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When A.P. Carlton, the incoming president of the American Bar Association, says with a contented smile, “It’s a great time to be an American lawyer,” he can almost make you believe it. Carlton makes no mention of the sour economy or the profession’s public image — perennially in the cellar. Instead, Carlton, a partner in the Raleigh, N.C., office of Atlanta’s Kilpatrick Stockton, focuses on his view that lawyers have by and large gone untainted by recent financial scandals such as those at the Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. — a claim that some would dispute. Lawyers don’t “create or disclose” the accounting messes companies have gotten into, Carlton adds. “That’s not our job,” he says. More importantly, he says, “the American public is listening” to the message of the 400,000-member ABA, whose annual meeting in Washington, D.C., started last week and continues through Tuesday. That message is not diluted, Carlton suggests, by the ABA’s past image as an activist group with a liberal agenda that focused on social, not professional, issues. “I tell people that ‘legal’ is the L-word now,” Carlton says. “We’re sticking to our knitting.” The knitting that Carlton will try to complete in his year as president has to do with judicial independence and judicial election reform. Today, when the gavel passes to him from current President Robert Hirshon before the ABA House of Delegates, Carlton will announce the formation of a commission on the 21st century judiciary. He recruited former federal Judges William Sessions and Abner Mikva to be honorary co-chairs, with Edward Madeira Jr. of Philadelphia’s Pepper Hamilton as chairman. Carlton’s starting point in the judicial reform debate is a sharp break from tradition for the ABA, which has favored merit selection of judges over elections for the last 70 years. Instead, he acknowledges that judicial elections are here to stay. “We’ve got to be realists,” he says. “People don’t like their vote to be taken away.” The commission, he hopes, will take a “toolbox approach,” suggesting reforms that will make elections better. One suggestion, pending before the legislature in Carlton’s home state of North Carolina: public financing of judicial campaigns. The impetus for a fresh look is the tidal wave of special interest money that has washed over increasingly political campaigns for the bench in recent years. “It’s no longer selection versus election that is the focus of the debate,” says Carlton. “It’s the money and the politics and how to protect a fair and impartial judiciary.”

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