Jimmy Carter photo

Remarks at the 100th Anniversary Luncheon of the Los Angeles County Bar Association in Los Angeles, California

May 04, 1978

Governor Brown, Mayor Bradley, President Williams, President-elect Taylor, distinguished members of the Los Angeles County Bar, ladies and gentlemen:

For the last half hour, I've been sitting in a room nearby listening to the report on the background of this tremendous organization and also listening to the report on the future of the organization. And I've been thrilled with your past accomplishments, and I've been touched by some of the struggles that you've experienced in your own history. I congratulate you on your 100th anniversary.

I would like to begin my speech with a quote from a book published in 1852.

"Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means—innumerable children have been born into the case; innumerable old people have died out of it; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit—there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth, perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee house in Chancery Lane, but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court."

This quotation comes from the novel "Bleak House," and although Charles Dickens, who, by the way, was a court reporter himself, was writing about a chancery suit in London long ago, he could have been writing about a modern antitrust suit in Federal Court. His subject was the same that should preoccupy you and me—lawyers, mayors, Governors, and the President of the United States, that is, ensuring that our legal system serves the ends of justice without delay.

I'm not a lawyer, but there is no question that has concerned me more throughout my adult life than that of human justice—striving to alleviate the inequalities, the unfairness, the chance differences of fortune that exist among people, and to help ensure that all people possess the basic material and political rights that they need for full participation in the life of our society.

I grew up in a community in Georgia that often did not provide simple justice for a majority of our citizens because of the divisions of privilege between those who owned land and property and those who did not, the divisions of power between those who controlled the political system and those who were controlled by it, the wall of discrimination that separated blacks and whites.

As a Governor and as a President, I've learned that, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, "It is the sad duty of politics to establish justice in a sinful world." I'm trying now as your President to carry our Nation's message of basic justice and human rights to other nations. But I know that we cannot speak of human rights in other countries unless we are going to do our utmost to protect the rights of our own people here at home.

Let me tell you about some of the things that concern me.

On the last day of the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the Government filed an antitrust suit against a major computer company. Nine years have passed; three new Presidential administrations have taken office; hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on legal fees. But still the trial is not nearly over, and it has been speculated that the judge who has supervised it for the last 9 years may die or retire before the trial is completed, in which case it would start all over again. Generations of computers have come and gone; there is not a single computer now being sold that were being sold when the case began—but still the case goes on.

I'm worried about a legal system in which expensive talent on both sides produces interminable delay—especially when delay itself can often mean victory for one side.

Justice should not be forced to obey the timetables of those who seek to avoid it.

As a public official I've inspected many prisons, and I know that nearly all inmates are drawn from the ranks of the powerless and the poor. A child of privilege frequently receives the benefit of the doubt; a child of poverty seldom does.

In many courts, plea bargaining serves the convenience of the judge and the lawyers, not the ends of justice, because the courts simply lack the time to give everyone a fair trial.

We have the heaviest concentration of lawyers on Earth—1 for every 500 Americans; three times as many as are in England, four times as many as are in West Germany, twenty-one times as many as there are in Japan. We have more litigation, but I am not sure that we have more justice. No resources of talent and training in our own society, even including the medical care, is more wastefully or unfairly distributed than legal skills.

Ninety percent of our lawyers serve 10 percent of our people. We are over-lawyered and under-represented.

Excessive litigation and legal featherbedding are encouraged. Noncontested divorces become major legal confrontations in many States. Complete title searches on the same property are unnecessarily repeated with each sale. Routine automobile accidents—the cases clog our courts while no-fault automobile insurance is opposed.

The number of medical malpractice suits skyrockets. Mahatma Gandhi, who himself was a very successful lawyer, said of his profession, and I quote, "Lawyers will as a rule advance quarrels rather than repress them?' We do not serve justice when we encourage disputes in our society, rather than resolving them.

In my own region of the country, perhaps even yours as well, lawyers of great influence and prestige led the fight against civil rights and economic justice. They were paid lavish fees by their States and heaped with honors for their efforts. They knew all the maneuvers, and for too long they kept the promises of the Constitution of the United States from coming true.

The basic right to vote, to hold a job, to own a home, to be informed of one's legal rights when arrested, to have legal counsel if an indigent—these rights have been denied for generations in our country and are being recently won only after intense struggle.

