Mysterious Departure

Why did the ACLU's legal director hit the road?

A roomful of folks hoisted glasses at Bar Italia last week to toast Denise Lieberman, the St. Louis civil rights attorney known about town for her outspokenness -- and, as Missouri Court of Appeals-Eastern District Judge Lawrence Mooney noted, her slight height.

"I've never been one to mistake height for stature," said Mooney, who at five-foot-four is at least five inches taller than Lieberman. "That's true for Denise. In the area of civil rights and liberties, she stands tall."

Seconded St. Louis attorney Steve Ryals: "What you are, Denise Lieberman, is a civil rights Tasmanian devil!"

Lieberman became legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri eight years ago. But on July 15 she quit the job that, she said, "I knew my whole life I was bound for." Nearly 100 people gathered at Bar Italia, including Missouri state representative Rachel Storch and state senator Joan Bray, and none were happy about Lieberman's farewell.

"Denise's departure from the ACLU is an incalculable loss -- and, perhaps, an unnecessary loss," says Karen Tokarz, executive director of clinical education at the Washington University School of Law.

The circumstances of Lieberman's leaving are murky at best, and her departure comes at a time when turmoil is brewing within the organization.

"It is with great sadness that I announce my resignation," began Lieberman's lengthy e-mail to members of the ACLU's legal steering committee last month. "It has been a distinct honor to serve as your legal director for the past eight years. Together we have confronted some of the most compelling civil-liberties issues of our day, and we have emerged as a leader in combating a new era of challenges in this post-9/11 world.

"But it is time for me to take on new challenges."

Lieberman did not divulge what she plans to do next. During her tenure at the ACLU's 85-year-old Eastern Missouri branch, she consistently litigated (or co-litigated) a dozen lawsuits at a time, logging countless overtime hours to help the group's volunteer lawyers prepare cases.

"Her knowledge of constitutional law is unbelievable," says St. Louis attorney Marilyn Teitelbaum.

Colleagues say Lieberman was hugely successful not only at winning and settling cases, but also at attracting local -- and national -- media attention to the chapter's work. Among the recent high-profile cases Lieberman directed:

  • In May fourteen people and nine organizations filed United States Freedom of Information Requests in an effort to learn if the Federal Bureau of Investigation was improperly investigating them. The requests came after a five-month, ACLU-led investigation.
  • In May two dozen people sued the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the City of St. Louis, claiming unlawful violations of free speech, privacy and the use of excessive force in connection with home raids conducted during the May 2003 World Agricultural Forum in St. Louis.
  • Thirteen homeless people are seeking a permanent restraining order prohibiting St. Louis police from arresting them before city-sponsored events are scheduled to take place. Last October the ACLU and its co-counsel won a temporary restraining order.

Lieberman was also aggressive in reaching out to groups she thought risked civil rights violations in the post-9/11 political climate. One community group, the Council on American Islamic Relations, was floored by Lieberman's approach to a public-education campaign they were interested in undertaking. "She was more enthusiastic than we were," recalls Dr. Khaled Amid.

Lieberman, meanwhile, is mum on her reasons for leaving, referring all comment to her lawyer, Susan Block, who also declines comment. Their silence has left some ACLU stalwarts perplexed.

"As a civil rights attorney in town, a former intern of the ACLU, an ACLU member and committee chair, and as a friend of Denise's, it does not make sense to me that she would decide now to pursue other employment opportunities," says David Hale. "Those opportunities have not been made clear. Plus, this is a critical time for the ACLU, with many high-profile cases and many wins being made by Denise. Her resignation doesn't coincide with what I know about her, and what I know about the ACLU."

"I'm beside myself with this loss," adds board member Nikki Doughty. "If it were that Denise was seeking other career avenues, then I would have thought that the ACLU's executive director would come to the board and say, 'We're in jeopardy of losing Denise. What can we offer her? What can we do to keep her?'"

Executive director Brenda Jones, who took the reins last September, declines to say if she tried to entice Lieberman to stay. "Denise is ready to go," Jones concludes.

But is she? Katherine Goldwasser, a Washington University law professor who sits on the legal committee (which determines the cases the ACLU undertakes), says she's lost confidence in the organization. "I'm not privy to how Denise's leaving has come about," Goldwasser says. "But I know it made me uncomfortable enough that I submitted my resignation from the legal committee."

The exodus of prominent volunteers doesn't end there: Teitelbaum, the ACLU's long-time general counsel, also resigned this month, and her co-counsel Ryals, who chairs the legal committee, is expected to soon follow suit.

Teitelbaum hints of an internal skirmish when asked why she's stepping down, but she stresses, "It is not something that needs to be the subject of an article."

News of Lieberman's exit coincided with last month's contentious ACLU annual meeting, when members shot down the proposed slate of board officers, including incumbent president Adam Zaretsky and three other sitting officers.

Some members raised fierce objections to the board's nominating process, and later, a group led by St. Louis media attorney Mark Sableman successfully petitioned for the right to hold a special election.

On July 31, for the first time since anyone can remember, two people will square off for the board presidency: Zaretsky, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and Ray Hartmann, founder and former publisher of the Riverfront Times.

"We need to be more on the offense publicly," says Hartmann. "We also have some internal issues, like accountability to the board, openness and the need to treat people who have been stalwarts of the ACLU with respect. That's really all I have to say on that."

Zaretsky did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

"Before I left, I could never have predicted that there'd be a movement to remove the officers," says former executive director Matt LeMieux. Nevertheless, LeMieux thinks some members remain bitter over changes he pushed Zaretsky to put forward last year. The proposals, including a board member rotation policy, seemed "radical" to a board whose majority held their seats for fifteen years or more, LeMieux says. "But they were much needed to breathe new life into the organization."

Brenda Jones says if members are ruffled, it's just because they need more time to warm to her leadership.

"We're becoming more focused on public education and community outreach," Jones explains. "We've even begun to look into some possibilities for chapters outside the St. Louis area, such as in the bootheel. It's time to look around and expand our capacity, do some other things."

Jones says the ACLU's unpaid staff attorney, Jim Felakos, will pinch-hit for Lieberman until the organization finds a new legal director.