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The yoke is finally off. Financially independent from the State Bar after 69 years, the renamed Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations spent the weekend doing what it’s always wanted to do — tackling politically sensitive issues ranging from the death penalty to immigration rights for same-sex partners to the measure on the Oct. 7 ballot that would prohibit state agencies from classifying people by race. No subject was taboo, outgoing chairwoman Vivian Kral, a Redwood City solo practitioner, told the 348 delegates gathered at the Anaheim Convention Center on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in conjunction with the State Bar’s 2003 annual meeting. In past years, delegates were constrained in what they could discuss because of a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ordered the State Bar — which funded the conference until this year — not to use members’ dues to take political positions. With the conference’s new-won independence, delegates responded with zeal over the weekend. That was especially evident with a resolution advocating opposition to Proposition 54, Ward Connerly’s controversial Racial Privacy Initiative, which would require the state to stop classifying individuals by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in regard to public education, contracting or employment. Proponents say the measure would “junk a 17th century racial classification system that has no place in 21st century America” and signal a first step toward a colorblind society. On Saturday, though, conference delegates — who couldn’t have discussed anything so sensitive in the past — overwhelmingly disagreed, calling the initiative a “hateful proposition” that would prevent the state from ensuring racial equality. “I will not use the title of this initiative,” Charles Bird, a partner in San Diego’s Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, told delegates. “This initiative has nothing to do [with] privacy. It has everything to do with enforced ignorance. “This piece of trash,” he added, “is not the first step toward a colorblind society.” While no one spoke favorably about Prop 54, Geoffrey Holtz, an associate in the San Francisco office of Bingham McCutchen, suggested that there’s no basis in science for making racial distinctions. “There is no race gene,” he said. “Race doesn’t exist in the eyes of science. Yet the law constantly classifies people on the basis of race. “Show me,” Holtz said, “an objective basis” for making racial distinctions. The anti-Prop 54 resolution, introduced by the Bar Association of San Francisco, passed with ease. Equally engaging for the delegates was a debate over a proposal to encourage Congress to change the word “spouse” in certain immigration laws to “permanent partner” so that American gays can sponsor their same-sex lovers for permanent residency and block deportation. “Lesbian and gay bi-national couples who are in committed, permanent relationships with each other cannot enjoy [legal] protections because their relationships are not recognized under federal immigration law,” the resolution by the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom stated. “Often, committed same-sex couples are kept apart, torn apart or forced to stay together illegally with one partner in constant fear of deportation.” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, a Los Angeles-based deputy assistant general counsel for the Screen Actors Guild who married his 10-year partner in August in Canada — where gay marriage is now legal — said he personally knows three couples in bi-national relationships. “It’s heartbreaking to me to see what they have to go through to stay together,” he said. “The time is right for Congress to stand up and support this.” In fact, gay groups nationally are currently working for the passage of the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, which would do what the BALIF resolution seeks. According to the San Francisco chapter of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force, a bill allowing lesbians and gay men to sponsor their partners for legal residency has 115 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and more than six in the Senate. Not everyone, however, backs the concept. On Saturday, Thomas Johnson, a Fullerton solo, questioned whether there was a moral or legal basis for allowing gay men and women to sponsor their alien partners for residency. He also said the proposed BALIF resolution seems to use immigration law to overturn the nation’s Defense of Marriage Act. Despite his objections, the measure was approved heartily. In other moves, conference delegates backed physician-assisted suicide, greater rights and responsibilities for registered domestic partners, a recommendation that the governor appoint a commission to study the death penalty, a law that would let governmental attorneys report any misconduct by their agencies, and a proposal to let courts sentence homeless people to community service rather than pay restitution for minor crimes. All approved resolutions go through a further vetting process by conference leaders to determine how vigorously they should be lobbied or pursued. Notably, conference delegates, who tend to lean toward the left politically, refused to debate a late-filed resolution by the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild that urged Congress to investigate President Bush and his administration for allegedly misrepresenting the need for a war in Iraq. And predictably, perhaps, the delegates enthusiastically rejected a BASF proposal to increase legal education requirements from 25 hours every three years to 36.

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