Ramona Ripston, who has been executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California for 38 years, announced her retirement today.
"This organization has not only been my work but also my life for a long time, so a decision like this one certainly comes with mixed emotions," Ripston says in an ACLU/SC statement. "And I must tell you, it came after much deliberation. I just feel that it's the right time for me to announce that I will move on, and for someone new to bring fresh ideas to this tremendously important organization and steer it into the new century.
"Although I'm retiring, I still feel enormously productive, and I intend to spend a portion of my time working on the issues that have always been important to me, such as economic rights, justice and equality. I also look forward to doing more traveling and to studying Spanish."
Her retirement does not become effective until Feb. 15, 2011, and she will continue directing the organization while a committee of members of ACLU/SC Foundation boards oversees a national search for her replacement. Once Ripston's retirement becomes effective, she will become executive director emeritus and help the ACLU/SC in fundraising and other areas.
"Ramona Ripston has been a rock for the ACLU during an amazing time in America's history," Anthony Romero, executive director of the national ACLU, says in the same statement. "She was the first woman to assume a leadership role in the organization during a time of enormous change in the country."
Ripston was the first woman to head a major ACLU affiliate when she took over in 1972, and she has guided the ACLU/SC from a six-person group with offices above a wig shop to a 50-person legal powerhouse.
Under her leadership, the ACLU successfully litigated an end to segregationist policies at the Los Angeles Unified School District, helped overturn the anti-immigrant Prop. 187 and won the right for community groups to have a voice in shaping reform at the Los Angeles Police Department through the federal consent decree. Countless battles for equal rights have been waged for the disabled, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and the homeless during her tenure.
Her powerful reach extended to Orange County. Among the ACLU's milestone cases under Ripston was the overturning of former Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt's robbery-murder conviction by Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey in 1997 (and upheld by the California Court of Appeal two years later).
The ACLU/SC in March 1983 took up the case of UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener, who'd filed a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI documents on John Lennon dating back to 1972-73, when the federal government briefly tried to deport the musician for speaking out against the Vietnam War and encouraging Americans to register to vote.
After a long legal battle, a partial settlement was reached allowing most of about 300 pages to be released. Ten documents remained confidential until September 2004, when a district court ruled the FBI request for confidentiality insufficient. The FBI appealed to the 9th Circuit, but in December 2006 agreed to release the remaining documents.
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In 2005, Ripston oversaw the ACLU/SC's opening of its Orange County office in Orange. That same year, she was named to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commission by LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the following year the Los Angeles Times named Ripston one of the 100 Most Powerful People in Southern California.
The building in downtown LA that became the new headquarters for the ACLU/SC in 2008 was dedicated as the Ramona Ripston Center for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights.
That was well deserved, according to Romero.
"She extended the impact and reach of the ACLU in Southern California even as she played a key role in helping us grow into an effective and truly national organization," he said of Ripston. "Her acute political instincts and fierce passion for civil rights and civil liberties will be deeply missed."