I think about these things when I come to speak with you. What I think about most, however, is the enormous potential for good within an aroused legal profession and how often that potential has not been and is not used. More than any other nation on Earth, ours was created out of respect for the law. We had the first written Constitution—it's the oldest. We proclaimed ourselves a government of laws, not of men; we put our faith in interpretations of the laws to resolve our most basic disputes.

None of us would change our system of laws and justice for any other in the world. From the beginning, it made the citizens the masters of the state and not the other way around, and it has extended increasing protection to the poor and the victims of discrimination.

It's because of the enormous power of the law, and of the position of great influence and privilege which lawyers occupy within our society, that lawyers bear such a heavy obligation to serve the ends of true justice and, through dynamic effort, individually and collectively, through organizations such as this, search for those ends of justice.

I know that you understand these obligations. During the last generation, many of our most important advances toward racial integration and protection of our people against government and its abuse have been made through the courts.

I heard the comments a few minutes ago about Chief Justice Earl Warren, who has been an inspiration to all of us who serve in government. But let me mention briefly four challenges that we should face in order to improve justice in America: first, in making criminal justice fairer, faster, more sensible, and more certain; second, in holding the law to the highest standards of impartiality, honesty, and fairness; third, in ensuring that access to the legal systems does not depend on political influence or economic power; and fourth, in reducing our overreliance on litigation, and speeding up those cases that are litigated.

Our starting point in ensuring justice is to reduce crime through measures that are effective and fair.

There was encouraging progress in this direction last year, when the volume of crime fell for the first time in many years by 4 percent below the previous year's level. It's a welcome development, but it does not change the urgent need to control crime. States and local governments must take the lead in this effort, but the Federal Government must do its part.

We should streamline the Federal Criminal Code, which now contains many provisions which overlap, duplicate one another, are inconsistent, and need upgrading. With the leadership of Senators Eastland and Kennedy and the late Senator McClellan, a 12-year effort recently culminated in Senate passage of this new, comprehensive criminal code, I hope the House will pass it this year without delay.

We are working with congressional leaders to reorganize the Law Enforcement Assistance Agency, to gear our funding system to our most pressing needs, to provide better support for State and local governments, and to concentrate our help on improving the criminal justice system and reducing crime. I'll propose a consolidation and a reorganization of many of the functions now performed by more than 110 different Federal agencies that have direct responsibility for law enforcement.

We can reduce the tremendous overload on our criminal justice system by removing such crimes as drunkenness and vagrancy from the courts, thereby freeing' the courts to deal with serious offenses and enabling us to treat these social illnesses in ways that offer a greater hope of success than conviction and incarceration.

I'm supporting uniform sentencing standards for Federal offenses, which will make the punishment for crimes more rational and fair and will help ensure that the rich and the poor are treated alike, no matter what court might convict them.

Powerful white-collar criminals cheat consumers of millions of dollars; public officials who abuse their high rank damage the integrity of our Nation in profound and longlasting ways. But too often, these bigshot crooks escape the full consequences of their acts. Justice must be blind to rank, power, and position. The Justice Department is now undertaking a major new effort on white-collar crime.

I've directed the Justice Department also to review our prison policy and propose alternatives to incarceration, such as station house citations, supervised release, work-release programs, and other community-based facilities.

I urge all judges and all lawyers to use your enormous influence to make these efforts a success.

Our second challenge is to see that our legal system lives up to its noblest tradition of honesty and impartiality, so that all people stand equal before the bar of justice.

One of the most important steps that we can take is to restore public confidence in our system of justice, is to ensure that government decisions are thoroughly impartial, and that personal interests and influence have no part. I've required all major appointees of mine, as a condition of accepting office, to disclose their personal financial interests. I've also required them to pledge that after their term of public service is over, they would forgo all contacts with their former agency in Government for 1 year.

Last year, I proposed legislation to make these standards a permanent part of American law. In its current form, this ethics legislation would extend similar standards to the legislative and judicial branches of our Government. It's already passed the Senate and cleared the Rules Committee in the House and is ready for floor action without delay.

Last week, the House passed a bill I supported requiring those organizations which do significant lobbying of Congress to disclose their activities to the public. Although lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity, the American people have a right to know what major forces are affecting the legislative processes. It's time now for the Senate to follow the lead of the House and pass a lobby reform bill.

Law enforcement agencies must set a clear example for their respect for the law. Recently, as the number of undocumented aliens has grown, there's been a disturbing trend particularly in your part of the country toward routine police harassment of our Mexican American citizens. I know that your own bar association has studied this problem.

