The Conservative Digest, voice of the right, this month included the American Bar Association on its list of "left-leaning groups."
There was the ABA, once shunned by liberals and activists as stodgy and conservative, led by big-time lawyers with six-figure incomes, in the company of the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, feminist and gay organizations, the targets on a rightist's enemies list.
Not traditional company for the ABA, but it is increasingly finding itself an opposition force against changes proposed by the Reagan administration or its conservative allies, most conspicuously in the controversies over voting rights, legal services funding and bills to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction over such issues as busing, abortion and school prayer.
With its vast membership, 290,000 lawyers, its affiliated network of local and state bar associations, its wealth, its staff of 500 and its respectability, the ABA has become a leader of the opposition. It now finds itself in the unusual position of wanting to be conspicuous.
Yesterday, for example, David R. Brink became the first ABA president in a decade to take the high-visibility podium at the National Press Club.
"I do not believe the proponents of these bills to strip the courts of jurisdiction really want to launch a missile that could plunge us into internal strife and destroy our rights, the courts or our Constitution," he said.
"They are risking our most fundamental values to dispose of a hot potato, to secure what they believe are popular and expedient solutions to current and transient problems."
Although the administration has avoided taking a public position on these bills, it has led the attack on the federal judiciary, an attack that has fueled pressure for such legislation. Brink defended the judges yesterday, since they are traditionally reluctant to become involved in public debate.
"What has happened," he told the press club, is that the executive and legislative branches have "in some instances dumped implementation of policies in controversial areas on the courts, which have to decide the cases and which have no means to defend themselves from the attacks by the public and by other branches of government that follow their decisions."
Yesterday morning Brink delivered, on Capitol Hill, one in a series of ABA pleas for funding legal services, "a public obligation and a national responsibility." The ABA's lobbying last year was widely credited with keeping the legal services program alive, albeit at a drastically reduced level.
In January the ABA filed a pro-Equal Rights Amendment friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in the recission-ratification case now under consideration. And, in February, the organization, to the surprise of many of its most liberal members, took the position that the exclusion of women from private clubs where business is transacted should be made illegal.
That action followed an instructive speech by an old-time ABA leader, once considered conservative, in which he noted that his daughter was now a lawyer and he didn't want anything, including discriminatory clubs, to stand in the way of her success.
Brink's positions are the ABA's positions, as endorsed by the organization's House of Delegates. But the vigor with which he is representing them, the tone of his language ("internal strife," "destroy our rights") is attracting increased attention, including criticism from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C) and two columns by conservative writer William F. Buckley.
"It is fair to say that in the early years of the ABA it was kind of a club for blue bloods," Brink said. "Then it became a much broader based organization with professional concerns," in effect a trade association.
Now it is in what Brink calls its "public-interest" period.
Brink said the change reflects the change in the makeup of the legal profession: there are more minorities, many more women and more lawyers under 35 in the profession and in the ABA.
Some of the organization's critics question the ABA's motives in some of these controversies, particularly legal services. "What we have here is a trade association," said Harvard Law School Professor Charles Fried. "That's what the ABA is. And they are sponsoring the idea that the product which they sell is an indispensable human right.
"There is a remarkable correlation between their self-interest and their behavior" in the legal-services debate, he said.
There are 600,000 lawyers, Brink responded, and the ABA is not motivated by the loss of 6,000 legal-services jobs.