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Can the nation's lawyers 'lick' the GOP's agenda?

[Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1995]

The atmosphere in the litigation debate is getting as poisonous as the atmosphere in, well, litigation itself. Eighty-two House members have now called on George Bushnell, Jr., president of the 370,000-lawyer American Bar Association, to resign after he described the Republican leadership of Congress as "those reptilian bastards."

Bushnell has refused to apologize for or retract the comment, which a spokesman for Speaker Newt Gingrich called "appallingly injudicious." The arm-waving attack is bound to remind the public of the famous 1991 American Bar Association conclave in Atlanta where then-ABA president John Curtin rudely rebuffed Vice President Dan Quayle.

In a recent speech, Gingrich warned that organized lawyers were going to turn the GOP push for litigation reform into a "brawl" and "the biggest fight" of the months ahead. "They're going to run every ad, they're going to pull out every stop, they're going to use every trick, they're going to make every threat to every member." He said lawyer groups had ponied up to $20 million and were threatening both primary and general election challenges to any member who votes for curtailing lawsuits. "That's how bad it's going to be. It's going to be unbelievable, bitter, in the trenches, just fighting it out."

The ABA's February convention in Miami geared up for an all-out war against GOP legal-reform plans, with any spare time devoted to fighting welfare reform and other Republican plots. Delegates shouted through resolutions opposing "Contract with America" planks with little or no reported dissent or discussion. The seeming unanimity prevailed even though many of the lawyers present were defense litigators who represent clients who get sued, clients who presumably would welcome some of the Republican efforts to cut down on suing.

Lawyer-commentator Mark Pulliam, writing in the California Political Review, recently described a campaign mailing sent out last fall to San Diego lawyers. The pitch went not just to lawyers who represent plaintiffs but also to defense litigators, and specifically warned that "defense business will dry up" if Republicans get in and pass reform.

A wry moment came last week when the ABA's litigation-section chair, Davis Weiner, complained that the new House leadership did not include enough lawyers, pointing out that only one of the eight higher-ranking Republicans is a member of the bar. In the newly elected House, members with backgrounds in business, banking or real estate outnumber lawyers for the first time in decades, 191 to 170. (Lawyers still outnumber enterprise types by 2 to 1 in the Senate, 54 to 27, and made up 13 of the 18 members of the original Clinton cabinet.)

Worse yet from the organized bar's point of view, the one attorney in the House leadership, Chris Cox of California, is even more vocal than the rest on the need to rein in courtroom abuse. "For the first time the profession is going to be regulated from the perspective of nonlawyers, and I told them that," Cox told the Washington Times.

ABA president Bushnell's "reptilian" outburst came in reaction to the prospect that Republicans will scotch a Clinton administration plan to expand funding for the Legal Services Corp., the former Hillary Rodham Clinton bailwick whose poverty lawyers are expected to sue to block any welfare reform Congress succeeds in enacting.

Bushnell, a Detroit Democrat, is not earning a reputation as the avatar of a new Augustan Age of wit and sensibility. Among other comments, he declared last week that recent conservative electoral wins were based on "the pimping of fear." He called the menace of GOP legislation "comparable to that of the invasion of our shores by foreign forces." Even his apparent play on the speaker's name was a dud, since Newts in fact are amphibians, not reptiles.

The cruelest blow came when the head of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a group whose bare-knuckled style is legendary in Washington, asked Bushnell to apologize for his "outrageous insult" and "name-calling," publicly worrying that the bouncing-off-the walls remarks will hurt the lobbying blitz against lawsuit reform. Almost unthinkably, ATLA now bids to become the more polite and respectable of the Terrible Twins of Bar Self-Interest.

As recently as the 1970s, the ABA was a comparatively sedate and respected professional group that steered clear of most political controversies. Now, as it settles into the role of a trade guild for people who sue people, you might think it's squandering what was once its considerable dignity.

But maybe it's better to suppress such passing thoughts, lest you wind up as one of those Republican-majority types. Before long you might be sunning yourself on a rock, flicking your tongue, and wondering why Dad skipped out, the way they do on the Hill.