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Bill Clinton made history in Chicago Sunday afternoon by becoming the first U.S. President to address an Association of Trial Lawyers of America convention. Speaking to a packed crowd of lawyers, spouses and their children, Clinton railed on Senators for allegedly stalling the confirmation of his nominees for the federal bench. At one point, the nation’s most famous non-practicing lawyer characterized the political maneuver as a “threat to equal justice.” And, he implored attendees to understand the importance of the November presidential election, which will produce the person likely responsible for filling two to three U.S. Supreme Court vacancies. The president spoke during ATLA’s annual convention, where some 3,000 lawyers from across the country gathered in Chicago for educational seminars and to honor distinguished members as well as to get a glimpse at the latest technological advances for the trial bar. From the tightly secured stage of a hotel ballroom, ATLA President Richard Middleton Jr. introduced the president with a comparison of the status quo eight years, before Clinton was elected, with today. Middleton said Clinton took over as president at a time when the country’s economy was poor and crime was high; in contrast, he said today’s economy is one of controlled growth and the streets are safer. Also, in pre-Clinton America, Middleton said, the civil justice system had no friend in the White House. But that changed with Clinton’s election, whose administration he credited with ensuring that, when citizens go to court, “they have a chance to see justice being done, not to them, but for them.” The audience, mostly friendly to Clinton, responded with resounding applause. Only one heckler had to be contained, to which Clinton responded, “I’m glad to see there’s one bad lawyer” in the crowd. While Clinton accepted Middleton’s list of accomplishments, he said there is plenty left to do. In his 20-minute speech he touched on crime, health care, accountability of huge corporations, and the courts. Those who want to purchase guns ought to have photo identification, proving they have passed a background check, he said. “Who honestly has an interest in selling a gun to someone with a criminal record?” he asked. He pressed for a federal Patients Bill of Rights, ensuring that the sick or injured can be free to go to the nearest emergency room without being rejected; or that patients don’t have to endure a physician change in the middle of treatment. And, while Clinton noted he supports managed care, he said there needs to be more accountability and oversight. “A right without a remedy is just a suggestion,” he said. On the subject of remedies, Clinton segued into the process of confirming his choices to the federal bench to fill a high number of existing vacancies, saying he has strived to nominate only highly qualified judges and lawyers with mainstream views. Still, as he did at the American Bar Association’s annual convention last summer in Atlanta, Clinton complained that the Senate has engaged in a “slowdown” when it comes to confirming or even rejecting his nominees. To make matters worse, he said, there are signs of racism and sexism in the process in that it seems that it takes women and minorities two months longer to navigate the system compared the their white male counterparts. The only explanation Clinton said he’s been able to come up with is that his nominees aren’t “ideologically predictable” enough for the Senate. Clinton concluded as Middleton had started by referring back to days gone by, in this case, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson appeared before ATLA’s board of directors, the only other time a president appeared before members of the organization. There was a strong economy in 1964, he said, so that people were mostly satisfied, taking high growth and low unemployment for granted. Citizens were also confident during that time that civil rights issues would be worked out through commerce and the courts, Clinton argued. Of course, Vietnam had not yet “blown up.” And yet, the president cautioned, two years later, there were riots in the streets. Four years later, when Clinton graduated from Georgetown, Johnson had decided not to run again, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Sen. Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. Back to the present, Clinton said, “We have so much economic prosperity. … All the social indicators for crime welfare and teen pregnancy are going in the right direction. … Our country is in a position to be a force for peace, freedom and decency in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Africa and Latin America. “We have the chance to build a future of our dreams for our children and protect the fundamental essence of American citizenship and constitutional liberty.” And, while strides were lost in the mid-’60s, he said in essence that history doesn’t have to repeat itself: “I think we will not ever forgive ourselves if we let it get away from us.”

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