CHICAGO – The American Bar Association will consider supporting federal legislation that would protect journalists from having to divulge confidential sources.

The policy-making House of Delegates, which will gather starting Monday as part of the ABA’s annual meeting in Chicago, will debate a resolution urging Congress to enact a federal shield law.

Any vote by the bar would be largely symbolic.

Nevertheless, the group has considerable clout. The litigation section of the bar supports the bill because it would protect the free flow of information, which, if restricted, “is not good either for our legal system or for our informed democracy,” according to the recommendation.

The ABA will take up the issue, for the first time in more than 30 years, as reporters’ use of confidential sources has been thrust into the limelight.

Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, is in jail after being found in contempt for refusing to reveal her sources in a special prosecutor’s investigation into the disclosure of a CIA operative’s identity.

Another reporter, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, avoided going to jail after receiving a waiver of confidentiality from his source.

The high-profile case has reopened a long-simmering debate over journalists’ protections.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws, and additional 18 states offer some form of judicial protections.

The absence of federal legislation has created confusion, said Dennis Drasco, chair of the ABA’s litigation section.

“It’s an anachronism that in the federal system, a similar shield does not exist,” he said.

But the Justice Department finds the proposed law too sweeping. In written testimony at a Senate hearing last month, Deputy Attorney General James Comey called the bill “bad public policy” because “it would bar the government from obtaining information about media sources – even in the most urgent of circumstances affecting the public’s health or safety or national security.”

In 1974, ABA members used similar arguments to defeat a measure in favor of a shield law. The organization rejected any form of “newsmen’s” privilege in a 157-to-122 vote.

The shield law is one of several matters, ranging from judicial security to attorney-client privilege, on the agenda for ABA delegates.

One recommendation urges Congress and the Justice Department to determine if the U.S. Marshal Service has corrected “significant vulnerabilities” in its judicial security program.

The proposal carries significant meaning in Chicago in light of the murders in February of the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow. They were slain in the family’s Chicago home.

Bart Ross, a 57-year-old unemployed electrician from Chicago, committed suicide in suburban Milwaukee in March after leaving a note confessing to the murders. He had been angered when Lefkow dismissed a malpractice suit he had filed, authorities said.

The resolution from the ABA’s judicial division also calls for Congress to permanently allow judges to keep confidential their home address and other sensitive information on federal financial disclosure forms. Such a provision expires at the end of the year.


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