IN THE GRAND HALL of the Dallas Convention Center, a white-haired woman demonstrated the marvels of Sanyo's "World's Finest Health Massager." She was surrounded by gleaming displays of super-sophisticated office machinery. A book publisher's talking robot waddled down the aisles.
A convention is a convention and the American Bar Association is no different from any other group of trandesmen who voluntarily subject themselves to days of institutional food, long-winded speeches, tedious meetings, and high class hucksters for the greater glory of the profession.
"God, I was sick of it," commented one Washington lawyer after the ABA's 101st annual meeting, which ended last week.
The ABA is in a slump. There have been years when the lawyers have been sharply divided on controversial questions, such as lawyer advertising and the death penalty. But not this time. There were no issues in Dallas for the lawyers to grab on to and they weren't in the mood for a fight anyway.
If there was a hot issue it was this: Should the ABA change the rules for election of its president? The gripe is that while the ABA may represent 250,000 lawyers, the president is actually selected by 52 state delegates. They send the name of a single nominee to the 380 member House of Delegates for "election." The opponents say this system is undemocratic and perpetuates the ABA's white, male power structure. They want the sate delegates to send two nominees to the House so they can have what they say would be a real election.
As predicted, they lost that argument.
There were some unexpected sparks when Hofstra University law professor Monroe H. Freedman lashed into a two-year effort by an ABA commission to overhaul the Code of Professional Responsibility. During a panel discussion, Freedman attacked the commission's draft proposal as a "failure" that would destroy lawyer-client relationships. He then proceeded to disclose sections of the draft -- which is supposed to be secret.
Commission chairman Robert J. Kutak cringed. He had instructed panel members not to make direct references to the draft, which reportedly contains tough new disclosure standards for lawyers. The revised code is bound to be controversial and Kutak wanted to keep a lid on it for now. Once the panel discussion was over, the subject wasn't raised again.
The pros and cons of the death penalty, which turned into a painful debate two years ago in the House of Delegates, managed to crop up again this year, but not for long. The House was asked to support a bill that would reinstate federal death penalty laws with sentencing criteria. Some lawyers saw this as an attempt to get the ABA to take a stand on the merits of the death penalty -- which it definitely is not ready to do. They don't even want to discuss it. So, after a minimum of restrained comment, the resolution was defeated.
There was also a call for support of legislation that would restrict federal searches involving people not suspected of a crime -- including lawyers and their offices. But even that didn't stir the House of Delegates.
Some lawyers indicated they saw this as a press-relief bill: It was aimed at overturning a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld an unannounced search at a California student newspaper office. Others said they didn't want the legislature moving in on a constitutional question that should be handled on a case-by-case basis. The resolution was overwhelmingly defeated.
A potentially controversial set of standards on the legal status of prisoners was abruptly withdrawn once it became certain it would die a quick death on the floor. A member of the ABA board of governors, which recommended that the house banish the proposal back to committee, said the proposal was "unrealistic" and would treat prisoners better than poor people. The standards, which have been in the works for nine years, would, among other things, restore prisoners' voting rights and restrict prison guards' use of deadly force.
Two matters of some self-interest to the lawyers did get the approval of the House of Delegates. One resolution would support legislation to authorize the president of the United States to overturn decisions of virtually all regulatory agencies. The ABA's resolution, three years in the making, was based on a proposal drawn up several years ago by Washington lawyer Lloyd N. Cutler, of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, and one of his law partners. President Carter last week named Cutler as White House counsel.
Last fall, Cutler wrote that it would be "good presidential politics" for the White House to have the power to "strike the needed balance" between competing regulatory agencies. Another Washington lawyer, Alan B. Morrison, then a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, warned that the question of which dispute to take on would turn into a "political football" at the White House, which has enough problems. Lobbyists -- and that means lawyers -- would be clamoring for the president's attention.
The second resultion supported legislation to erase the courtroom presumption that agency regulations are valid.This is a nice point for lawyers who are representing private interests. It puts the government on the defensive from the start of a dispute.
Overall, the two-day session of the 380-member House of Delegates, which sets policy for the nation's lawyers, and the seven-day convention droned to a conclusion with hardly a moment of real dispute. The strategy was avoidance and the mood conservative -- as usual. The organized bar tended to its prepackaged business and shelved the controversies.
Maybe it was the sterile atmosphere of the concrete convention center or the exhaustion that comes after a week of non-stop meetings and too much hotel food. Maybe it was the smoldering heat. Maybe it was Dallas.
Or maybe the real trouble this time was that the ABA, which represents a quarter of a million members of one of the nation's most powerful industries, couldn't get up the energy -- or perhaps the nerve -- to move out front on the issues.
Perhaps things will be better at the midyear meeting, in February, in Chicago, where it's cold. Or at the next annual conference, next summer -- in Honolulu
Robert A. Weinberger, 35, chief legislative adviser to Commerce Secretary Juanita M. Kreps, has resigned. He plans to return home to Illinois to run in a special election as a Democratic candidate for the congressional seat held by Rep. Abner J. Mikva (D-Ill.). Mikva has been nominated by President Carter for a seat on the federal appeals court here . . . Dorothy Schrader has been appointed general counsel to the copyright office at the Library of Congress, a post she held from 1974 to 1976. She replaced Jon A. Baumgarten, now in private law practice . . . The Virginia State Bar knows how to pick a convention site: Aruba, in December for $369. It's called the "7th Annual Mid-Year Legal Seminar." A brochure notes that the "program is designed to meet the requirements of the Tax Reform Act of 1976." Translation: it's deductible.