A Change in Direction for the Texas Civil Rights Project

New leadership doesn't sit well with the old guard

Jim Harrington in May (Photo by Jana Birchum)

This spring, the board of trustees for the Texas Civil Rights Project, a community lawyering organization known for taking cases others wouldn't, voted to close the nonprofit's satellite office in El Paso, which had served that community for more than a decade. The group told the El Paso Times that it had only been able to retain one attorney in the office over the last year, and so the move made fiscal sense moving forward. But, a representative insisted, the move would not mean any service reductions in the El Paso area.

That didn't stop invested parties in the West Texas city from worrying. County Judge Ruben John Vogt, who wasn't aware of the decision until the newspaper called him for comment, told the Times, "It's always difficult to see an organization that has done such good work leave a community, especially a community where there is always need." One of the office's former directors, attorney Briana Stone, had stronger words in a Facebook post. She said news of the closure "knocked the wind out of me and I actually had to pull my car over to the side of the road."

Stone, who worked for the organization from 2006 until 2011, also posted a photo on Facebook, of a mural painted at the shuttered office. It features famous civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Texas voting rights advocate Lawrence Nixon, and stands as a symbol of the "revolutionary spirit" already lighting up the region when the TCRP set up shop. "We were welcomed and immediately warmed by its flame, but we didn't light the fire," wrote Stone. "If anything, our work was bolstered by the committed and courageous advocates in the El Paso region." She predicted that TCRP will suffer more for having cut itself off from this direct line to the community.

"In El Paso, the fight for racial, social, and economic justice will continue with or without" TCRP.

"Rebel With Many Causes"

Stone wasn't the only former TCRP attorney to be disheartened by the news. The group's founder and longtime executive director, Jim Harrington, who established the organization in 1990, issued a press release shortly after the announcement, decrying the closure as a result of mismanagement by Mimi Marziani, who took over after his retirement. Harrington contends that he left the organization in 2015 with $1.2 million in the bank. "The really sad thing about this is this was an office that we put there because the community asked for it, and it did tremendous work," Harrington told me in an interview on May 8. "There's obviously a concentration on Austin, to the detriment of the community. And it's really alarming."

Whereas TCRP under Harrington was more of a hybrid model, blending statewide impact litigation with on-the-ground legal aid, the group under Marziani has been more focused on the former.

Harrington opened the El Paso office after a 2005 lawsuit filed by TCRP and the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid against the El Paso Police Department. Its officers beat Montwood High School students who were protesting school policy, and the lawsuit resulted in new training procedures for El Paso PD. The office also sued the area sheriff's department for "unconstitutionally enforcing immigration law." Harrington said that the office closing would be a "bad signal" to the community about TCRP's commitment to serving them.

"If you're going to cut back anywhere, cut back in Austin," said Harrington, who has had little to no contact with the organization since his departure. (There are 15 attorneys in the Austin office.) "God knows there's plenty of people here who can do stuff. But you don't have anybody in El Paso."

Though Harrington is gone from TCRP, a reminder of him still exists in the Austin office's foyer. Etched onto a square piece of clay reads: "For Jim Harrington: Great Lawyer, Lousy Golfer." It's hardly surprising to anybody who knows the once reluctant lawyer that he would be bitterly opposing his old organization's new direction. After all, the TCRP itself was born out of a philosophical divide.

As reported by the Chronicle's Erica Bar­nett in 1998, in a story headlined "Rebel With Many Causes," Harrington started the TCRP after splitting from the Texas Civil Liberties Union. Harrington told Barnett at the time that the TCLU resisted his efforts to unionize, but other involved parties insisted "their problem was his personality." A former board member said of Harring­ton: "If you have a direction you want to go in and he disagrees with it, he won't have anything to do with you; you're no longer his friend. There's no gray area."

But that's just one side of Harrington, who now spends his time advocating for Nor­man and Sims elementary schools. His dogged, grassroots style won him points even from some of his detractors. As UT Law professor Pat Hazel put it to Barnett: "Saints could be a pretty big pain in the ass, too."

Time of Transition

By his faults or better angels, however you choose to describe Harrington, his TCRP successor comes from a much different place. Mimi Marziani is as polished and lawyerly as Harrington was blunt and fiery. She didn't come to Austin to head up the TCRP: After a few years practicing election law in New York City, Marziani in 2014 relocated to work as legal director of the Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign. She's currently a professor at UT School of Law, and has also taught at NYU's Wagner School of Public Service.

