Page 4


Uncivil Liberties A Fight for Control at the TCLU BY BRETT CAMPBELL Austin 0 N SEPTEMBER 23, in the Austin Holiday Inn on the lake, the Texas Civil Liberties Union and its legal director, Jim Harrington, got a divorce. After a week of turmoil following the board’s suspension of Harrington, one of the most prominent and successful public-interest lawyers in America, the TCLU board of directors met to consider ratifying a settlement agreement that would end along-smoldering conflict between the organization’s lay leadership and its staff attorney. The meeting was tense. Whereas in the past, the group was lucky to have most of its board members attend any meeting, this gathering drew so many spectators TCLU members from across the state, much of the Capitol press corps, TV cameras that the small meeting room was jam-packed, and a security guard was hired to maintain order. Finally, TCLU president Don Smith and Mel Straus, president of the TCLU Foundation \(a opened”the meeting and announced that after negotiations lasting two days \(and all the reached between representatives of the TCLU and Harrington. The settlement turned the organization’s legal operation \(including the Harrington, who would run it as part of a newly created separate entity called the Texas Civil Rights Project. Then the board allowed Harrington to speak. He walked slowly to the head of the table, stood next to Straus, paused, looked around the room, and began in Spanish. He reminded everyone that civil rights walk hand in hand with economic justice. Switching back to English, the bearded, charismatic from the Rio Grande Valley who had driven up to Austin to testify on his behalf. He also thanked former state District Judge Harley Clark and Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, and others who’d offered to give testimony for him. Harrington told the audience that he had agreed to the settlement “to put this fighting behind us. If we don’t, we will all hang separately and despicably. But we know better.” He did touch a bit on the internal strife that had preceded the meeting, criticizing the board for not recognizing the work of Fara Sloan, his legal assistant. His anger, held in check to that point, flashed briefly. But he concluded with a call to get back to the business of fighting for justice. Afterwards, 12 JANUARY 25, 1991 his supporters most of the attendees stood and applauded. As he made his away about the room, Harrington, speaking in Spanish, thanked them again. But a number of the TCLU board members in the room appeared angry and bewildered. In fact, over the years he’d been with the organization, Jim Harrington and the members of the TCLU board often seemed to be speaking different languages. But to most outsiders, it seemed inconceivable that the organization could expel a figure of Harrington’s stature. The Lansing, Michigan native had been with TCLU 17 yearS, serving as legal director since 1983. \(Harrington, who attended seminary in Ohio and did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Detroit, had come to Texas after working with migrant farmworkers from this that time, Harrington, working on a minimal budget, had compiled an impressive history of legal accomplishments on behalf of citizens who had previously had little access to the American justice system. He won the first case under the Texas Equal Rights Amendment, and in a historic “series of lawsuits helped establish the right of privacy under the state constitution, ensured that farmworkers were included in worker compensation and unemployment benefit programs, secured rights of patients in mental institutions and of indigent probationers, stopped polygraph testing of public employees and discriminatory selection of grand juries, and assured county jail inmates access to law books. For his efforts, in 1989, Harrington was named trial lawyer of the year by the American Trial Lawyers Association. Later, during the protracted struggle with the TCLU that followed that September meeting, a Harrington press release announced that the former legal director would not be present to answer questions about a lawsuit he’d filed against TCLU “as he was in Philadelphia to receive the Judge John Minor Wisdom Award for Public Service and Professionalism from the American Bar Association,” one of eight attorneys so honored. Besides being a superb lawyer, Jim Harrington is a master at using the media to advance his causes. Harrington’s dismissal reveals fissures in theTCLU and the progressive community as a whole, divisions that must be resolved if the common struggle for civil rights in Texas is to proceed at full strength. And the story of the departure of Jim Harrington from the Texas Civil Liberties Union reveals important lessons about the difficulties involved in operating any public interest group. Financial Crisis The sequence of events that finally led to Harrington’s dismissal started a year ago, when the budget-strapped TCLU fired Executive Director Richard Avena and his assistant. The organization had neglected its fundraising. According to Avena’s predecessor, Gara LaMarche, “We had $50,000 in reserve by the time I left in ’88, but it was pretty clear that, within a year, the TCLU was going to have to raise more money than it had been.” LaMarche acknowledges that he occasionally clashed with Harrington when they worked together yet still professes “enormous respect for Jim.” “Part of the problem is that [TCLU] is heavily Balkanized,” continued LaMarche, now executive director of the Fund for Free Expression in New York. “The local chapters in the various cities, and the national group pull on [the state office] from the bottom and the top. We didn’t have to deal with it when I was there because we had a few large bequests, which later ran out. They had a shortfall, and they dealt with it by firing the executive director.” asked for a raise for himself and for his legal assistant, Fara Sloan, the only remaining full-time office worker; Harrington says the raise was justified because their workload would double with the halving of the office staff. But Don Smith, a University of North Texas botany professor who has been TCLU president since 1988, said the request offended him. “We had just gone through the trauma of letting our executive director go, and he had the gall to ask for a pay raise. We recognized the workload would have to go up, but he was never officially given the executive director duties.” Harrington said he was twice offered the position of executive director and declined it, preferring to concentrate on what he enjoys most and does best: filing lawsuits. Yet some members of the board apparently expected him to perform the executive director’s duties as well as his own responsibilities as legal director. Harrington did direct the mailing of a fundraising letter that he said brought in $45,000. But the executive board, finally reacting to the cash crunch, began to look more closely at the state office. “For a long time the TCLU had enough money to run things, and while that was going on, the board was a passive board,” said Beth Crabb, whom the TCLU had hired to run the South