A reluctant hero

2004 ACLU dinner to honor attorney Deborah LaBelle

By D'Anne Witkowski

Civil Libertarian of the Year is a pretty lofty title for someone who doesn't like publicity.

But that's just what the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is naming Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle for her work practicing what she said is best characterized as human rights law.

LaBelle, who is openly lesbian but protective about her family, will receive the honor at the ACLU of Michigan's annual dinner at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004. The keynote speaker for the evening will be Gov. Howard Dean.

LaBelle found out she'd been chosen as the recipient of the award last month when she got a "hesitant" call from ACLU Executive Director Kerry Moss who was, said LaBelle, afraid she wouldn't accept the award.

"But I have a great deal of respect for the ACLU, especially in these troubled times," said LaBelle. "More than most organizations these days I think they've stepped up really strongly in the face of a lot of encroachment on civil rights. ... So it's an honor that this group would do that for me."

LaBelle, however, doesn't seek recognition. After all, she's just doing her job. "I think I'm doing the job that lawyers should do in protecting civil rights and the constitution, and standing up for concepts of justice," she said.

Much of LaBelle's work has centered around the rights of individuals, especially the rights of prisoners.

"I've represented women prisoners in their suits against sexual abuse inside [the prison]. They're seeking equal protection, equal rights in terms of opportunities for rehabilitation," she said.

One of the cases against the state on behalf of women prisoners was resolved in 1999 on behalf of 30 women but the class action, which involves over 400 women, is still pending, LaBelle said.

The class action lawsuit involves over 400 women who've been sexually assaulted by male staff in Michigan prisons. According to LaBelle, it was filed at the same time as the other lawsuit but has "gone up and down in the court." The state contended that women prisoners are not persons under the civil rights act and so are not entitled to civil rights protections. The case went up to the Michigan Supreme Court and was initially successful. Following that case the legislature changed the Michigan Civil Rights Act in 2001 in a vote along party line.

"[It's] a really dangerous precedent to exclude prisoners, particularly women prisoners, from protections under the act," said LaBelle. "So then they tried to apply it to our case to exclude women and they were unsuccessful because the case was filed before [2001] but now they're trying again, we're back on appeal, to say, 'For those women who were raped after 2001...' It's pretty appalling actually, so the case has been going on for quite a while as women continued to be abused."

LaBelle has worked with other prison populations as well, including men and families. "I've represented prisoners who are HIV positive and discriminated against," she said.

Much of her work with prisoners, she said, is trying to enforce the constitution inside prison walls. "People who make mistakes and go to prison, who break the law and go to prison are still members of our community and are still entitled to basic human rights."

Currently LaBelle is working on a project with the ACLU regarding juvenile offenders who are serving life sentences with no possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were sixteen and under.

"I've also been a cooperating attorney for a couple of cases with the (ACLU's) LGBT project," she said. "The one case was a suit against the city of Detroit challenging two of the ordinances, their annoying persons ordinance and one of the other ordinances that they were using to arrest and harass [gay men]." This case just concluded. "It was settled (with the city of Detroit) and they agreed to repeal one of the ordinances and revise the other," she said. "There was a monetary settlement for those individuals who were falsely arrested and detained." There was also police training involved with the specific precinct involved with the case.

Currently the ACLU is following the newly adopted anti-gay marriage amendment because of the danger it poses to domestic partner benefits and civil unions. The ACLU has stated that it will sue to protect domestic partner benefits if they are challenged.

"Supporters of Proposal 2 have said all along that the amendment does not impact domestic partnership benefits," said Moss in a Nov. 3 press release. "The ACLU of Michigan will take them at their word, but we won't hesitate to sue if the government interprets the proposal to prohibit employers from providing those benefits."

LaBelle said she would be involved in the amendment case if it came to that.

The 2004 Annual ACLU Dinner is Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004 with a silent auction and cocktails beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Henry Ford Museum (20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124-4088). The keynote speaker will be Gov. Howard Dean. Tickets are $150. For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.aclumich.org.

More

  • Latest News

Enter To Win

Enter contests to win great prizes like CDs, DVDs, concert tickets and more

Special Section: Pride Guide
Lake Effect

Hot off Season 7 of the LOGO channel's "Ru Paul's Drag Race" phenomenon, Darienne Lake of Season 6 spoke with Between the Lines about her upcoming hosting gig at Motor City Pride June 6.

View More Pride Guide
This Week's Issue

Download or view this week's print issue today!