The attorney general vs. the courts

The American Bar Association is understandably concerned about the independence of the United States judiciary. First members of Congress began trying to put legislative strings on the federal courts in such matters as school prayer, abortion decisions, and desegregation. Now Attorney General William French Smith has committed the Justice Department to trying to keep the courts out of ''legislative terrain.'' His speech to a law audience last week was in line with specific instances in which his department has turned away from the previous administration's support of court decisions in civil rights cases. It was also in line with the view of many in the public against ''judicial activism'' - and the reflection of that view in the Supreme Court itself.

There is merit in the attorney general's open declaration of what he intends to do. It will have to be undertaken very scrupulously if it is not to undermine the judiciary as the ABA fears. We have written at length on the crucial need to safeguard the courts. An added word is necessary now that the nation's chief law official has invited scrutiny in the difficult test of transforming the courts without damaging them.

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