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  • Interviews
    Shelli Weisberg, ACLU Michigan

    Wednesday, 18 November 2009 12:30

    Krysta Daly: How did you get into this type of field?

    Shelli Weisberg: Well I took more of a leisurely route than some people, but I have a degree in finance and my masters in finance. So when I graduated from school I was working for law firm that did estate planning and pension plans. When I had children I decided to stay home with the kids, so I stayed home for sixteen years. While I was at home, I was very locally involved in politics. When I was elected to my school board, I did federal and state lobbying on education issues for my school board. When I went back to work it was natural for me to want to...you know, I liked politics. So it was natural for me to go into this side of it. I began volunteering at the ACLU, and while I was volunteering a job opened up, so I was able to apply. I think there were fifty people applying for it and most of them were attorneys. Generally, people who lobby will have a legal background or a political background.

    .

    Daly: What are your ultimate goals to achieve in the ACLU?

    Weisberg: We ultimately would like to not be in existence because that would mean civil liberties were safe, but I don't think that's going to happen.

    ACLU has a huge legal component, huge legislative component and a huge public education component. So, generally what happens if there is a bill that comes up as a civil liberties issue, we look at it and ask if we can fix it legislatively, if not, is it good enough to put it in our legal department. Generally, when we are making these types of decisions we need to have or at least get some public support because many of the issues that we take on are very controversial. We use public education side, for example we do work on juvenile justice. Michigan right now it is perfectly legal to put a juvenile offender, someone who committed a crime before they were 17, into jail for life without the possibility for parole. The ACLU sees it as a human rights violation so we are trying to get that repealed. But the public might see it as letting criminals out of jail. So, while I am doing legislative work, we have a lawsuit going on as well. And on the public education side we are continuing to educate people on what this law is and that it exists because most people don't know that this law exists and why juveniles are different and why we should treat kids differently. That's kind of how we work so ultimately I guess my goal is...you know we break it up and my goal, for instance on this legislative session my goals are to get these juvenile life bills passed.

    But my goal is to create good working relationships with our legislators. We need credibility for when [the legislators] come to us, if they come to us with questions about civil liberties issues and bills we don't always have to play defense.

    Daly: What are some of your successes that you have achieved in your career?

    Weisberg: Well, we have been successful to the extent that we do educational lobbying. We do educational lobbying for separation of church and state, obviously. But also for equal treatment and Michigan has some very strong laws that demand that gender equality exists in our schools. So we are not allowed in Michigan to have single gender schools unless you have an all female school as long as you have an all male school and a co-ed school that are all significantly the same. And so, over the past five years there has been tons of attempts to try to allow single gender education like, all boy schools or all girl schools without the corresponding gender schools. We have been successful at stopping that because, what we know from empirical data and also what we believe in, you know once you start separating genders you start to have different treatments. For example boys will have heavy math and science classes and girls heavy english so we don't want to go back down that road that's when we were in the 50's and 60's. We have been very successful at stopping that.

    We've been REAL successful at a lot of the privacy issues. So for instance, during the Bush administration right after 9/11 we had the Patriot Act, which was a sweeping piece of legislation on the federal level. But, it allowed local and state government to do much more federal work like wiretapping and eavesdropping and stuff like that. So we were real successful at making sure that our local law enforcement did not do federal work and were not eavesdropping and wiretapping beyond their authority. You know beyond the authority that you would need a search warrant. So that was very successful.

    And I'm trying to think of one other example. It's been a tough couple of years because we had such a conservative legislation for so long. We really played defense for a long time, so now we are counting our successes.

    I think the other success that was really significant and most people might not get it. But, Michigan in our court system we have a preliminary exam system so if you're charged with a crime that person is allowed to have a preliminary exam. That would be your lawyer and the prosecutor and the judge, they basically look at the case and the judge decides that whether or not it is a valid case, are the charges significant enough and stuff like that. In Michigan that is your first step in your due process rights. Some states don't use a preliminary exam and in some states they use a different system to make their decisions. But, in Michigan a couple of years ago Mike Cox decided that they wanted to get rid of the preliminary exam system because they said it was taking up to much time. The ACLU practically single handedly, at first, just went after him about the importance of the due process for Michiganders. And we need him back on that bill, it took us...lets see...we met him back one session and he didn't pass his bill, then we went to the next session and we worked with criminal defense attorneys and others who were against the bill. And for two sessions in a row we stopped the attorney general in getting rid of the really important due process for Michiganders. It still survives today.

    Daly: What are some of your tactics that you use to influence public policy?

    Weisberg: I have one main tactic that I use and then I go from there. ACLU is nonpartisanship. We don't have a pact meaning we don't have money. We can't spend money on lunch and gifts for legislators. So my tactic is to make sure that I am always here in Lansing where they can see me and I'm always available. So I do a lot of networking for legislators. I make sure that they know that whenever they have a question that I will give them honest and true and credible information. I never try to hold back information...I just want to make sure that they see me as a reliable resource and somebody that is going to be fair with them. That is my best way to influence legislation because even if they disagree with me they trust me. So I always, even though legislators may hate the ACLU, I make sure that I meet with them and talk with them just so that they can begin to see me as a person instead of as the ACLU and that disarms them a lot.

    Daly: What are some of your typical opponents?

