Bettina Brownstein, ACLU of Arkansas cooperating attorney
When I moved to Arkansas from California (via Houston) in 1985, I got a job as an attorney at Wright, Lindsey, & Jennings. The Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas at the time was Sandra Kurjiaka. She was so excited to hear another like-minded person had moved to Arkansas that she reached out to me, and I’ve been a “constant” cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Arkansas since then.
Arkansas was different then and better in some ways: we had some great legislators like Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, and Bill Clinton. It was easier to stop some of the really crazy and mean-spirited laws that now sail through the state legislature.
Throughout the years, there have been many issues I’ve been passionate about, but the current assault on women’s rights is like nothing I’ve ever seen before and angers me more than anything else. Abortion-related litigation is a downhill spiraling story. Women’s rights are under siege, and the attack against them is relentless. The women of Arkansas should know they must stand up for their rights as women. Now is the time, and it’s up to all of us to protect these rights. If we don’t act now, it will be too late.
There has been some good news through the years. For instance, we’ve made small strides in the area of treatment of the mentally ill. Yet, truthfully, there is still so much to do.
For almost 20 years, the ACLU has been campaigning to ensure fair and humane treatment for the mentally ill who get caught up in the criminal justice system. In 2002, the ACLU won a legal challenge in federal court to the state’s practice of violating the rights of mentally ill inmates by allowing them to languish in jails without court-ordered evaluations and treatment. But sustaining the gains made by this victory have been an uphill battle. The recent creation of the four crisis intervention centers is the result of the ACLU’s efforts.
Starting in 2015, the ACLU began orchestrating a change in the law of mental health evaluations for criminal defendants. With the cooperation of the Arkansas Bar Association, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, sheriffs, mental health providers and others, we were able to get a law passed that reformed this law and vastly improved it.
I believe the ACLU of Arkansas is the only group looking out for the rights of ALL Arkansans There is no other organization like it, especially in Arkansas. It stands for the values of the framers of the Constitution. To me, it is a truly patriotic organization.
Over the years I have worked with the ACLU of Arkansas, I have watched them take on the burden of protecting and advancing all constitutional rights. While there are plenty of organizations that are there to help in specific ways, there is no other group operating in this all-encompassing manner. Separation of church and state, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, voting rights, criminal justice reform, disenfranchised communities because of income or color are all part of the broad scope ACLU of Arkansas’ fight, and it is truly why it makes such a difference.
This broad scope would be a daunting task for any Executive Director but the now- retired Rita Sklar was at the top of her game for 25 years. Rita was always fearless when it came to challenging an assault on civil rights. Her voice, passion, and commitment helped her to articulate the truth of the issue at hand and made it a real joy to work with her and watch her in action.
But our work can’t stop in the ACLU of Arkansas’ office, nor can it stop with any one person. The future of the ACLU of Arkansas depends on the involvement of all Arkansans. I encourage everyone to know your rights and take them seriously. We need lawyers for the fight. We need a strong grass-roots community to be heard, and as always, donations of time and money are crucial. More than ever before we need resources to educate Arkansans on the threats to their civil liberties, because the threats will never cease.