Point Austin: Introducing the Constitution

Texas Civil Rights Project remains a 20-year work still in progress

Point Austin
Despite its still rather tentative name, the Texas Civil Rights Project – which has turned out to be a little bit more than just a project – will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this Friday, Oct. 1, along with a record of righteous accomplishment. The TCRP began 20 years ago as a two-person Down­town office headed by firebrand attorney Jim Har­ring­ton and now boasts a staff of 36 in three full-time offices (Austin, El Paso, San Juan), staff in Odessa and Houston, a host of eager young volunteers, and a litany of legal victories. Recent headline TCRP wins include the lawsuit against the city of Austin that forced the initial release of the KeyPoint report on the police shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II and the victory against the state of Texas to require parental consent for the retention of infant blood-spot records.

Prominent as they were, those victories are just a couple in a legacy of TCRP defenses of civil liberties and the broader public good. Harrington, still directing the organization after 37 years of lawyering, says the group has a couple of goals in mind when it selects cases to litigate. "We try to take on cases that would support organizing that's going on in the community. For example, we do a lot of work with disability groups themselves, because that gives them a greater sense of power and makes them more respected when they're dealing with political issues.

"And our other goal is always structural change. ... The case I always use is, we had to choose between a kid who was beaten by the cops on Sixth Street or suing the jail in Bell County because they didn't do HIV medication for prisoners. We did the HIV medication, because that made a structural change – that anybody else that went in who needed medication would get it."

Establishing a Presence

From the beginning, Harrington wanted to go beyond traditional civil liberties litigation that tended to emphasize technical constitutional questions and, in Texas at least, worked largely in the major cities. "We were more interested in poverty and economic issues," Harrington said, "and how they intertwined with civil liberties issues ... [and] to really try to reach into poorer communities, where there has been a history of abuse and where there has not been a presence before."

He points most proudly to historic cases that made huge differences in the lives of Texas public employees and of farmworkers. "One was establishing that, under the Texas Constitution, privacy was a fundamental right. We represented state workers that were being polygraphed – just from a civil liberties, academic view, that was really important. ...

"I worked on behalf of farmworkers when they were excluded from workers' compensation, excluded from unemployment compensation, and the right to know about chemicals in the workplace. We did three of those cases, bang bang bang, over four years, and made those changes." Not only did the victories improve the lives of individual workers and their families, they meant an influx of economic strength to the whole Rio Grande Valley.

Neither Harrington nor the TCRP shows signs of slowing down. He wants to establish another office in Lubbock and perhaps expand the El Paso work into southern New Mexico. With characteristic feistiness, he says of the Lubbock plans, "I don't think the Panhandle's ever seen a civil right in its existence, and we'd like to introduce them to the Constitution."

Sense of Justice

For himself, Harrington says, "I've always felt very, very, very lucky that I've been able to do this job that I had wanted to do in the very beginning. ... And I'm very happy that I've been able to help people. For me, that's what my life has been about, and I've been very happy that I've been able to do at least some of that. And I'm very happy in terms of being able to expand the offices, because we are able to help so many other people, get some sense of justice."

This history and passion will no doubt be addressed in more detail at Friday evening's occasion, the 2010 Bill of Rights Dinner at the UT-Austin Alumni Center. And speaking of a sense of justice, among the honorees that evening will be the Chronicle's criminal justice reporter, Jordan Smith, accepting the Molly Ivins "Give 'Em Hell" Award, as the program has it, "for fighting the good fight in more than 1,200 articles."

At the risk of being accused of shameless logrolling, I want to add to that award a few personal words of praise for my colleague and friend. From my first experience of her work – as a reader of her extraordinary investigative stories, more than a decade ago, on the Lacresha Murray case – Jordan has impressed me, and many others, with her dedication, her energy, her extraordinary work ethic, and her attention to detail. Her reporting on that case, in which an 11-year-old girl was pressured by investigators and prosecutors into falsely confessing to murder, was followed by The New York Times and other publications and eventually resulted in Murray's exoneration.

I began working directly with Jordan in 2000 and have remained in awe of her indefatigable abilities and her determination to get the story right – whether the particular subject is the obscure workings of the Austin Police Department, racially tainted drug enforcement in southeast Texas, the curious financial and political maneuverings of anti-abortion crusaders at the Legislature, or the devastating, lingering outcomes of "Satanic ritual abuse" prosecution in Travis County.

She just keeps on bringing it. Her recent report on the absurdity of Texas sex offender laws has evoked more online reader response than any other story in Chronicle memory, particularly significant in that Jordan had forthrightly addressed a subject that has otherwise been considered publicly unspeakable, even while thousands of lives are being destroyed by popular and political hysteria.

There will certainly be more to come. I am proud to know and honored to work with Jordan Smith. There is nobody in Texas more deserving of an award named in honor of Molly Ivins – and nobody more heroically determined to "give 'em hell."

For more information about the TCRP and its Bill of Rights Dinner Friday night, visit www.texascivilrightsproject.org.

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Texas Civil Rights Project, Jordan Smith, Lacresha Murray

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