Objection! Objection!

Posted: Monday, December 31, 2007

"Let the arguments begin," the ABA Journal invited when it announced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his successor Michael Mukasey as its "Lawyers of the Year" for 2007 and 2008 in mid-December.

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Arguments, my briefcase. Virtual rebellion was more like it.

"Bad judgment" was probably the mildest critique among more than 73 online responses that the Journal, which goes to American Bar Association members, received in the week after publication.

"Disgusting," "a moronic choice," "wholly inappropriate," "a disgrace to the legal profession," came the hyperventilation. "Absurdly embarrassing." "Beyond embarrassing." "Beyond disgraceful." "A premeditated magazine sales strategy."

"Why not take a blow torch to the profession itself because you just burned us all."

"Abhoration of justice by wordsmithing," one language-torturer declared.

And then there was the obligatory lawyerly cliche, "Far too clever by half."

A 30-year lawyer called for an apology and for heads to roll, harrumphing, "Junior Achievement journalism."

So much for celebrating a free press. Are these the same officers of the court who argue that even the most despicable defendant deserves a zealous defense? (Unless, I suppose, he's George W. Bush's buddy Fredo.)

The immediate vehemence prompted the Journal to change its headline to "Newsmakers of the Year" and add an editor's note regretting that the theme wasn't clear enough.

But that didn't appease some ranters: "Is it any wonder that so many people hate lawyers when you make stupid choices like this?"

Many fine lawyers toil unheralded, it's true. But others deftly bring loathing upon themselves without any help from journalistic amici.

Consider these runners-up for 2007 "Newsmaker":

Michael Nifong, disbarred former district attorney in Durham, N.C. He tried to get three members of the Duke lacrosse team convicted of kidnapping and raping an exotic dancer, despite an unreliable complainant, no DNA matches and evidence of the defendants' innocence. The North Carolina attorney general finally stepped in, denounced the prosecution and dropped the charges.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby, felonious former vice-presidential aide. In March, a federal jury convicted Dick Cheney's onetime adviser of perjury and lying to federal officials during the investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to journalists. Libby didn't even have to serve his 30-month prison sentence because Bush commuted it.

Howard K. Stern, consort to professional exhibitionist Anna Nicole Smith. Remember the sordid fights over who fathered Dannielynn, where Anna Nicole would be buried and who'd get the Bahamas house? Most recently, Stern sued an author who chronicled Smith's seamy life; the account defames him, he says.

Monica Goodling, politicizer of Justice Department hiring under Gonzales. It took a subpoena and an immunity grant to get her to testify before Congress and acknowledge that she "crossed the line" in screening job applicants for ideology and GOP affiliation.

To be fair, some of the Journal's critics offered temperate, reasoned scolding.

One reader chided an engineer-turned-attorney poster's misspellings, which included "viamently," "eliteist," "fathium," "appauled" and "nieave."

And one poster helpfully linked to the Dec. 9 Dallas Morning News, in which columnist Rod Dreher opinioned that "Alberto Gonzales, the bumblefutz U.S. attorney general who defenestrated himself from the Department of Justice before the Congressional mob could do it for him, is surely the Texan of the Year."

And he didn't mean that as a good thing.

What the Journal called "the slow-motion destruction of Alberto Gonzales' reign as U.S. attorney general" turned an ugly spotlight on the way that ideology and politics can twist law and ethics and undermine faith in our legal institutions. How Mukasey repairs the damage at the Justice Department and whether he restrains the administration's constitutional boundary-pushing will be a key legal story in 2008.

But even though the Journal operates independently from the ABA's governing board, its readership consists of more than 400,000 dues-paying lawyers. And even though managing editor Allen Pusey is a Dallas Morning News veteran who helped uncover the savings-and-loan scandal in the 1980s and oversaw special projects, the magazine probably couldn't get away with such Dreherisms as "mewling toady" and "pudding-brained cream puff, less Oliver North than Gomer Pyle."

But recognizing that Gonzales, in all his ignominy, was the most newsworthy lawyer in 2007 isn't the same as, say, honoring him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

That would be beyond comprehension. But not, alas, beyond the realm of possibility.

• Linda P. Campbell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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