More than 3,000 lawyers have resigned in protest from the American Bar Assn. after the controversial endorsement of the right to abortion by its governing body here in August, ABA officials said.
Critics claim the abortion rights resolution and other positions have undermined the association’s traditional role as the nonpartisan voice of the profession, reducing the credibility of its evaluations of law schools and federal judicial candidates.
As the resignations mount, one faction of critics is urging members to stay and join in a move for a full-scale referendum among the ABA’s 370,000 members next year in the hope they will rescind the endorsement.
“A lot of people agree the ABA has become more political than it should be and less professional than it should be,” said Darrell Jordan of Dallas, former president of the State Bar of Texas and leader of the referendum movement. “I think the vast majority of ABA members do not think it should have official positions on abortion and other social issues.”
Jordan said there are reports that the objectivity of judges who are ABA members has already been challenged in some cases because of the abortion stance.
After sharp debate, the ABA’s House of Delegates approved an abortion rights resolution Aug. 11 by a vote of 276 to 168. In practical terms, the measure allowed the organization to lobby Congress and urge the U.S. Supreme Court to support the right to abortion. Two years before, the group had taken a similar stand then rescinded the measure in the wake of strong protests.
Since August, resignations have poured in to the ABA’s Chicago headquarters. Resigning lawyers cite not only the abortion resolution but also the group’s award to law professor Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Also being protested is the ABA’s decision to sidestep normal admissions requirements and give a House seat to the National Lesbian and Gay Law Assn.
Richard Collins, the ABA’s communications director, said that although more than 3,000 lawyers had resigned in protest, such discontent should be viewed in perspective.
Collins noted that membership renewal rates currently are consistent with previous years, and new memberships now are increasing faster than last year. Because members usually do not say why they are renewing or not renewing, it is difficult to assess the full impact of the controversy, he said.
Meanwhile, ABA officials are urging dissidents to reconsider their resignations. The ABA leadership denies that the group has become a “single-issue” organization, noting the ABA has taken stands on hundreds of policy questions over the years. In addition, the group issues ethical guidelines and sponsors a wide variety of professional and public service programs.
“Lawyers have a strong tradition of disagreeing on and debating issues of great importance,” ABA President J. Michael McWilliams wrote in a recent letter. “But such disagreements have never impaired our ability to remain committed to the concept of extending justice to all persons throughout the world.”
The ABA’s defenders say the abortion rights stand was warranted in view of the issue’s importance and they minimize the wave of resignations, predicting that the organization will prosper over the issue in the long run.
“The people who want to adopt a so-called neutral position are misguided,” said Angela M. Bradstreet of San Francisco, president of California Women Lawyers. “For the ABA to keep burying its head in the sand would be a deterrent to membership. . . . Women now are beginning to join the ABA--there’s renewed interest because of this issue.”
On another front, the Federalist Society, a 10,000-member conservative legal group, is capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the ABA’s political stance to help raise funds for its own expansion.
“With an organized bar pressured and increasingly controlled by the left, we need an organization which counters the political seduction of the law,” defeated Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork said in a recent Federalist Society fund-raising letter.
The society, which sponsors public policy debates and speeches in cities and college campuses throughout the country, does not aim to become an alternative to the ABA. But Eugene B. Meyer, the Federalists’ executive director, said Bork’s letter sparked an unprecedented response from donors.
“There’s dissatisfaction not just with abortion but over the ABA’s not playing the role it was envisioned to play,” Meyer said.