The American Bar Association, ending its 101st annual meeting here, refused today to endorse legislative efforts to restrict searches of innocent third parties by federal law enforcement authorities.
The House of Delegates, which sets policy for the 250,000-member ABA, also voted against support for a Senate bill that would reinstate the death penalty for certain federal offenses. Court hearings would determine whether the death penalty should be imposed in capital cases, after consideration of mitigating and aggravating factors.
Both issues had been expected to generate considerable debate among the 380 House members concluding their seven-day convention. Instead the questions were disposed of after limited and restrained discussion.
In a surprise move, the ABA's committee on standards for criminal justice withdrew a controversial proposal to upgrade the legal status of prisoners. Last week, some on the ABA's Board of Governors attacked the proposal as unrealistic and complained that it accorded prisoners better publicly financed treatment than most private citizens, especially the poor and the aged, receive.
The House today also approved a model plan for state certification of lawyers who practice as specialists. The ABA's Code of Professional Responsibility now allows lawyers to state that they focus on a particular field, such as tax law.
The model plan, to be tendered to state bar associations as advice, recommends a framework to be used to set minimum standards, mandatory continuing legal education, and review by other lawyers of a specialist's qualifications.
The rejected proposal on third-party searches was directed at congressional efforts to upset a 1978 Supreme Court decision upholding an unannounced search at a California university newspaper office. In that case, the courts rejected First Amendment arguments that such searches of newsrooms were prohibited.
The ABA's section on criminal justice sought to require federal officers to obtain a subpoena before taking action against anyone not suspected of a crime. The subpoena would be subject to court challenge.
The ABA's Board of Governors recommended disapproval of the measure, stating that it would be inappropriate for the legislature to inject itself into First Amendment question. Instead, the board said the issue should be addressed case-by-case.
Colorado Supreme Court Justice William H. Erickson, a member of the board, told the House the proposal would amount to "throwing a blanket" of protection over anyone who is not suspected of a crime.
The proposal was overwhelmingly defeated, with most of its limited support coming from the California delegates to the House.
The House successfully avoided what some members feared would be a protracted discussion on the death penalty, which tied up the 1977 convention when the ABA rejected a resolution urging the states to abolish the penalty.
The congressional bill before the ABA today would reinstate federal death penalty statutes while permitting the consideration of sentencing factors. Opponents said support of that bill would mean the ABA was taking an affirmative stand on the death penalty in general. The ABA has not taken any position on the issue.
If the resolution passed, one delegate told the House, "those who favor the death penalty would have won by indirection."
At adjournment, California lawyer Leonard S. Janofsky took over the ABA presidency from S. Shepherd Tate of Memphis.