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Address to the American Bar Association in Atlanta, Georgia

August 11, 1976

"We will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate among us those who do."

These words comprise the ancient code of honor which was adopted and still is used by the Air Force and Military Academies, and which has recently been questioned as being too strict and rigid for the future leaders of our nation's armed forces.

Is this too strict a code for cadets? I think not. Is this too strict a code for senior military officers who defend our country? I think not. Is this too strict a code for any public official who serves our nation? I think not.

All too often in recent years, laxity and the abandonment of rigid high standards among our leaders has caused our nation to suffer and to grieve. It has been the law, and our national commitment to the law, that has kept the fabric of our society from being ripped apart. Even with a total commitment to the law we are not perfect, but we have a framework within which we can work toward a more just and perfect society.

During this post-Watergate era, our nation has been struggling anew with the question of how to establish and maintain standards of morality and justice. So far we have failed.

Unfortunately, there has been little progress toward enacting reforms that are needed to get our government's house in order. There has been strong political opposition to legislation designed to secure more openness, accountability and increased integrity in government.

Nearly forty years ago President Franklin Roosevelt had a proud vision of regulatory agencies. He said they would be "tribunes of the people" and would provide "active and positive protection of the people against private greed"

But in fact, regulatory agencies and other important government positions are still used as dumping grounds for unsuccessful candidates, faithful political partisans, out of favor White House aides, and representatives of special interests.

For instance, if a recent nomination is approved by Congress, the Consumer Product Safety Commission will have a majority of its members who have come directly from the Ford or Nixon White House staffs.

Of the forty-five appointments to the nine most important regulatory bodies in the past five years, more than half have come from the regulated industries themselves. This unprecedented abuse is a sign of contempt for the regulatory agencies and for the public they are supposed to defend and protect

Bribery is a crime in every nation in the world, but the administration solution to the embarrassing problem of international bribery is, in effect, a proposal to allow corporations to engage in bribery so long as they report such illegal transactions to the Department of Commerce. Of course, the proposal is that the reports can be kept secret from the public, perhaps forever. "Confidential disclosure" and "authorized criminality" seem to be contradictions in terms.

This is not the kind of reform the American people want nor the kind of moral leadership the American people deserve.

Our nation has seen crimes discovered, publicized, and then condoned. This almost inevitably produces a subtle lowering of standards, and a pervasive acceptance in government of the right to break the law.

Almost 50 years ago Justice Brandeis wrote in a legal dissent: "Our government is the potent, the omnipotent teacher. For good or for ill it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy."

In times of crisis where is our protection from this threat? Ostensibly, from the Department of Justice.

But following the recent Presidential elections, our U.S. Attorney General has replaced the Postmaster General as the chief political appointee, and we have on recent occasions witnessed the prostitution of this most important law enforcement office.

It was disgraceful that because of actual crimes within the Department of Justice and a lack of trust in the Attorney General, a Special Prosecutor had to be appointed just to enforce the law. As much as is humanly possible, the Attorney General should be removed from politics and should enjoy the same independence and authority and should deserve as much confidence as did the Special Prosecutor during the last few weeks of the Watergate investigation.

Recently, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill establishing a permanent Special Prosecutor, to be appointed by the President. If a Special Prosecutor is needed, we should strengthen the Senate bill and let the courts and not the President make the appointment My own preference is that the Special Prosecutor be appointed only as needed and not comprise another permanent government agency. These opinions are, I understand, shared by some of the foremost investigators, prosecutors and congressional leaders who were active in resolving the Watergate crisis.

It is obvious that our Executive Branch of government cannot be assigned all the blame. Scandals in the Congress involving the improper spending of public money have not been prevented, nor have they been instantly and vigorously investigated.

If I become President, I will never turn my back on official misdeeds. I intend to take a new broom to Washington and do everything possible to sweep the house of government clean.

Change is difficult to implement and to accept, but it is inevitable. As Alvin Toffler has said, "Change is the process by which the future invades our lives." In the scientific and agricultural world, I always saw change and innovation welcomed eagerly. It seems to be different in government and inlaw.

We need not fear change, so long as we hold fast to an unchanging core of personal integrity and ideals.

A woman who had a great influence on my life was Miss Julia Coleman, my high school principal who gave me an early introduction to the world of art, books, and music some 40 yean ago. As a retired school teacher in 1962, she wrote these words in a Christmas letter to some friends:

"We have to adjust to changing times and still hold out for unchanging principles. It is not easy. But neither education nor religion promises us an easy life. Anyway, I like it better with challenge and effort-with ideals of service to causes good and true."

"To adjust to changing times and still hold out for unchanging principles ..." I don't know how a Justice Holmes or a Chief Justice Marshall could have expressed it any better.

A combination of unwise and impractical rules and procedures, lack of effective management of cases, and increasing case loads has priced the poor and middle American out of the judicial system. Now even the wealthy citizen and big business are finding the price of justice too high to pay.

Thus we have the very poor, the very wealthy, and all of us in between joined in one goal and purpose—to create a workable system of justice. We must examine and change our own judicial system so that it serves all justly and at a price one can afford to pay. We must move boldly, quickly, and with persistence until we reach this goal.

I note with concern that the current administration has recently recommended a one-third cut in the budget of the Legal Services Corporation.

