The American Bar Association struck back at President Carter yesterday, accusing him of attacking the nation's lawyers in an effort to boost his fiagging political image at home and abroad.
At the same time, ABA President William Spann said Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who himself has attacked the ability of the nation's trial lawyers in a serious of well-publicized speeches, was annoyed that the White House had indicated he had anything to do with Carter's speech. Spann said the chief justice was "concerned" that the speech unfairly tarnished the image of the nation's lawyers.
"I have been authorized by Chief Justice Burger to say on his behalf that the ABA has cooperated fully in every innovation he has advocated since he became chief justice," Spann told a Washington press conference.
Carter in a speech last THursday celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Bar Association,denounced the nation's lawyers in unusually harsh terms, accusing them of protecting the privileged and rendering public interest "only when forced to."
Ninety percent of our lawyers serve 10 percent of our people. We are over-lawyered and under-represented," he said.
In Los Angeles, White House press secretary Jody Powell told reporters that Carter had discussed his speech with Burger and Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, leaving the impression that they approved of the thrust of the president's remarks.
According to Spann, Burger telephoned him Friday to deny "a rumor that he had ghosted or had something to do with the president's remarks." Instead, Spann quoted the chief justice as saying he sent the president copies of speeches he has made on reforming the federal judiciary, but this material was not used.
Carter enunciation of the legal profession and some unkind words a day later for organized medicine have been popular themes for Carter since he was governor of Georgia. But Powell denied to reporters in Los Angeles that there was any political motivation behind the attack on lawyers.
Spann and the ABA made it clear yesterday they believe otherwise.
"It is clear," Spann said yesterday, that Carter has taken the popular course of attacking the professions at a time when our foreign allies are concerned over his policies, when we again appear headed for double-digit inflation, when challengers are appearing for the 1980 presidential nomination and when his ratings in the polls are at a historic low."
"He is not addressing these issues, which seem to be more timely than an attack on lawyers." Spann, an Atlanta lawyer, said later in the press conference.
Referring to Carter's antilawyer feeling, Spann asserted that the Los Angeles speech resulted from "his misinformed prejudice against the profession."
Bell, a former Atlanta attorney and a close friend of the president, told reporters and editors of The Washington Post at a lunch Tuesday that the speech accurately represented Carter's feelings about lawyers.
The president, Bell said, occasionally remarks in conversations that he is glad he is not a lawyer. Bell said he has tempted to reply that he is glad he is not an engineer - the president's profession.
At his press conference, Spann also defended the nation's lawyers against charges by Robert S. Strauss, a Dallas attorney who is heading the White House's fight inflation, that legal fees are too high.
"Maybe he's talking about his own legal fees," said Spann. "Perhaps they are too high. Texas firms do get an awful lot of money. Sometimes we have to hire them and we're shocked at what we pay them. And I'm from Atlanta and we don't work cheap."
Spann added that the cost of his haircuts has increased more, on a percentage basis, since he began practicing law in 1935 than have his legal fees.
"I don't think legal fees are at all inflationary," he said, adding that the median income for lawyers is $26,000 a year - half the median income for doctors.