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ABA adopts new policies aimed at protecting judges

Protecting the independence of state and federal judges proved a major theme of the American Bar Association's just-ended national convention.

Acting on behalf of the 346,000-lawyer group, association leaders adopted a pair of policies aimed at insulating judges from some of the public heat generated by unpopular decisions.ABA President Jerome Shestack of Philadelphia sharply criticized those he characterized as "militia groups" bent on putting judges out of office for decisions with which they don't agree.

One of the new policies urges all state and local bar groups to "adopt programs enabling timely and effective responses to criticism of judges."

The group's policy-making House of Delegates was told that "the reporting of inaccurate or unjust criticism of judges, courts or our system of justice by the news media erodes public confidence and weakens the administration of justice."

Noting that judges should not respond to such criticism, the policy says lawyers must come to their defense when appropriate.

"To avoid infringing on the freedom of the press, this plan is designed to effect a response . . . to criticism that is serious as well as inaccurate or unjustified," the policy's sponsors said.

One of the events that precipitated the ABA move was the ouster of Penny White from the Tennessee Supreme Court.

She was voted off the court in a retention election after a group attacked her as a death-penalty foe. In the only capital case of her two-year tenure, White joined in a 3-2 decision that overturned a convicted murderer's death sentence and ordered a new sentencing trial.

Judges are elected in most states. While Tennessee Supreme Court members are appointed by the governor, a 1994 law requires voters there to decide every eight years whether to retain the jurists.

The second ABA policy adopted Monday is aimed directly at Congress. It says public officials "should refrain from threatening to initiate judicial impeachment proceedings because of disagreement with isolated decisions of a federal judge."

House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas caused a stir in Congress last fall when he suggested that judges "need to be intimidated."

If they don't behave, he had warned, "we're going to go after them in a big way." DeLay then pushed for impeachment of so-called activist judges who allegedly make rulings that conform to their own views rather than the law.