Last month, the Justice Department intervened in a harassment case in Texas where three policemen had been convicted for the death of a Mexican American prisoner. In filing for a review of the 1-year jail term given to the convicted men, the Justice Department said, and I quote, "The public perception of inequality and the belief that the life of a Mexican American citizen has little value can only do damage to respect for the laws and belief in justice."

This kind of harassment must stop, and my administration, working with you, will do what it can to see that it does. Moreover, we've submitted legislation to Congress now which will stop the flow of illegal immigration while fully protecting the rights of our Hispanic citizens.

When I was Governor of Georgia, I appointed judges on the basis of merit alone. And one of my first acts as President was to create nominating commissions to recommend candidates to me for all appointments as Federal circuit judges. I'm pleased that many Senators, including those from California, have now set up similar commissions at the district court level.

The passage of the Omnibus Judgeship Act, now pending in a House-Senate conference committee, will provide a test for the concept of merit selection. The conferees have recently agreed that the President should set standards and guidelines governing the selection of district judges, and I intend to use this authority to encourage establishment of more merit panels and to open the selection process.

The passage of this act—which will create 152 Federal judgeships—offers a unique opportunity to make our judiciary more fully representative of our population. We have an abominable record to date. Of the 525 Federal judges, only 20 are black or Hispanic, and only 6, about 1 percent, are women.

While the Federal bench in southern California has become more representative, this is not true elsewhere in the Nation. My Executive order on the Circuit Court Nominating Commission specifically requires special efforts to identify qualified minority and female candidates.

During too many of the struggles for equal justice, just in the lifetimes of you and me—the questions of one-man, one-vote, voting rights for blacks, representation for indigent clients, and others-much of the organized bar sat on the sidelines or actually opposed these efforts. In today's struggle for women's rights, the passage of the equal rights amendment and the full participation of women and minorities at all levels of our society, I hope that lawyers throughout the country will follow the actions that your bar association has already taken here in Los Angeles County.

The third challenge is suggested by the American Bar Association's theme for this year: "Access to Justice." Too often, the amount of justice that a person gets depends on the amount of money that he or she can pay. Access to justice must not depend on economic status, and it must not be thwarted by arbitrary procedural rules.

Overcoming these procedural barriers means that groups with distinct interests to defend—in civil rights, economic questions, environmental causes, and so forth—must be able to defend them fully. We are supporting efforts to broaden the use of class action and to expand the definitions of standing to sue. My administration supports bills before 'Congress that would empower citizens to participate in the proceedings of Federal agencies—a right that has too often been reserved for the large and the powerful corporations which have the legal resources to express their view forcefully.

We must remove the economic barriers to justice. When a poor family is cheated by a merchant, unfairly threatened with eviction, falsely accused of a crime, it can very rarely take advantage of the skilled legal talent at reasonable rates.

In the city of New York there are 35,000 lawyers—1 for every 200 citizens. But only a handful of these lawyers are available for service to the city's 1 million poor—1 lawyer for every 5,000 poor people. That's why we have now expanded the Legal Services Corporation. In fiscal year 1979, its budget will be more than twice as large as it was when my administration took office about a year ago.

But you know and I know that legal help is often beyond the reach of most of the middle-class Americans, as well. Here, too, I believe that the bar has an obligation to accommodate those with modest incomes. Free and open competition is the best way to bring legal services within the reach of average citizens. Another solution, which my administration supports, is the expansion of prepaid legal plans, legal clinics, and other low-cost alternatives, such as those pioneered by the United Automobile Workers. The Neighborhood Justice Center near here in Venice and Marvista is a good example of what we are trying to do.

I also ask that lawyers join the effort to stop inflation by following the example we've asked of every other group in our society and to join in decelerating the rise in legal fees. This morning, new inflation figures were published in Washington that caused me grave concern. How can we, the privileged members of American society, call upon the working people, the men and women of our country, to make a financial sacrifice to deal with inflation unless attorneys, doctors, accountants, other professionals, Presidents, assume the same responsibility to assist in our efforts to keep a lid on inflation?

One of the greatest failings of the organized bar in the past century since the American Bar Association was founded is that it has fought innovations. When greater competition has come to the legal profession, when no-fault systems have been adopted, when lawyers have begun to advertise or compete in short, when the profession has accommodated the interests of the public, it's done so only when forced to.

