Ramona Ripston, who is stepping down as head of the ACLU of Southern California after almost forty years, is both a visionary who transformed the meaning of civil liberties and a dynamic and beloved figure on the LA left.
LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said she has had “an immeasurable impact on the City of Los Angeles… and beyond.” Stanley Sheinbaum, who headed the ACLU board that hired Ramona in 1972, remarked that from the beginning, “I was awestruck by her articulate understanding of the Constitution.” Hiring her, he said, “is probably the best judgment I’ve ever made.”
In a series of video tributes at the annual ACLU dinner in Los Angeles in December, Vanessa Redgrave called Ramona “a remarkable woman,” Maria Shriver called her “a fearless warrior” and Jesse Jackson said to her, “You never bowed, you never bent.” In a separate statement, Anthony Romero, executive director of the national ACLU, praised “her acute political instincts and fierce passion,” and noted that she was the first woman to be a leader of the ACLU.
Her most significant achievement, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at UC Irvine, was expanding the practice of civil liberties law to include litigating for economic justice. Although the national ACLU has not yet adopted this principle, the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) fights not only for the freedoms in the Bill of Rights but also for the right of poor children to attend decent schools and for the rights of homeless people and immigrants. For Ramona, economic inequality is a civil liberties issue, because poverty undermines the exercise of all legal and political rights.
Exhibit No. 1 on Ramona’s list of legal victories combined a new litigation stance with some heartbreaking stories invovling the fight for better schools for poor children. California, which once had one of the best systems of public education in the country, has fallen to the bottom five states in money spent per student, and the state’s school population includes a million kids from poor families. In the Williams case (Williams v. California, 2000), the ACLU-SC and other groups showed that thousands of public school students did not have textbooks, that their teachers were unqualified and that kids refused to use the bathrooms because they were filthy and dangerous. It was the job of the state, the ACLU argued, to guarantee that all 6 million California public school students have the essentials of an education—even those from poor families.
The state’s Democratic governor at the time, Gray Davis, rejected that idea and paid $14 million in taxpayer money to an outside legal firm, O’Melveny & Myers, to fight Ramona and the ACLU. When Davis faced a recall election in 2003, challenger Arnold Schwarzenegger promised that, if elected, he would settle the Williams case. And he did.
The settlement provided nearly $1 billion to make sure every kid had textbooks and to make emergency repairs at school buildings. It required school districts to hire more qualified teachers. Most important, the settlement set up a rigorous enforcement mechanism, with regular “Williams inspections” of classrooms throughout the state. The inspections were described by Anne Busacca-Ryan, who teaches social studies in Los Angeles at West Adams Preparatory High School, a high poverty school in south LA. “A Williams team can walk into your classroom at any point,” she told me. “They go to every single classroom, every period, and ask the students if they have a textbook, ask them to show them their textbooks and check to make sure that textbooks are up to date.
“I got all my textbooks the day before the Williams visit last year. They hadn’t ordered enough US history books, so they rush-ordered them and we had to pass them out really fast. Without the Williams visit, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Ramona’s insistence that economic justice is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of civil liberties led to other striking victories in ACLU-SC lawsuits. In a 2006 ruling the federal court ordered the LAPD to stop arresting homeless people for sitting, lying or sleeping on public streets. And in 1994 the ACLU-SC went to court with other groups to block Proposition 187, the initiative passed by voters denying public services to undocumented immigrants—which would have led to expelling undocumented children from public schools.
Ramona is probably best known as a fierce fighter against the abuses of the LA Police Department. Mark Rosenbaum, longtime legal director of the ACLU-SC, says, “It was personal with her.” For decades, people in LA had feared and hated the force, and Ramona was a often a lonely voice speaking out, and litigating, against the LAPD for excessive force, illegal spying and corruption. This campaign culminated in 1992 after the Rodney King riots, with the creation of a special city commission—and then a historic Justice Department consent decree that transformed the culture of the LAPD. The ACLU positions that Ramona had been articulating for decades became the basis of the reforms put into practice under the consent decree. At the ACLU dinner in December honoring her, both LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and LA County Sheriff Lee Baca were members of the honorary committee—a striking tribute to the changes she helped bring about.
A few more things: under Ramona the ACLU-SC became the first chapter to come out against the Vietnam War. It opposed the confirmation of Clarence Thomas when the national ACLU wouldn’t. And of course the ACLU-SC under Ramona defended immigrant rights after 9/11.
Ramona, who has been a great friend to The Nation, has been a master of the media. Stephen Rohde, chair of the Foundation Board, says, “She was able to translate difficult, controversial and often complex legal issues into a language that was accessible to the average person.” For example, a 2007 op-ed of hers in the LA Times began, “The Los Angeles Police Department has a message for skid row residents: The 4th Amendment doesn’t apply here. That’s the constitutional protection from arbitrary searches, and L.A. police officers have been violating it since late last year by detaining, handcuffing and going through people’s pockets and possessions on the slimmest pretenses.”
Hector Villarga, Ramona’s successor as executive director of the ACLU-SC, says, “The term that best suits her is ‘activist.’ She has a vision of a just and equal future for all, and she has had the courage to pursue it.”
Jon Wiener is a member of the board of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and has been a plaintiff in an ACLU-SC Freedom of Information lawsuit.