Column: What a card-carrying member of the ACLU accomplished in Florida

The pillars of constitutional democracy (especially a free press and the independence of the courts) are under assault every day. The ACLU will remain in the forefront of these battles.
In this 2014 photo, Howard Simon, Executive Director American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, announced in Miami Beach that eight gay couples and the ACLU had filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force Florida to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
In this 2014 photo, Howard Simon, Executive Director American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, announced in Miami Beach that eight gay couples and the ACLU had filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force Florida to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Published November 30
Updated November 30

For more than four decades I have been lucky to be on the front lines of so many struggles for human rights.

I am retiring as the longest-serving state director for the American Civil Liberties Union — 21 years in Florida and 23 years in Michigan.

It has been a wonderful, rewarding career.

Sometimes we overlook that battles about legal principles are really about people’s lives. As I traveled around Florida, I met families we helped create by our work that ended the discriminatory ban on adoptions by gay men and lesbians, and I met same-sex couples whose marriages Florida officials refused to recognize — until ordered to do so by the federal judge in our case.

I recall the teenager who wanted to play basketball after school at the local Boys Club but was barred because she was a girl. Her case led the Boys Clubs to become the Boys and Girls Clubs — nationwide.

I recall the female university professor who received smaller monthly pension payments than male retirees. Her case led to the end of pension discrimination — nationwide.

I recall uncovering evidence of collusion between J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the KKK, which resulted in a federal judge holding the FBI (through its paid informants) responsible for the brutal attack on the Freedom Riders. A companion lawsuit seeking to hold the FBI responsible for the murder of Viola Liuzzo following the Selma voting rights march had a disappointing outcome.

We defended the rights of the people of Florida from assaults by their own Legislature and governors — protecting women’s access to abortion, resisting Gov. Jeb Bush’s disgraceful use of government power to prevent Terri Schiavo from being allowed to die, and helping prevent Bush and the Legislature from “improving” public schools by diverting tax dollars to church-run schools.

Gov. Rick Scott’s attempt to impose drug testing on state employees and applicants for temporary public assistance didn’t survive our legal challenges, and we helped strike down the dangerous gag order to prevent doctors from talking to their patients about the safe storage of guns in the home.

This year’s Constitution Revision Commission was primed to assault privacy rights and the very essence of separation of church and state, the ban on government funding of religion. I retire feeling proud for playing a part in preventing the commission from approving proposals to shrink the right to privacy and, thereby, protect women’s right to an abortion (by just one vote!) and repealing state constitutional separation of church and state. Neither appeared on the ballot.

I have been involved in voting issues for more than 50 years, first working for the Voting Rights Act in Selma as a college student. We had lawsuits challenging legislative schemes to make voting more difficult for disfavored groups. But we also worked with former Gov. Charlie Crist to expand voting rights by reforming the clemency rules, and we helped usher in changes in voting systems from ATM-style paperless voting to more reliable optical-scan and paper ballot back-up, so everyone would have their vote accurately recorded.

But it is especially gratifying to retire having played a role in helping to craft and win passage of the constitutional amendment finally ending the injustice of Florida’s 150-year-old lifetime felon disfranchisement system. This is a profound statement for democratic values at a time when constitutional democracies around the world are being replaced by authoritarian regimes.

Those who worked for Amendment 4 have enshrined in our state’s Constitution the moral principle that people who complete the terms of their sentence earn readmission to the community — with all rights and responsibilities of citizenship, especially the right to vote.

When the amendment takes effect on Jan. 8, Floridians with a felony conviction (except for murder or a sex offense) who have completed all the terms of their sentence can walk into their county supervisor of elections office and register to vote.

I am heartened by the fact that America is freer and more equal in 2018 than when I joined the ACLU in the 1960s, when America was characterized by legally enforced racial segregation, legally-permissible gender discrimination and the absence of legal rights for LGBTQ friends and family.

But democracy is far more fragile than many people recognize, and the short-term prognosis for human rights is not good. The pillars of constitutional democracy — especially a free press and the independence of the courts — are under assault every day. The ACLU will remain in the forefront of these battles. Democracy and the health of human rights depend on it.

Howard Simon retired on Friday as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

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