Constructive work is now trader way, and as this second century of the bar association begins, the people of this country are beginning to see leadership from the members of the bar.

But as we make litigation more accessible, our fourth challenge is to make the adversary system less necessary for the daily lives of most Americans—and more efficient when it must be used. By resorting to litigation at the drop of a hat, by regarding the adversary system as an end in itself, we have made justice more cumbersome, more expensive, and less equal than it ought to be. This is a phenomenon more and more widely recognized, I know, among members of the bar.

One answer is to be sure that other pathways to justice do exist. Many suggestions have already been made for making litigation less necessary, and my administration will work with you and other members of the bar to implement them.

In a great number of cases there is no sound reason for a lawyer to be involved in land transfers or title searches. Simplified procedures and use of modern computer technology can save consumers needless legal fees.

We must eliminate from our judicial system cases which can be resolved in other ways. No-fault automobile insurance systems, adopted by many States, are a step in the right direction. National standards for no-fault will have a much greater impact. We support no-fault divorce laws, like those passed when I was Governor of Georgia and the ones passed here in California, that can reduce litigation that's unnecessary and also the bitterness that litigation brings. We must look for ways to reduce the tremendous burden of medical malpractice costs.

Delays in our courts because of excessive litigation are matched by the interminable delays in many Federal regulatory agencies.

In trying to solve society's problems, our regulators have proposed unnecessarily detailed specifications and written regulations in the kind of gobbledygook that could employ a generation of law school graduates just to interpret them.

I've pledged to reduce this regulatory burden for the first time on American citizens, and we've taken some steps toward change. A few weeks ago, I signed an Executive order that will be carried out, which requires that heads of departments and agencies personally approve the regulatory agendas of their organizations, that regulations be signed by the one who wrote them, that regulations be gone over rigorously in "sunset" reviews to terminate them when they have served their purpose, that they be simply written, and that they are the most cost-effective rules possible to devise.

Where the free marketplace can do a better job than regulations—as in the setting of airline fares I will work hard to deregulate that industry and to encourage free and effective competition.

The Senate has passed a superb airline deregulation bill. I predict that next week it will come out of the House subcommittee, and we expect success on the floor of the House.

We must also find a way to remove the vested interests in overlitigation and delay. Last year, corporations spent $24 billion on legal services—12 times as much as we spent on all Federal, State, and local courts combined. We must ask whether this is the right way or the best way to conserve our legal resources or to ensure justice.

We are reviewing suggestions for reducing litigation, including more arbitration, greater reliance on small claims courts, and experiments with alternative systems for resolving disputes such as the experimental arbitration systems now in existence in San Francisco, in Philadelphia, and in other parts of our country.

But even with all these steps, much litigation will, of course, still be necessary. There are a variety of steps that can be taken together to make necessary litigation more efficient and to reduce unnecessary delays.

I support legislation now in Congress to expand the functions and the jurisdiction of Federal magistrates, to reduce the burden on Federal judges.

I support a speedy appeals act to reduce the delay between sentencing and appeal, and I've directed Attorney General Bell to study whether we can also apply strict time limits to civil trials and to regulatory proceedings.

Those of us—Presidents and lawyers-who enjoy privilege, power, and influence in our society can be called to harsh account for the ways we are using this power. Our hierarchy of privilege in this Nation, based not on birth but on social and economic status, tends to insulate some of us front the problems faced by the average American. The natural tendency for all of us is to ignore what does not touch us directly. The natural temptation when dealing with the law is to ensure that whatever is legal is just.

But if our Nation is to thrive, if we are to fulfill the vision and promise of our Founding Fathers, if we are truly to serve the ends of justice, we must look beyond these comfortable insulations of privilege.

I have too much respect for the potential of the law to believe that this leadership is not possible from you.

I hope that lawyers throughout the country will take up the challenges I have made today. I know you understand the responsibility to serve justice. You have dedicated your very lives to this task.

This responsibility is older than our Constitution, older than the Bill of Rights, older even than the tradition of the common law. It comes from the roots of our Western heritage, with the prophet Amos, who said, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 12:13 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. In his opening remarks, he referred to Samuel L. Williams, president, and John D. Taylor, president-elect, Los Angeles County Bar Association.

Following his remarks, the President attended a reception for bar and civic leaders and elected officials in the Founders Room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks at the 100th Anniversary Luncheon of the Los Angeles County Bar Association in Los Angeles, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/245644

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