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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Judge William Thorne, a Pomo Indian and first Native American on Utah Court of Appeals, says his parents emphasized education.

In 1933, when African-American lawyer David H. Oliver went to the police station to talk to a client, he presented his business card and asked to enter the jail.

"The Captain of Police told me that he didn't know there were any 'N----- Lawyers' in Utah," Oliver wrote in an autobiographical book published in 1963.

"I told him that I didn't either. This precipitated a brawl which resulted in me getting beat up by the police. My right eye was permanently injured, I was thrown in jail and booked as 'Joe Doe, N----- Lawyer," and charged with Assault and Battery and Disturbing the Peace," Oliver wrote. "Fortunately, on this occasion, the Bar Association came to my rescue and defended me without charge."

But Oliver's book also said that same association later hosted a party for members at a posh Salt Lake club — and a judge told Oliver not to attend.

Things have changed.

That will be particularly evident Saturday at a gala hosted by the Utah Minority Bar Association. It salutes the "First Fifty," the initial group of minority lawyers in Utah.

The list emerged from statistics showing admission dates to the Utah State Bar from 1909 to 1980.

There were only 12 minority lawyers in Utah before 1971 — after that, a much bigger new generation of attorneys arose.

A number of them insist the civil rights movement and affirmative action opened doors that let them strive for success.

Still others credit hard-working minority families, or mentors, or President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, or a blend of many factors with inspiring them to reach for their dreams.

Even today, young attorneys are achieving firsts for minorities and say they're riding on the coattails of those who came before:

• This year, UMBA President Sean Reyes became the first Pacific Islander to make partner in a major law firm.

• Yvette Donosso Diaz this year became the first Latina to hold a Cabinet position: executive director of the Department of Community and Culture.

Today, minorities comprise an estimated 3 percent of some 7,000 members of the Utah State Bar and, according to census estimates, 15 percent of the state's total population.

Reyes noted that the first 100 minority lawyers includes some who were admitted to the bar in the 1990s — and UMBA wanted to honor the barriers earlier lawyers overcame.

"We're starting to build up a critical mass," Reyes said. "There are so many younger minority lawyers . . . it's exciting."

But for those pioneers who struggled to pave the way there were seemingly endless roadblocks.

Gary E. Oliver, nephew of David H. Oliver, recalls overhearing talk about his uncle, who in 1931 was the third minority lawyer admitted to the bar.

Judges chastised David Oliver for representing minorities and poor whites — and simply for being an African-American man with the audacity to even practice law.

"Imagine walking through the door," Gary Oliver said. "Not only are you arguing your case but race relations, as well."

Over time, D.H. Oliver gained respect and built friendships with people of all races.

"It wasn't just black and white," Gary Oliver said. "He represented Hispanics, whites, Greeks, those of ill-repute, those who were disadvantaged. That was his fight."

Diaz, a past UMBA president, recalls Judge Raymond Uno giving her a court tour after she graduated from the Brigham Young University law school in 1999. That and other mentoring shows "there is a network and we care."

"We wouldn't be here if we weren't standing on their shoulders," Diaz said.

Uno, admitted to the bar in 1959, is now retired. He went to a segregated school in California and was held in a Wyoming internment camp during World War II, where his father died.

Uno and other early attorneys "really pushed to get minority students out of high school . . . we pushed real hard to get them into college . . . into graduate school."

Uno attributes more minority professionals today to civil rights activists who fought for change.

Judge William Thorne, a Pomo Indian and the first Native American appointed to the Utah Court of Appeals, credits the federal 1960s-70s War on Poverty for helping minorities aspire to all types of professions.

"The Civil Rights Act was important in getting basic rights, but the War on Poverty went beyond that — it was a philosophy," Thorne said. "It was a recognition that there were people in our communities who had not been given a fair opportunity and, as part of that, we were going to give people a chance at education and a chance to fully participate in our communities."

Like many minority lawyers, Thorne also praises his parents, who held humble jobs but emphasized the value of education. His mother worked full time, raised five children and attended night school to get her college degree.

Affirmative action measures weren't a deciding factor for every minority lawyer, however. Third District Judge Glenn Iwasaki recalls deciding at age 14 to become an attorney because it was a way to help people.

Iwasaki, who became the 13th minority attorney admitted to the bar in 1971, said it was primarily a personal decision, but one heavily influenced by the strong work ethic of his family, which was sent to an Idaho internment camp during World War II.

His entrepreneurial parents set high standards — Iwasaki's brother became an engineer and his sister a nurse. "We all went to college," Iwasaki said. "We never sat down and talked about it, but that was something that was expected of us."

Attorney Robert Archuleta went to law school because he couldn't find a job after getting his bachelor's degree. He said he was the first Hispanic to graduate from the University of Utah law school in 1974 and, after working in Texas, returned to open his own practice.

"The landscape has changed," Archuleta said. "There were very, very few minority attorneys around that period. We didn't really have any role models."

BYU law professor Larry EchoHawk said he was inspired by his older brother to go to law school, and his younger brother, the late Thomas EchoHawk, is also one of Utah's first 50.

EchoHawk was admitted to the U. law school only two weeks before classes began. "They took a chance," he said.

It seems to have paid off. He has defended Native Americans, worked as a county attorney, served as Idaho's attorney general, was an Idaho state lawmaker and now a college professor.

When people complain about affirmative action, EchoHawk has a ready reply: "You're looking at it."

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