    Weisberg: We don't go down party lines. But I think that most people think of the ACLU as very left, very democratic. Especially now with the new term limits, I think the partisanship is much more apparent and visibly they think that the Republicans always have to be against us and the Democrats think they always have to agree with us, overall we are trying to agree with them.

    My typical opponents are generally people who have a very patriotical view on government. That government is here to be your parents or your father as opposed to knowing that the citizens are here to tell the government what to do. So for instance the abortion debate is perfect. They say you believe that is a medical decision between you and your doctor. It is not yet illegal and therefore the government should not be interfering beyond the parameters set up. And so my opponents there are obviously who believe that the women should not have the right to make this decision about the fetus she is carrying. In that kind of debate not only do the pro-life legislatures are against you but in terms of other lobbyists the right to life would be on the opposite side and the Catholic Conference would be on the other side as well. The funny thing is about the Catholic Conference is on every other issue we work closely with the Catholic Conference. So they are an opponent there but no an opponent on juvenile life bill.

    From the other side where my friends are the republicans, more conservative members are the issues that involve privacy. Like the Patriot Act that we talked about or there use to be a masking in data in the data base. The more conservative members who generally are against the ACLU agree with me on those issues. That you should not be allowed to mask a bunch of data on a data base and know where your personal information is going and you should have some control over it and not let them collect personal information on you. And the funny thing is that the Republicans like me and the Democrats are a little more skeptical because they see that as a government function. They don't see the privacy issues as clearly as maybe the Republicans do. So it's always strange bedfellows.

    Daly: What are some of your challenges that you have had to face?

    Weisberg: The biggest challenge is people not knowing what the ACLU is. People assuming that we are one thing they think that we don't respect religion for instance, we get that. That's probably our biggest challenge people think we are some god-less organization but that we have a strong respect for separation of church and state. That's not to say that we think religion should not to be in the public cleric but we just think that religion should not be in the public cleric at the behest the government.

    I think our biggest, biggest challenge is trying to get people to understand that the ACLU is not here to for anyone client or anyone person. We are always here for an issue. When we take a case, free speech case for instance...There was a man that was called the cussing canoeist. He was canoeing on some river in Michigan and he fell and he was swearing, there was a woman and a child close enough so they could hear him, and he was arrested for, it was an old law in the books that said you can't swear in front of women and children. So he was arrested and we took that case not because we think that people should swear but because he has a free speech right that the government can't really abridge. We prefer that people don't swear but the government cannot arrest you for saying certain things.

    We had another case in a school district where a senior in high school was a valedictorian. They had a section in the yearbook that all the seniors were allowed to write a little message to the incoming classes. And this particular girl, this valedictorian wrote a biblical message. And the school told her she couldn't put it in because it was biblical message and the school said she couldn't put it in there because of the separation of church and state. Well, she called us because this was a public forum that the school could not censor so she had every right to put it in there. And we ended up... we didn't have to sue the school district... they caught on pretty quickly.

    Those are the kinds of things that people don't understand that we really are here to protect your religious freedom, your right to privacy, your right to free speech. We want you to respect your rights and respect other people's rights.

    Daly: Have you had any problems securing gay rights?

    Weisberg: Actually that's a really good issue because Michigan has one of the most limiting marriage amendments in all the states. They not only restrict the marriage for gay people, they restrict all kinds of relationships, civil unions, can't share insurance...just all kinds of stuff. Probably if you could read that broadly enough that will probably include adoptions. It's still in the works on what its going to do. So we obviously believe anyone be able to have relationship with whom ever they please. But, Michigan's gay rights groups are more focused on more individual things where the ACLU kind of has a broader view and we do the legislation and the legal stuff. So we now are in a coalition with all of these groups trying to move the ball down the road in Michigan. But I would say since we have done so much work on the marriage amendment, people may not have seen us before, but now gay right groups lump us in. You know, we just want to give gays their rights. So, that's been a more challenging issue for us in Michigan because even the people who are generally on our side are just squeamish about gay rights. The public education side is that...we are not getting very far legislatively, were not getting very far legally and we probably won't for awhile because of the court system in Michigan and who are on the courts in Michigan. But we are making a lot of strides with this coalition educating the public. I think our biggest recognition is that our younger people coming up, people under 35, they don't have as many issues with gay rights. As the older people do. I think part of it is waiting until we get more legislators in there who are willing. But, the funny thing is about gay rights too is there are two things when you are a politician or a legislator that they will not let you vote on and that's gay rights and abortions. Because the Democrats vote on that they are going to get pummeled by the far right. And the Republicans if they vote on them they will get pummeled as well. I have full confidence in ten years [gays will have rights].

    Daly: I do too...

    Weisberg: But people like you will have to run for office. That will be the key. To get people in who are willing to say that we are not willing to discriminate.

    Daly: As you get more involved with state politics and policy have your opinions changed over time?

    Weisberg: Interesting...um...well yeah, they are not as black and white and I have always been strongly opinionated. Most of my issues with the ACLU are issues that I'm pretty solid. I will say that I'm more willing to compromise and wait, like the topic of gay rights. I also have, because we do so much work in criminal justice on juvenile justice, I've learned to also see things through the view of the law enforcement. There is always this disconnect because we look through two different lenses. I've learned to be much more empathetic and it may not change my opinion as much but it changes my view because I see their point of view and I see their struggles and I can see that I need a different take on it. So I think it made me more diplomatic.

     

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