What did your screening process bring to the judicial confirmation process?

A The ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary continues to evaluate the professional qualifications of virtually every person nominated to be an Article III federal judge. The Standing Committee has been doing this since the Eisenhower Administration. Its review is strictly limited to professional qualifications—professional competence, judicial temperament and integrity—and is performed in isolation from the rest of the Association. We believe that this process has played and continues to play a meaningful role in ensuring our nation has the wonderful Judiciary it enjoys today.

While the current Administration decided not to continue the Standing Committee’s pre-nomination review role, the Senate Judiciary Committee continues to seek the Standing Committee’s ratings and the Standing Committee has therefore continued to do its reviews, albeit on a post-nomination basis. The members of the Standing Committee are committed to their work and perform their task with the utmost thoroughness and professionalism, and I could hardly be prouder of their efforts.

Q All Americans have an interest in attracting outstanding lawyers to the bench, and in having them make a long-term commitment to service. Do present judicial salaries discourage qualified attorneys from considering the federal bench?

A One of the issues of greatest concern to me is the fact that federal judicial salaries are not commensurate with the skill, experience and wisdom required to serve on the federal bench. The disparity between judicial salaries and those paid to attorneys of comparable skill in the private work force, academia and not-for-profit institutions continues to grow. While there may be no shortage of candidates in most states, the fact remains that inadequate judicial salaries deter excellent candidates from seeking appointment to the bench, especially experienced lawyers in private practice.

In effect, we ar e asking th es e highly respected, highly qualified lawyers not only to forego the opportunity for substantial salaries, but to settle for vastly reduced salaries without even the guarantee of regular cost-of-living adjustments. Without question, public service has its own rewards. And public officials in all areas of government service sacrifice some degree of their earning potential. But federal judges stand virtually alone in being asked to endure such a permanent and precipitous drop in income. This is too high a price for their service, and is committed to ensuring that judges’ salaries are commensurate with the value of their contribution to our great democracy.

Q The ABA’s Justice Kennedy Commission issued its report nearly a year ago. What effect has the Commission and its recommendations had on our justice system? What’s being done to implement those recommendations?

A I am very proud of the work of the ABA Justice Kennedy Commission. Its report last year sparked a great and long overdue debate about our nation’s approach to criminal justice and sentencing issues. After the House of Delegates adopted the policy recommendations of the Kennedy Commission in August 2004, I appointed the Commission on Sentencing, Corrections, and Reentry to promote and implement the policy work of the Kennedy Commission at the national level. The new Commission is composed of individuals with broad experience in criminal justice policy development and administration, and has been engaged in discussions with officials from several states, including California, Pennsylvania and Maryland, who have asked for the ABA’s assistance in developing projects to improve prison conditions, reduce parole violations and re-imprisonment, and eliminate legal barriers to prisoner reentry in to the community.