President Carter's legal counsel, Robert J. Lipshutz, delivered another White House slap to the nation's lawyers yesterday.
In a speech to the American Bar Association's opening assembly, Lipshutz specifically rejected an ABA proposal, announced with great fanfare in Washington less than two months ago, for a federal program to pay attorneys to represent in state courts criminal defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers. Instead, Lipshutz said, every lawyer in the country should pay a special license fee that would be used to hire lawyers for indigent defendants.
"Your proposal calls for a government program. I think this is a problem that lawyers can best solve," he said.
Lipshutz's remarks followed by three months President Carter's charges that the nation's legal profession has ignored its public service responsibilities and has concentrated on representing its monied clients at the expense of the needy.
The White House counsel, a close Carter confidant who was an Atlanta corporation lawyer before taking the White House post, echoed some of the same themes that Carter sounded in May, but in far milder terms.
"Most of us engaged in the practice of law spend the bulk of our time protecting the property rights of our clients," he said. "A very small proportion of our collective time is spent protecting the liberty of our citizens.
"One of the principal reasons for this is that many of the citizens whose personal rights had liberties are threatened simply do not have the money available to employ competent legal counsel to defend them."
Lipshutz placed the responsibility squarely on the nation's 262,000 lawyers for meeting the knotty and expensive problem of following court dictates that every defendant - in the state as well as federal criminal courts - has the constitutional right to effective counsel.
"I suggest that the American Bar Association - working through both legislative and judicial processes - strongly advocate a program which will require that all practicing lawyers participate substantially in the financial support of an adequate indigent defendants legal representation," he said.
Those who are willing and able to take criminal cases without a fee should't have to pay this added license tax, he said. But he added that it would be unfair to criminal defendants if the bulk of American lawyers, most of whom have little if any experience in the criminal courts, offered their services free. It is these lawyers who would buy out by paying the added license fee.
He said this would not be a charitable contribution but instead would be "a means of fulfilling one of the most important responsibilities" of the legal profession.
The official ABA response was disappointment. Incoming president S. Shephard Tate, who announced the proposal in June, said, "We do not feel that individual lawyers and bar associations can properly meet the need."
Speaking at the same opening assembly a few minutes later, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D. Mass.) touched on the same theme as Lipshutz. He said lawyers have played a major part in the growth of both big government and big business. "It is time," he said, "they also played a central role in helping to redress the balance in favor of the people the system is supposed to serve."
Kennedy's voice will be important for the future of the legal profession since he is slated to become chairman of the Senate judiciary Committee next year.
Calling law one of the greatest "growth industries" in the nation during the past 100 years, Kennedy said "our legal system has failed the individual because it has done too little to equalize the power of the people to obtain satisfaction from the institutions with which they deal. In fact the legal system is in part growth" of both big business and big government.
"And too often when the individual finds himself in conflict with these forces, the legal system sides with the giant institution, not the small businessman or private citizen," Kennedy said.