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MONTEREY — Freeing the whales isn’t enough for California lawyers. They also want to free the breasts, letting women sunbathe topless on state beaches without fear of arrest. That was one of the more titillating votes over the weekend as nearly 440 lawyers gathered in Monterey to attend the Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations and to debate more than 100 resolutions. Sixty-two were approved. Besides the topless vote, delegates called for investigations into the Bush administration’s polices on Iraq and the use of torture, a moratorium on the death penalty, and a repeal of a state law that prohibits marriage by same-sex couples. Delegates shot down proposals that would have made it illegal to tattoo anyone under the age of 18 or to use a cell phone while driving. It was the second time in four years that the group refused to curtail calls. “Eating in a car is more distracting. Cigarettes are more distracting. Having children in a car is more distracting,” Milpitas solo practitioner Nina Yablok argued moments before the resolution was rejected. “Does this sound like something you would impose if it wasn’t cell phones?” This was the conference’s second year of independence from the State Bar, delving into topics that were previously taboo because of court rulings that prevent the Bar from using members’ annual fees to take political positions. The conference pays its own way through voluntary donations. The debate over topless sunbathing was emblematic of the group’s new freedom and its willingness to take sensitive issues to the state Legislature. Sponsored by a divided Ventura County Bar Association, the proposal — which would eradicate state penal codes that prevent women from exposing their breasts at state beaches — was framed by chief proponent Liana Johnsson as a matter of equal rights. “At some point, men’s breasts became liberated,” Johnsson, a deputy public defender in Ventura, told the delegates. “I’m just asking you not to make it a crime for women to do the same thing men do. “Equal is equal,” she argued. “And I hope you will support my bare breasts.” Johnsson, sporting a pink badge labeled, “I Support Breast Equality,” backed her position with a slide show. The proposal passed easily, despite opposition from two Santa Clara County delegates. Yablok, of Milpitas, argued that legalizing topless bathing would “de-eroticize” female breasts, while Tamara Costa, an associate at San Jose’s Hoge, Fenton, Jones & Appel, tearfully protested, “Beaches are where families go. We in society should be protecting our children. “The point is not that breasts are offensive,” said the mother of twin 6-year-old girls. “It’s that there is a time and a place to show your private parts.” But Costa had trouble holding the crowd’s attention, at least partly because, as she talked, the video screen displayed a picture of a topless Fat Bastard, the grossly obese bad guy in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Many were laughing. After the vote, one man walking down an aisle mumbled, “God bless America.” The levity in that debate wasn’t evident when the group tackled the resolutions calling for an investigation into the Bush administration’s policies. Conference leaders originally had deemed the resolution on Iraq not germane to the conference’s mission, but changed their minds at the last moment much to the pleasure of the largely left-leaning crowd. In urging delegates to approve the resolutions, Charles Bird, a partner in San Diego’s Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, compared Iraq to Vietnam and said it was time for the American people “to know how we got into this mess.” “What we have here is a moderately able midland cowboy trying to one-up his father, who he believes is an elitist,” Bird thundered. “We have all the case we need to throw these bastards out.” Oakland solo Alan Ramos said he was lucky that his son — a sergeant in the 82d Airborne — returned safely from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The families of more than 1,100 other military personnel haven’t been as fortunate, he said. “This administration has operated in a secrecy that is unprecedented,” Ramos told the hushed crowd. “We have a solemn duty to never ever ask a young person to fight a war when we don’t have a sound basis to fight that war.” The few delegates opposed to the resolution were represented by Ronald St. John, a partner in Los Angeles’ Barton, Klugman & Oetting, and James Talley, a partner in Escondido’s Galyean, Talley & Wood. Both argued that the voting booth — not the conference hall — was the proper place for delegates to register their opinions on the Bush administration. St. John also argued that the resolution, sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, moves the conference into partisan politics. “We alienate half our support base,” he said. “And we undercut our credibility as a nonpartisan organization.” Resolutions on a death penalty moratorium and same-sex marriage had supporters close to the issues. Danette Meyers, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, backed the moratorium even though she has sent two people to death row. “We should have no opposition to what we are doing,” she said. “If we are wrong, let’s find out before it’s too late. We should be sure before we impose [the death sentence].” In calling for the demise of state law that limits marriage to a man and a woman, several gay delegates spoke, personalizing their own bids for equal marital status with heterosexuals. Mark Epstein, a member of the gay legal group Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, said he and his longtime partner have two daughters, one born in 2001 and the other last March. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “my children have the right to have married parents. My children are entitled to all the benefits of other children.” James Wagstaffe, a partner at San Francisco’s Kerr & Wagstaffe, said that as a heterosexual man he could see no reason to deny marital rights to same-sex couples. Besides, he added, how can gays mess up marriage any more than straights, considering the divorce rate, abandoned children and issues of abuse? “If this is stability, folks,” he said, “we need a lot of help.” The delegates also agreed overwhelmingly to urge the Legislature to define marriage as a civil union. “The word ‘marriage’ is a hot potato,” said Matthew St. George Jr., a Los Angeles deputy city attorney. “Let’s call it what it really is. The state is a civil entity. It recognizes a civil union.” An executive committee will review all approved resolutions and determine which to pursue in the Legislature.

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