American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada is one of the Silver State's most active and important non-governmental organizations. It was created by a group of volunteers in 1966 and was formally accepted as the state affiliate of the national ACLU in 1967. By the late 1990s, the ACLU of Nevada was a professionally staffed advocacy organization dealing with a wide range of state and local public policy issues and regularly winning legal challenges in the state and federal courts.

The state's ACLU affiliate now engages in public education and media work, litigates constitutional cases, and lobbies local governments, state agencies, and the Nevada Legislature on such diverse issues as criminal justice, election law, equal protection, religious freedom, free expression, separation of church and state, immigration, education, and mental health. Staff and board members of the ACLU of Nevada serve on important state commissions dealing with some of these wide-ranging issues.

While many of the ACLU of Nevada's policy positions flow from its national organization, the affiliate has broad latitude to focus on issues critical to Nevada, and to develop policies and priorities that reflect Nevada's culture and state constitution. In 2008 it adopted a position on gun control that was based on an individual right to bear arms, a posture that at that time was closer to that of the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court majority than to that advocated by the ACLU National Board of Directors.

Methods

The national ACLU is the nation's largest nonprofit legal organization. The Nevada affiliate is both a legal and an advocacy organization, and uses a three-pronged approach to shape policy in Nevada. First, the ACLU of Nevada engages in public education, ranging from “know your rights” presentations, to frequent news articles and op-eds, to speaking at community and government meetings. This advocacy also includes informal conversations with government officials and attorneys about problematic proposed government policies that could be constructively modified to avoid constitutional pitfalls. Second, the organization has a regular presence at the Nevada Legislature's biennial sessions, where it lobbies and presents testimony to prevent bills with constitutional infirmities from becoming law and advocates for bills that further civil rights and civil liberties goals. Finally, as an option of last resort, the ACLU brings lawsuits in federal or state court when the constitutional concerns cannot be prevented by either education or legislation. These lawsuits are usually brought under Title 42, Section 1983 of the United States Code, which permits individuals to file suit whenever they are deprived of a constitutional right.

Origins and Development

When the Nevada ACLU was formed in 1966, many Western states had no ACLU affiliate. Nevada's connections to the national organization began through Anne Martin, a leading Nevada feminist and politician who served on the ACLU's National Council from 1920 to 1936, and Martin Scanlon, a Reno attorney who served in the early 1930s as an ACLU state correspondent. Before 1967, the New York office depended on such state correspondents to advise Roger Baldwin, the ACLU's founder and longtime executive director, on the status of civil liberties in Nevada.

The catalyst for the formation of the Nevada affiliate was former University of Nevada, Reno Professor Jack Forbes, a specialist in Native American history. He and Americo Chiarito, a University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) librarian, served as the first two presidents of the group, followed by Robert J. Throckmorton, a Las Vegas school principal. The charter members of the affiliate, as indicated by the incorporation papers filed on January 31, 1968, were Chiarito, Throckmorton, Hazel Erskine, Thaddeus M. Major, Marvin Sedway, Edmund M. Smith, Don Weber, and Ulysses Woodward. The most active members of the organization during the foundation period from 1966 to 1982 were Dean Breeze, a Las Vegas lawyer; Hazel Erskine, a national expert on public opinion; and UNR political scientists Elmer Rusco and Richard Siegel. The Nevada affiliate had no regular paid staff before 1983 so it relied on volunteer attorneys and legal directors to shepherd the organization's legal work. This long list of volunteer attorneys included Michael Cherry, currently a Nevada Supreme Court justice, and Reno attorneys Michael Melner, Anne Vohl, and John Petty, among many others.

Soon after its founding, the affiliate formed chapters in the Las Vegas and Reno-Sparks areas (termed the Northern and Southern chapters), coordinated by a statewide board of directors. The organization used the home of Hazel Erskine as its headquarters until her death in 1975. The affiliate created a staffed statewide office in Reno in 1983 after hiring James Shields, a former UNR political science professor, as its first executive director. During Shields' tenure, the ACLU of Nevada experienced strong affiliate growth, with the single largest part of its membership, leadership, and funding coming from Washoe County.

The ACLU's presence in Southern Nevada accelerated when Associate Director Sari Aizley began spearheading the organization's development in Clark County in 1986. In 1989 Chan Hendrick was hired as the first executive director based in Las Vegas, where he served until 1994. The Reno-based leaders were hesitant to move the main office of the ACLU of Nevada to Las Vegas, fearing it could weaken its strong support base in Washoe County. As Las Vegas's population continued to boom, however, the Northern and Southern Nevada leaders decided they had to move the ACLU of Nevada's primary operations to the state's principal population center in order to maximize membership, program, and public education opportunities. This decision proved to be very successful, and by 2000 Clark County produced the majority of cases and contributors.

The most important period of the ACLU of Nevada's development began in 1995 after the national ACLU helped reorganize the affiliate, bringing new leaders to the board of directors and recruiting a new executive director, Gary Peck. Under Peck, the organization eliminated its Northern and Southern chapters, operating in a more unitary manner, and created staffed offices in both Las Vegas and Reno. During his tenure, which ended in 2009, Peck, together with General Counsel Allen Lichtenstein, produced explosive growth in fundraising, membership, and staffing, as well as many of the affiliate's most impressive legislative and legal victories. The state board of directors diversified in terms of ethnicity, race, background, and gender. Its executive committee, now comprised of attorneys Robert Chester, Lisa Rasmussen, and Gregory Kamer; military veteran Roger Vogel; union leader Marc Furman; and UNR Professor Emeritus Richard Siegel oversaw the organization's most robust years yet. The organization now has nine staff members, including four licensed attorneys, between the Las Vegas and Reno offices, and is still expanding. Its staff attorneys were joined in 2008 by the recipient of the affiliate's first endowed legal fellowship, established by Jim and Beverly Rogers for a recent graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Boyd School of Law.

