High Court Issues in Focus at ABA Convention

At the annual convention of the American Bar Association, two Supreme Court justices discuss the death penalty and judicial guidelines. Conversation also focused on Guantanamo Bay detainees and high court nominee John Roberts.

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The changing US Supreme Court was on the minds of many of the nation's lawyers when they gathered in recent days in Chicago, and so was the treatment of detainees. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the annual meeting of the American Bar Association.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

About 10,000 lawyers, judges and academics descended on Chicago for the meeting. They heard from some of the biggest names in the legal world, including two Supreme Court justices. The first to speak was John Paul Stevens. At an awards dinner Saturday night, he stopped just short of calling for a total ban on the death penalty. He said many aspects of capital trials tilt the scales in favor of death; jury selection, for example.

(Soundbite of speech)

Justice JOHN PAUL STEVENS (US Supreme Court): Because the prosecutor can challenge jurors with qualms about the death penalty, the process creates a risk that a fair cross-section of the community will not be represented on the jury.

SHAPIRO: Stevens said sentencing and the rules of evidence in capital trials also skew the outcome toward death, and he praised the late Thurgood Marshall's view that capital punishment should never be administered in a civilized society.

The second Supreme Court justice to speak at the meeting was Stephen Breyer. He was part of a panel on judicial independence. Justice Breyer said it's important that judges be able to make decisions without political pressure or fear of repercussions.

(Soundbite of speech)

Justice STEPHEN BREYER (US Supreme Court): If you say seven or eight or nine members of the Supreme Court feel there's a problem at the moment, you're right.

SHAPIRO: Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham was also on the panel. He said he's afraid that as the fight over judgeships gets uglier, the quality of the judiciary will suffer.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): You're going to have to ask yourself this question as a wannabe judge: Am I willing to put my family and myself through this process? And I think more and more people are going to say, `No.'

SHAPIRO: The executive branch also sent some of its top lawyers to the ABA meeting. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales delivered a speech supporting the Patriot Act and the Voting Rights Act. He also gave a pitch for John Roberts, who the president has nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, and he made a forceful argument for strengthening federal sentencing guidelines. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that judges no longer have to follow the guidelines when sentencing criminals.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): My fear that it is inevitable over time that with so many different individual judges involved, exercising their own individual discretion in so many different jurisdictions, even greater disparities among sentences will occur under a system of advisory guidelines.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales said it's too early to say for certain, but he believes some legislation will likely be necessary to strengthen the guidelines once again.

Later that day, a high-level military lawyer spoke to reporters, and he was critical of the Pentagon. Colonel Will Gunn is about to retire as the top defense lawyer representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He said it's good that the Defense Department has conducted an investigation into whether the military hearings are full and fair, but he still has not seen the results of that investigation.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Colonel WILL GUNN (Defense Lawyer): What I would hope the Department of Defense would do is release their report of investigation so that the Defense Council and the rest of the world can see whether or not there has, in fact, been a full vetting of the issues.

SHAPIRO: Gunn also expressed concern that some detainees have not been allowed to attend their own trials. He said if the Pentagon wants to win the public's faith, it needs to be more transparent.

The ABA meeting was not just speeches and panel discussions. The association's rule-making body also spent two days voting on new laws and policies. One of those was a resolution supporting a federal shield law for journalists. It passed with a strong majority.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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