TORONTO, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Alluding to the increasing rancor between U.S. lawmakers, top speakers at the opening assembly of the American Bar Association annual meeting focused on the concept of civility.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, the keynote speaker for the event on Saturday in Toronto, said that it was up to the lawyers, judges and other legal professionals in attendance to help change the tone of politics and government in the United States.
"Every one of us is in a position to teach the importance of civility, education and the rule of law," said Breyer. He added, "Now, I'm getting a little preachy."
Breyer, appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994, spoke for about 20 minutes to a packed house at Koerner Hall, home of the Historic Royal Conservatory of Music.
The speech was part of the official kickoff for the ABA annual meeting in Toronto, where about 7,000 attendees, mostly lawyers and judges, have gathered. The five-day event, which includes continuing legal education courses, a two-day session of the ABA House of Delegates and awards ceremonies, runs through Aug. 9. The ABA, a national voluntary bar organization, has about 400,000 members.
Breyer, entertaining in front of the crowd of about 1,000, said that discourse may be less than polite inside the Beltway of late, but the nine high court justices remain courteous to one another -- even when faced with sharply diverging points of view.
"I've never heard a voice raised in that conference room in 17 years," Breyer said.
ABA President Stephen Zack's remarks made Saturday evening also focused on civility and pointed to unsavory conduct among lawmakers.
"We're in an age when the President of the United States is shouted down on the floor of Congress," Zack said. "Where did we go wrong?" (During a speech by President Barack Obama to a joint session in 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S. Carolina, shouted, "You lie," as the president was outlining his health care reform initiative.)
The remarks by Breyer and Zack follow sharp partisan bickering between Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling. Congress and the Obama administration struck a deal July 31.
Zack, a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, praised the work of one of his partners, David Boies, and of Ted Olson, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Although the two attorneys were on opposite sides in Bush v. Gore-Boies represented Gore in the case that put George W. Bush in the White House-they worked together to help overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage.
"They've shown the American people how lawyers are supposed to behave," Zack said. Olson and Boies on Monday will receive the ABA Medal for 2011, the organization's highest honor, which recognizes service to the cause of American jurisprudence.
Zack ended Saturday's assembly with fitting praise for Breyer. "One of my favorite Canadian characters is Dudley Do-Right," he said, referring to the heroic cartoon figure. "Your honor, if Dudley Do-Right was a justice, he'd be you."
(Reporting by Leigh Jones)