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Dennis Archer has definite plans for his tenure as the first African-American president of the American Bar Association. Diversity, predictably, is at the top of his list — but he’s also passionate about such eclectic concerns as loan forgiveness, the death penalty and judicial independence. “We need to channel more [youth of color] into the legal profession,” the ABA’s president-elect said Wednesday at the National Bar Association’s 77th annual meeting. “We need to start in elementary and middle schools and encourage them into the legal profession. We need to feed students into law schools.” Archer was keynote speaker at the NBA’s Judicial Council Thurgood Marshall awards luncheon, attended by black judges and attorneys from across the country. The nation’s largest association of attorneys of color, the NBA is holding its annual conference in San Francisco this week. Archer, who said his one-year term will not be enough time to finish the larger goal of creating more opportunities for people of color, plans to focus and build on issues begun by his predecessors. For example, Archer wants the ABA to work on improving loan forgiveness options for lawyers who are interested in public interest law. Many young lawyers graduate with a debt of $60,000 to $90,000 in loans and are driven into jobs at large firms to pay them back, Archer said. “When they get there they are deprived of a high quality of life and can’t do public service and pro bono [work].” Another key issue he will address as president, Archer said, is the death penalty. Even though the ABA has no official stance on the issue, Archer said it does not support the death penalty for juveniles or the mentally ill. “We need to do more — look at the motivation of the death penalty.” The third point Archer stressed is the need for judicial independence and laws that make judges who are running for the highest courts use public funds for their campaigns. Archer said private campaign contributions can create doubt in the public’s mind of a judge’s ability to remain impartial. But increasing diversity in the legal profession is Archer’s foremost concern. “One million and twenty-seven thousand people are members of the bar and we lawyers of color — Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians and blacks — only represent 7 to 8 percent. We’ve made great strides … but have unfinished business.” One weak spot, he pointed out, is the highest court. “We have to remind some of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court that it sends the wrong message when some have never had a law clerk of color,” he said. “It’s getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” Michael Rosier, president of the NBA said in an interview. “In the ’30s there were no blacks in baseball but they still fielded a team. But it wasn’t the best team on the field. Diversity will make America better.” William McNary, who is president of a grassroots political group called U.S. Action, said more people of color were getting leadership positions in the legal profession, “even under the assault on affirmative action — which has resulted in fewer people of color going to law school.” “We need a system of justice so that the bench starts to look like the people it represents,” McNary said. Archer is the former two-term mayor of Detroit and also served as an associate justice on the Michigan Supreme Court. During Wednesday’s luncheon, he announced that Robert Gray, chairman of the ABA’s house of delegates, will succeed him as president. The selection means African-Americans will serve two consecutive ABA presidencies. The ABA excluded blacks until 1943. The convention opened Saturday and will continue through the week. It is the largest of several NBA-sponsored events for black members of the legal profession throughout the year. The NBA is the nation’s largest association of attorneys of color. Attendees have had access to more than 40 legal seminars with topics ranging from immigration advocacy after Sept. 11 to assessing the legal needs of the hip-hop community. On Friday night, the NBA will induct a host of Bay Area attorneys into its Hall of Fame. The inductees include Mayor Willie Brown; Benjamin Travis, a retired Alameda Superior Court judge; John Dearman, a San Francisco Superior Court judge; George Carroll, a retired Contra Costa County judge; and East Bay attorneys Hiawatha Roberts and Carl Metoyer.

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