When Harrington stepped aside, people within the nonprofit community encouraged Marziani to take the reins. She acknowledged that Harrington's departure has been a big transition, but said the changes are the result of a strategic plan the group spent last year crafting. Whereas TCRP under Harrington was more of a hybrid model, blending statewide impact litigation with on-the-ground legal aid, the group under Marziani has been more focused on the former, through three particular areas of advocacy: racial and economic justice, criminal justice reform, and voting rights, her specialty. Immediately, anyone familiar with Harrington could see where this would put the two executives at odds. Harrington has long been a critic of the American Civil Liberties Union, which he faulted for operating "in a vacuum" and not on the ground, as he'd crafted the TCRP. Marziani's operation is closer to the ACLU's model than Harrington had envisioned.

Mimi Marziani at the Texas Civil Rights Project's Austin office (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Marziani agrees that closing the El Paso office was a difficult decision, but one that she believes will ultimately allow the organization to be more nimble.

Marziani agrees that closing the El Paso office was a difficult decision, but one that she believes will ultimately allow the organization to be more nimble. "It's about lawyers not sitting in an ivory chamber somewhere coming up with litigation," she said, but rather engaging those groups and pursuing quality over quantity when it comes to litigation. The organization will never have the resources to staff attorneys throughout the state, she said, but from Aus­tin it can work with groups on the ground to maintain that statewide coverage.

Another criticism of the new leadership is that TCRP lost funding from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, which among other things helped TCRP in its work with veterans. Marziani said that the funding was stripped due to political backlash against the organization from the Legis­lat­ure, other sources have insisted that was because the TCRP moved out of the direct delivery of legal services. Texas Access to Justice confirmed that in a statement, saying limited funding makes organizations that provide direct delivery of legal services a priority.

Beyond those fiscal and philosophical concerns, TCRP is also grappling with the recent resignation of one of its board members, Dallas attorney Mandy Price, due to allegations of racism she encountered while on the board. In her resignation letter last November, Price wrote that it was a heart-wrenching decision to leave an organization she had served for five years. Among other initiatives, Price helped organize Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals clinics and recruit attorneys to help Dreamers fill out the program application. But "given that TCRP is dedicated to social justice issues such as the elimination of workplace discrimination, I was a bit surprised to have to tackle these same issues inside our organization." She described "odd resistance" to her ideas from board colleagues, who she said regularly asked her to defend her competence and recommendations.

When she raised concerns, she "was told that I was wrong," and was simply not focusing on the right issues as a board member. Unfor­tun­ately, the issues didn't end with just Price. "Unwarranted doubts have also been raised about the ability of prospective board members of color to raise money or attend board meetings," she wrote.

Marziani said she has "spoken to Mandy at length, repeatedly, about her concerns," and believes "the vast majority of the board has, as well." She said the TCRP takes Price's allegations "very, very seriously," and that she "only wish[es] her the best." Following Price's resignation, Marziani said the organization "leaned into" diversity in both hiring and internal training processes. TCRP now has a Diversity and Inclusion Committee that has decision-making authority over policy, outreach, and hiring. The staff and board of directors have undergone diversity training.

Still In El Paso

TCRP's biggest undertaking right now is its involvement in helping reunite children separated from their families by the Trump administration's immigration policies. As Marziani explained in June in testimony before the U.S. Senate, TCRP interviewed nearly 400 parents separated from their children, the overwhelming majority of whom were fleeing poverty, corruption, and gang violence. At the end of May, TCRP and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights filed an emergency request on behalf of five families "requesting reunification and seeking an end to the policy of separating children from their parents systematically."

The group's executive director was in the trenches with her colleagues leading up to the government's deadline to reunite families last month. Marziani has continued work that started prior to her tenure, including a successful suit against El Paso for operating a debtor's prison, as well as against Texas for voting machine access for people with disabilities and air conditioning in Texas prisons.

Marziani acknowledged Harrington's claim that he left the organization with $1.2 million, but said the group has since increased that reserve funding in case of a natural disaster, or unexpected crises like the family separations – which TCRP hadn't accounted for in this year's budget.

Meanwhile, she said the El Paso office building TCRP just vacated will go to a partner organization, at a significant loss to TCRP. The group's communications director, Zenén Jaimes Pérez, said the office closing "doesn't mean we're not doing work in El Paso." Marziani said speculation that any of the group's other offices are headed for the same fate are ill-founded. "We're not going anywhere," she said. "We are not leaving El Paso."

Expect Harrington, from his perch in East Austin, to hold her to that, however he can.

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Mimi Marziani, Jim Harrington, Texas Civil Rights Project

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