The ACLU of Nevada's legal team—currently, Lichtenstein, Lee Rowland, Margaret McLetchie, and inaugural Rogers Fellow Judy Cox—regularly creates new case law through litigation in state and federal courts. Perhaps most emblematic of the ACLU of Nevada's stature in the Nevada legal community is the fact that the Nevada Supreme Court has repeatedly requested that the organization file amicus briefs (reports by a nonparty to a case that help the court analyze important issues) in constitutional cases—a rare and unusual honor. At the same time, the ACLU of Nevada has been asked to serve on state commissions, such as the Nevada Supreme Court's Commission on Indigent Defense and the Nevada Legislature's Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice. The expanded opportunities for the ACLU of Nevada—in both legal and policy circles—reflect both its recognized professional status and its public stature.

Policy and Legal Work

The most important aspect of the ACLU of Nevada's story is its growing ability to influence law and policy in the diverse areas noted above. Some of the affiliate's most important cases in its first twenty-five years depended on attorneys from the ACLU National and Mountain State offices. These cases included successful challenges to the state's law requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions, to Nevada's abuse of grand juries, and to its failure to offer the physically disabled effective access to the University of Nevada, Reno campus. The affiliate also worked for more than a decade with Charles Zeh, then Washoe Legal Services director, to improve conditions and policies in the state's prison system.

Led by current General Counsel Allen Lichtenstein, the affiliate was able to take on complex First Amendment litigation, and earned a national reputation for federal court victories that secured full public access to the sidewalks, plazas and parks of Clark County, including the famed Las Vegas Strip, for the purposes of free expression. In those First Amendment cases, its lawyers successfully confronted the wealthiest hotel-casino companies as well as public and private attorneys for the City of Las Vegas and Clark County.

Throughout the course of more than forty years, the Nevada affiliate persuaded state and federal courts to declare as unconstitutional numerous state and local statutes, ordinances, and policies, with the number of such successful legal challenges growing markedly after the year 2000. Its clients have ranged from evangelical street preachers to Muslim students; homeless individuals to anti-tax crusaders; prisoners to elected officials; police officers to victims of police excesses. The affiliate prides itself on its non-partisan and non-ideological approach to public policy, and often surprises the public with cases and clients that defy expectations.

The organization has had an enormous impact on equal protection and criminal justice issues in Nevada. Partly through its efforts, the Nevada Legislature made Nevada the twelfth state to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The affiliate was also in the forefront of efforts to secure legal abortion in the state and, despite the defeat of the proposed federal equal rights amendment in a state referendum, to remove many state and local laws that discriminated on the basis of gender. A key to those efforts was close collaboration with certain very competent legislators. Through its role on government commissions, the ACLU of Nevada has helped establish court-ordered standards to improve the work of public defenders in the state, and successfully fought for the creation of a civilian-police review board in Las Vegas to examine complaints about perceived police abuse. Via lobbying work, the group has had a large role in eliminating the death penalty for juveniles and the developmentally disabled, and protecting mentally ill persons from arbitrary detention. Finally, the ACLU of Nevada's court victories have included the halting of an execution, achieving effective constitutional challenges to retroactive restrictions on sex offenders, and changing Nevada's practice of trying juvenile offenders in adult courts.

The ACLU of Nevada has long focused on election law and voting rights, particularly since our state has constitutionally established rights to use the initiative, referendum, and recall to promote direct democracy. The organization has won two federal court cases striking down legislative attempts to restrict the initiative process, and has defeated restrictions on speech by and about candidates for election. Its lobbyists have helped regain voting rights for most felons who complete their criminal sentences. And its staff now regularly coordinates comprehensive election protection efforts.

Although proud of its achievements in the course of more than forty years, the affiliate still faces many difficult challenges. Nevada continues to have a large death row and extremely high incarceration rate. In 2008 its state and local authorities had about 20,000 people in penal custody, and about 80 men on death row (constituting the largest death row population on a per capita basis in the nation). But the organization continues to fight both battles through its membership on the state's Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice and its lobbying on criminal justice issues. In addition, in 2008 the organization began administering a $100,000 grant awarded to the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty. With the leadership of the ACLU of Nevada's Public Advocate Rebecca Gasca, the affiliate made a death penalty cost-study and a moratorium bill a priority for its 2009 legislative lobbying program in order to pave the way for abolition of the death penalty in the state.

In Nevada, the ACLU affiliate has no peer as a well-staffed nongovernmental organization dedicated to securing the protections of the federal and state constitutions, and especially the federal Bill of Rights. The importance of the organization to diverse constituencies is reflected in the generous financial and advocacy support the Nevada organization receives from several of the state's leading industries and its diverse membership of about 2,500 dues-paying Nevadans. They recognize a need for a responsive and resourceful organization that advances their shared values and protects all Nevadans, and indeed all persons covered by the U.S. Constitution, from arbitrary or unconstitutional governmental policies and practices.

Richard L. Siegel, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. He held various leadership roles in the ACLU of Nevada for the past forty years and currently serves as president (board chairperson).

Geographic Area: 

Article Locations

Related Articles

None at this time.

Further Reading

None at this time.