Left Return

Once burdened by debt and internal politics, a rejuvenated Texas ACLU is back mixing it up with those who dare to trample on the U. S. Constitution.

"I think Greg has minimized some of the really huge problems that he and the rest of the board had to overcome," says Kahne, who adds that he joined the board because Gladden told him it was a chance to make a difference. "But it's a tribute to Greg's leadership. It's hard enough to raise money when you have a program you want to support. It's even harder when you are trying to come out of debt. Greg and the other board members have solved that problem. But there has to be some reason for members to give."

Gladden and Harrell believe those reasons are, once again, in place.

In the six months he has been executive director, Will Harrell reports that the ACLU of Texas has attracted more than 500 new or renewed memberships, 90 of them in the Houston area, bringing the number of dues-paying members to about 9,000 statewide. The renewed interest in civil liberties in Texas, Harrell says, can be traced back to the ACLU's recent involvement in a number of controversial cases.

Former antiporn crusader Geneva Brooks now embraces the ACLU in her fight against homeowners associations.
Deron Neblett
Former antiporn crusader Geneva Brooks now embraces the ACLU in her fight against homeowners associations.

Arguably, the Texas ACLU's most important recent action was its decision to join the legal battles in Tulia, a small town of 4,500 predominantly white residents located 75 miles south of Amarillo. The trouble in Tulia began in January 1998 when the Swisher County sheriff's office hired veteran lawman Tom Coleman, the son of a Texas Ranger. The deputy, who had been working as a welder before he got the job, was assigned to oversee an antidrug operation in Tulia, a rather puritanical place where students are subjected to random drug tests. Eighteen months later, 43 alleged drug dealers, including 41 African-Americans -- 10 percent of Tulia's black population -- were rounded up. However, Coleman, a white man, apparently had little physical evidence to support his contention that he was able to purchase small amounts of cocaine from the suspects. As one black Tulia resident told The New York Times, "Can you see 43 dealers surviving in this small town? There would be murders and everything. Everybody would have to be doing it."

Questions about the propriety of the arrests were first raised by Amarillo lawyer Van Williamson, a court-appointed attorney, who began looking into Coleman's history. According to reports first published in the Texas Observer, Coleman had suddenly departed from the sheriff's office in Cochran County after running up more than $6,000 in debts to area merchants. He eventually was charged with misdemeanor theft. In a letter to state police officials, Cochran County Sheriff Ken Burke wrote that "Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement, if he is going to do people the way he did this town." Former co-workers in the Pecos County sheriff's department, where Coleman worked earlier in his career, told Williamson that Coleman was hot-tempered and a compulsive liar. Nevertheless, in all but one of the Tulia drug trials, the disturbing information about Coleman, who now works as an undercover officer in North Texas, was not allowed into evidence. So Williamson turned to Jeff Blackburn, a fellow Amarillo attorney who volunteers his time to the ACLU.

"What we're doing," says Blackburn, "is putting together a group of lawyers that we could never have [put together] without the ACLU involved. No small mom-and-pop organization could get this done. We've made some good linkage with the ACLU national groups that are studying drug testing and drug policies around the country. And by doing that, we have muscled up the defense effort.

"Because if you look at this thing, it's a war that has about 132 separate battles in it. That's a big damn war. And it's going to take a long time to fight. And there's got to be a lot of strategic thinking involved. You can't just approach it like a headless samurai and just attack without thinking. So the ACLU has wound up becoming both the brains and the muscle on the legal end of this thing. We couldn't be doing it without them."

In addition to appealing the convictions in Tulia, Blackburn and the ACLU, in coordination with the NAACP, have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of one of the defendants. Blackburn says more are on the way. The ACLU also has filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, urging federal prosecutors to investigate the Tulia arrests for possible criminal violations by law officers. Additionally, two Tulia defendants have yet to go to trial, and Blackburn says major defenses will be mounted on their behalf -- the first time, he says, that any of the alleged drug-dealing cases will have been seriously tested in court.

"And that's pretty cool," says Blackburn, "because the ACLU usually doesn't do criminal cases."

Blackburn is a criminal-defense and civil rights attorney by trade. In 1997 he won a $36 million judgment for his client against Texas State Technical College, the largest award in the history of the Texas Whistleblower Act. For a time, Blackburn ran the High Plains Center for Constitutional Rights in Amarillo and claims that Texas Lawyer once described him as "the trouble-makingist lawyer in West Texas." He credits Harrell with convincing him, and other attorneys like him, to return to the ACLU family.

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