The best deterrent to crime is swift and certain justice. Civil justice is of no practical value to the average citizen when cases are intolerably delayed. Of the $4.4 billion spent by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration over the past eight years, only 6 percent was allocated to aid state and local courts. This is a grossly misdirected set of priorities.

There are demands for complex and controverrial changes in your own profession, and it is obvious that you are concerned about such issues as: reduced jury size; legal assistance for indigents; reorganization of the court system; administrative officers and balanced case loads; simplified civil and criminal court procedures; compulsory arbitration outside of court; prepaid legal service; public legal clinics; the use of paraprofessionals; expanded class action rights; broadened definitions of legal standing; funding of public interest law; elimination of fixed fee schedules; and relaxation of advertising restriction.

This agenda shows that the American Bar Association is becoming increasingly active in assessing change in the infrastructure of our legal society.

As lawyers, you are in a superb position to analyze other changes that are inevitable and necessary in our society. Your knowledge of the past, your educational background, your influence at the point of debate and decision, and your constant involvement in the multi-faceted aspects of our private and public life equip you uniquely to shape the future of our country.

As Governor of Georgia, I studied court records, and visited our prisons and noted how few wealthy, influential criminals were ever punished. I talked with inmates and heard convincing stories of injustice and inequality. I traveled the state and listened, again and again, to the questions and frustrations of average citizens who had come in contact with our system of justice.

So, with the cooperation of the Georgia Bar, I went to the legislature, and we were successful in implementing a series of reforms in our judicial system: a nominating system to insure merit appointment of judges; mandatory retirement for judges and a method of hearing citizen complaints and removing incompetent judges from office; automatic review to insure increased uniformity of sentencing among judges; a uniform and unified court system (to allow a more efficient and timely dispensation of justice); prison reform with emphasis on rehabilitation; a professionalized Georgia Bureau of Investigation; a reduction of emphasis on victimless crimes; expanded staff aid for judges and administrative officers for the courts.

It is of course difficult for all of us to lift our vision beyond the specific issues of our daily lives, such as tax law and torts, and to concern ourselves with the broader issues of a free society and social justice. We deplore the present circumstances in our nation but we often refrain from an inspired and aggressive search for better laws or better administration of those we have.

Whether we are lawyers or candidates or peanut farmers, we tend to avoid controversial issues because we are afraid we might lose a customer or a client or a vote or a dollar. But almost every important improvement is going to be controversial.

The laws must be constantly changing to accommodate the forces and counter-forces in our dynamic society and the total law at any time is an expression of the structure of society. There simply must be a close correlation between law and justice.

It is no secret that most professions, including your profession, are in great disfavor with the American people. So are the courts, businessmen, politicians and the government in general. Many people believe that they are denied fairness in the courts, in the marketplace and in the government generally. Fundamental to this attitude is the lack of a workable system of justice in the broadest sense.

I hope that you will think grandly of your role as attorneys in providing equal justice for all. If elected President, I will be an eager partner with you.

A prime responsibility of our next President will be to reestablish the confidence of the American people in the professions, in business, and in the various departments that make up our government. In other words, to reestablish confidence in the American system.

The question is not who caused the problems but who will correct them. It is not merely whether we want to make some incremental corrections but whether we wish to preserve the system. Time is running short and only by making our system of justice fair and workable can it be preserved.

Substantial improvements are needed in our government, and as one of our noted Supreme Court justices said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant" We need a comprehensive sunshine law in Washington so that special interests will not retain their exclusive access to the decision making process.

• Absolutely no gifts of value should ever again be permitted to a public official.

• Complete revelation of all business and financial involvement of major officials should be required, and none should be continued which constitute a possible conflict with the public interest.

• The sweetheart arrangement between regulatory agencies and industries being regulated should be terminated, and no personnel transfers between agency and industry should be permitted until after an extended period of time has elapsed.

• The activities of lobbyists must be more thoroughly revealed and controlled.

• Public financing of campaigns should be extended to Members of Congress.

• Minimum secrecy within government should be matched with maximum privacy for private citizens.

• All federal judges, diplomats and other major officials should be selected on a strict basis of merit.

• Every effort should be made to encourage our people to participate in government, including universal voter registration for elections and the strengthening of citizen advocacy groups.

• Tax inequities must be rooted out This will be a major and urgent project if I am elected President

Even when these difficult changes in laws and regulations are made the search for true justice will of course not be complete.

There are limits to what the law can do. It can establish the outer limits of acceptable conduct in a civilized society, but it cannot teach us or force us to do what is right. That understanding and that moral imperative must come from institutions even more ancient and more personal than the law— from family and community and the ethical and religious training which they alone can impart.

We must be dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of these basic institutions of family and community which can give rise to a more perfect justice than any written code can hope to compel.

I have traveled in this country for the past 19 months perhaps more than any other individual. I have talked a lot, but I have also listened. I can tell you that our people have been hurt and embarrassed, but they have not given up, they have not yet turned away.

There is a reservoir of honesty and decency and fairness among our people that can, in a democracy, find expression in our government.

Our people are willing to give our nation's leaders one more chance to correct our mistakes, to answer difficult questions, to meet legitimate needs, and to achieve a higher standard of freedom, equality and justice. If we disappoint them again—we may not get another chance.

There is a great responsibility on us. We must not fail.

Jimmy Carter, Address to the American Bar Association in Atlanta, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347641

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