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Editor’s Note: The following conversation with Martha Barnett took place before the White House announced its decision to halt the longstanding practice of allowing the ABA to do early reviews of federal judicial nominations. Even during her yearlong marathon run as president of the American Bar Association, Martha Barnett tries to eat collard greens or turnips every day. She grew up in Lacoochee, Fla., and boasts, “I never ate a pizza until I was in my twenties.” So when she opened the menu one recent lunchtime at Georgia Brown’s restaurant in Washington, D.C., it spoke her language — fried green tomatoes, catfish, shrimp and grits and, yes, collard greens. “Now, this is the kind of food I’ve eaten all my life,” Barnett announced. It was like seeing a familiar face in a strange crowd for Barnett, which was what she needed just about then in a city that seemed to be turning hostile. Barnett, partner in the Tallahassee office of Holland & Knight, was in Washington a few days before meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to discuss the ABA’s role in judicial selection. She’d heard the rumors that the ABA’s traditional role was under discussion, but seemed genuinely optimistic that the rumors of the ABA’s impending ouster from the process would prove wrong. “We don’t have anything that’s come to us that would indicate there will be much of a difference,” Barnett said warily. “We don’t expect there to be. We certainly hope there’s no breach in the relationship.” Barnett recalled that soon after writing Ashcroft a note congratulating him on becoming attorney general, he phoned her in Tallahassee. “We had a 10- or 15-minute conversation that could not have been more pleasant.” Ashcroft recounted for Barnett his days as a member of the ABA House of Delegates in the 1980s, when, as Missouri’s attorney general, he was the National Association of Attorneys General’s delegate to the group. “I told him we have special seat for him right now, as [U.S] attorney general as well,” Barnett said. But Barnett, a veteran of decades of ABA and Florida politics and law, is not naive, and she realizes that every new administration likes to do things differently. “My sense is, there will be differences,” she says at lunch. “Moments where there are issues where you are more or less in tune.” But by and large, she says, “the machinery of the government and the machinery of the bar work well together.” If the relationship between the ABA and the administration does change, it is clear that Barnett will hold the conservative Federalist Society at least partly to blame. “It seems sometimes their whole reason to exist is to take on the American Bar Association,” she says with some irritation. But soon she returns to a more diplomatic tone. “The Federalist Society voice in this process is an important one.” If it becomes part of the judge-vetting process under President Bush, she says, “That’s fine. It doesn’t bother me.” The food has arrived by now; Barnett has ordered a medley of three side dishes: collard greens, Southern macaroni and cheese, and hoppin’ john — a mix of rice and black-eyed peas that she says later could have used more peas in it. The vinegar spiked with chili peppers is her condiment of choice. There is some irony to the fact that Barnett is the ABA president who will have to deal with the new Bush administration. Just a few months earlier, as one of the most prominent lawyers in Florida, Barnett had a chance to help put Al Gore in the White House instead. She was approached to become part of the Gore legal team during the Florida recount, but she declined. “It was a complicated decision,” she says. The main reason she stayed out of the recall battle was that she was in the middle of her tenure as ABA president. “Nobody really expects the president of the ABA to stop practicing law,” she says. “But this case was so unique and special that it would have been difficult to be involved and not be viewed as partisan.” But the interests of her law firm were also in mind as she turned down the Gore offer. “We have a very close relationship and deep respect for the current governor,” namely presidential brother Jeb Bush. “It might have torn the fabric of the firm.” She doesn’t second-guess the decision. The firm had made other tough calls, including a rule against representing tobacco companies. But in the end, Barnett says, if she and her firm had become involved in the election case, “I like to think our firm would have come out of it being viewed as good advocates. It would have enhanced our credibility.” Barnett also had a chance to become a media commentator during the controversy. She turned that down, too. “But I told the CNN producer that the guy in the next office used to head the division of elections. The rest is history.” The “guy in the next office” was David Cardwell, who became a seemingly round-the-clock television fixture explaining Florida election law. The election battle hasn’t had a lingering impact on the profession or on the courts, Barnett asserts, although she adds cryptically, “There are individuals who it will take a long time before you can look at them and not think of them as partisans.” Anyone she’d like to name? “No.” But she is gearing up to help the Florida Supreme Court justices who are up for retention elections this year. Some factions have already targeted justices for removal because of how they ruled in the election case. “The bar has a responsibility to speak up for the administration of justice,” Barnett says. “It’s fine with me to criticize an opinion, but you should not take that to the point of intimidating a judge.” A plate of biscuits and corn pone arrives at the table and Barnett exclaims, “Oh, Lord!” Knowing that a year of travel as ABA president can add pounds, she doesn’t actually eat much from the plate. She also knows that a year is never enough to finish all that an ABA president starts. She has spoken out on the problems in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facilities — for adults and children — and has gotten positive feedback from members for her advocacy of a moratorium on the death penalty nationwide. She also wants to talk to the White House about increasing the salaries of federal judges, an issue that brought her to Washington Feb. 13 with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Federal Bar Association President Robert McNew. When the time came for an official photo of the event, Rehnquist urged Barnett to stand in the middle. “We need a rose between the two thorns,” Rehnquist said. Others might have thought Rehnquist’s remark to be a tad sexist, but Barnett was charmed. “There’s a chivalry there that was very pleasing to me.” It reminded her of a time, early in her career, when she and nine other lawyers, all male, went into a Florida judge’s chambers for a meeting. The judge was in his seventies, Barnett said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Little lady, you come right here and sit in my rocking chair.’ “ Barnett said, “It had the impact of taking someone who was scared to death and making me more comfortable.” Now, decades later, she is head of the largest professional organization in the world. A few days hence, she would be in the White House meeting with the top lawyers of a new administration that might not be as hospitable. Fortified with some collard greens and iced tea, unsweetened, Barnett was ready. This is another in a series of occasional features by Supreme Court correspondent and “Courtside” columnist Tony Mauro.

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