President Carter denounced the nation's legal profession yesterday, saying it has too often protected the "hierarchy of privilege" and "accommodated the interest of the public . . . only when forced to."
In his first major address as president on the issues of law and justice, delivered to a luncheon marking the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Bar Association, Carter harangued the legal community for failing to serve the cause of social justice.
"No resource of talent and training in our society, not even medical care, is more wastefully or unfairly distributed than legal skills," he said. "Ninety percent of our lawyers serve 10 percent of our people. We are over-lawyered, and under-represented."
He said unnecessary litigation, needless procedural delays and the bar's opposition to innovative efforts of delivering legal services have too often thwarted the cause of justice.
He urged both legislation and action by the bar to remove many cases from the courts, shorten the time of trials, cut the costs of legal services and equalize the treatment of rich and poor.
Carter also clear signaled his intention to use the 152 new federal judgeships that would be created by legislation awaiting final action in Congress to increase significantly the number of women and minority representatives on the bench.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said Carter had discussed his speech with both Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, but he denied that there was any political motivation in the wide-ranging attack on the legal profession.
Pausing here for a few hours on a four-state western swing, Carter reached back to the theme of a Law Day speech he had delivered as governor of Georgia - a speech that helped identify him to a national audience as a "new breed" Southern progressive.
He underlined his call for social justice by going from the posh auditorium where the lawyers were lunching to a labor-run senior citizens center in the black community of Watts.
Carter's potential 1980 primary rival, California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., accompanied him.
The president told the lawyers that he would not "change our system of laws and justice for any other in the world. From the beginning, it made the citizens the masters of the state, and it has extended increasing protection to the poor and the victim of discrimination."
"But," he said, "during too many of the struggles for equal justice in our lifetime . . . much of the bar sat on the sidelines or opposed these efforts."
"Too often," he continued, "the amount of justice a person gets depends on the amount he or she can pay."
Citing government antitrust cases which have stretched for nine years without a decision, Carter said, "I am worried about a legal system in which expensive talent on both sides produces interminable delay - especially when the delay itself can often mean victory for one side.
"Justice should not be forced to obey the timetables of those who seek to avoid it," he said.
"I have inspected many prisons," the president said, "and I know that nearly all inmates are drawn from teh ranks of the powerless and the poor . . .
In many courts, plea-bargaining serves the convenience of the judge and lawyers, not the ends of justice."
Nothing that the United States has "the heaviest concentration of lawyers on earth," Carter said, "We have more litigation, but I am not sure we have more justice."
Carter urged the House to pass the Senate-approved bill for modernization of the federal criminal code, and said he would follow it with a reorganization plan aimed at consolidating the work of "more than 100" federal law-enforcement agencies.
He called for tougher prosecution of white-collar criminals and unscrupulous public officials, saying that "all too often these big-shot crooks escape the full consequences of their acts."
But drunkenness and vagrancy cases should be removed from the courts, he said. And he urged that lawyers give up their role in land transfers and title searches, while nofault insurance and divorce laws clear those cases from the courts.
By eay of making legal services more available to the poor, Carter said he would expand the Legal Services Corp. and support greater use of prepaid legal plans, legal clinics and competitive advertising of lawyers' fees.
"Those of us - presidents and lawyers - who enjoy privilege, power and influence in our society can be called to a harsh account with the ways we are using we are doing our utmost to protect the rights of our own people here at home."
American Bar Association President William B. Spann Jr. said yesterday that his group agrees with Carter that the criminal justice system should be faster and fairer, but expressed surprise that Carter "accuses us of resisting innovation."
Spann specifically cited the ABA's support of the Legal Serivces Corp., its efforts to move the resolution of minor disputes into forums that would not require the assistance of lawyers, and his scheduled meeting at the White House next week to discuss establishing a national center to aid poor criminal defendants.
Before leaving Denver, the first stop on his western trip Carter made a series of statements designed to ingratiate his administration with voters and politicans who have been highly critical of his policies.
In addition to the $100 million reprogramming of funds for additional solar energy research, annouced wednesday, the president promised Denver help on its air-pollution problem and pledged his backing to programs designed to ease the economic growth pains of coal boom towns in the West and Appalachia.
On Wednesday night, Carter lavished praise at a fund-raiser for Sen. Floyd K. Haskell (D-Colo.), who had publicly chastized the president for bringing the secretaries of the interior and agriculture with him to Denver despite the unpopularity of their farm and water policies.
Brushing aside the controversy, Carter praised the freshman Democrat, who faces a tough race for re-election this fall, as "one of the great senators of all time" and "a national treasure."
"He is strong and independent," the president said of Haskell. "When he disagrees with me, he never hides the disagreement from me or the world."