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The American Bar Association will use its annual convention opening today in San Francisco to stake positions on a series of politically sensitive issues that could put the 410,000-member organization in direct combat with the Bush administration and social conservatives. Members of the ABA House of Delegates will vote on resolutions opposing an extension of the government’s post-Sept. 11 surveillance powers and allowing defense lawyers more time with enemy combatants detained by the military. They’ll also consider resolutions supporting broader rights for same-sex couples looking to adopt and opposing a California measure that would further curb affirmative action. The slate of resolutions reveals the ABA’s efforts to weigh in more decisively on broad social issues. Alfred Carlton Jr., the ABA president, said the organization is trying to become more relevant to its members, and if that means courting controversy, so be it. “We’ve been told for years we needed to step up to the plate,” Carlton said. “Matters of law are central to the American thought process, and that has resulted in the legal profession having to address those issues that concern the American public.” But the move also could give the organization even less cachet with a Republican administration that already has attempted to eschew the ABA’s input on judicial nominations. “The ABA must resolve its institutional schizophrenia one way or the other,” said Donald Casper, an attorney who was longtime chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party. “Either it is an advocacy body for a discreet political program or it is an objective nonpartisan professional body which weighs in on the qualifications of federal judicial nominees.” The wars on terrorism and in Iraq have created considerable tension between administration and military officials attempting to prosecute suspects and lawyers who say fundamental civil rights are being sacrificed. An ABA task force convened to examine the rights of military detainees wants the organization to demand that the Bush administration allow greater access to suspects by their defense counsel. Mark Agrast, a Washington, D.C., attorney who works for Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said the administration has incorporated a series of ABA proposals into the guidelines for conducting military tribunals. However, Agrast — who chairs the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities — says lawyers still have too little access to clients and court records. Agrast’s section is also backing another proposal that would oppose any attempt to allow continuation of the USA Patriot Act beyond its 2005 sunset. The act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, allowed the federal government broad powers to conduct surveillance on citizens and to detain non-citizens. “It’s become a second mission for our section to deal with these extraordinary measures,” Agrast said. “Everyone supports the need for national security, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of rights.” But the stances on national security aren’t the only issues likely to raise conservative hackles. One resolution would put the ABA on record in support of second-parent and joint adoptions, methods often used by gay and lesbian couples to adopt. That issue received a high-profile lift Monday when the California Supreme Court ruled the method legal. Courtney Joslin, a staff attorney for San Francisco’s National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the resolution would put the ABA into a position to lobby more states to recognize the parental rights of gay and unmarried couples. “There are still lots of states where it’s not established,” Joslin said. “There certainly is more work to do around the country.” The organization could also wade into the fight over a measure on the Oct. 7 California ballot — Proposition 54 — that would forbid the state from collecting data on race. Bar Association of San Francisco members are hoping to get a resolution opposing Prop 54 on the House of Delegates’ agenda. Prop 54 was originally scheduled to go to voters next year but was moved forward when a recall of Gov. Gray Davis qualified for the ballot. Mark Schickman, a Perkins Coie partner who wrote the BASF resolution on the so-called “racial privacy initiative,” said the fact that the vote was moved up means BASF urgently wants the ABA to weigh in. Schickman, who is a BASF delegate at the convention, said that while the ballot initiative is in California, an ABA stand would have universal appeal. “If you can’t collect the statistics to know the disparities exist, you can’t resolve the disparities,” Schickman said. Lawyers attending the convention who aren’t delegates still have ample opportunity to hear different points of view on many of the issues before the ABA. For example, Ward Connerly — the chief proponent of Prop 54 and the University of California regent who lobbied to end the practice of using race in college admissions — will appear on an affirmative action panel. Of course, debating hot-button social issues isn’t the only activity the ABA has planned. Also during the convention, the ABA’s Board of Governors will meet to discuss the organization’s budget and operations, while some 1,700 educational programs, award presentations, panel discussions and networking socials are scheduled in venues throughout the city. The ABA uses the convention to introduce new leadership and recognize others for their contributions to the legal profession. The official opening ceremonies Saturday feature a keynote by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. At the event’s closing Tuesday, Carlton will pass the ABA baton to president-elect Dennis Archer. Archer, chairman of Detroit’s Dickinson Wright and former Detroit mayor, will become the first African-American president of the ABA. Laurence Pulgram, a Fenwick & West partner who served on the ABA committee that planned the affirmative action talk and other events for litigators, said the initiative in California and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the University of Michigan’s racial policies made the issue a must-have for the convention. “You try to appeal to all of the national attendees and to all the local lawyers,” Pulgram said, “and give them something special beyond the [continuing education] that so many law firms offer for free to their people every day of the week.”

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