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ABA President Urges Congress to Reverse Course on Eavesdropping

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 10—The president of the _ today called on Congress to scrap a week-old law expanding the government’s power to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens.

Karen J. Mathis, president of the nation’s largest lawyers’ association, also said that most Americans have gradually come to see the importance of preserving constitutional liberties, even as the struggle against terrorist violence continues.

“Since 2002, the ABA has never really changed its position that we must protect our citizens, but at the same time protect our liberties,” Mathis said. “The American public has moved closer to the ABA’s position.”

Congress last week amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, greatly broadening the power of government agents to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens without judicial oversight. The law expires in six months, but Mathis urged Congress to restore adequate judicial review of eavesdropping cases when it returns from recess in September.

Mathis, a Denver lawyer, spoke at a news conference during the association’s annual meeting. About 9,000 lawyers have gathered in San Francisco.

Questions about the fight against terrorists figure heavily in the meeting. On Monday and Tuesday, the association will consider a resolution against torture, calling on Congress to supercede a presidential order that allows CIA operatives to abuse detainees in ways that the administration says falls short of torture.

Mathis said the United States should comply with its obligations under the Geneva Accords to ban torture, adding, “The CIA should not be exempt from the rules that govern our military.”

Another resolution would call on courts to allow court challenges of electronic surveillance, even when the government invokes the State Secrets Act. The resolution calls on courts to examine such claims in a secure setting, to determine if they are valid.

Mathis said Americans are beginning to better understand the vital need for true checks and balances, in which the courts, Congress and the Executive Branch all play roles in making sure that  no one branch violates Americans’ rights.

Noting that the FISA law was enacted in 1978, after the government had improperly eavesdropped on Americans, Mathis said, “History demonstrates time and again that when government agents have surreptitiously bypassed judges and decided on their own to tap phones and invade homes, abuses have occurred.”

Mathis also said she would support an ABA resolution calling on Congress to repair equal-pay legislation, in light of a Supreme Court ruling in June that sets such a tight deadline that many workers don’t learn they are discrimination victims until it’s too late to file an equal-pay complaint.

“The 1964 Civil Rights Act directly enabled many African Americans, women and others to claim their rightful places in the workforce. The demands of justice and fair play are too great to be trumped by other considerations, such as a law’s technical failings.”

The ABA resolution asks Congress to specifically treat each new unequal paycheck as a new act of discrimination. That would effectively allow workers to file complaints whenever they learn they are the victims of pay discrimination.

Accredited reporters are welcome to attend and cover all ABA Annual Meeting sessions for free. A Press Room for working journalists, located in the Moscone Center West, will be open daily from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. It will close one hour after the adjournment of the House of Delegates on Aug. 13. The Press Room phone number is 415-348-4558.

With more than 413,000 members, the _ is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society.