On a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, staff attorneys from the Missoula office of the State Public Defender walked six blocks east to a spanking new building at 241 E. Alder St. to attend an open house for the new Missoula legal office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana (ACLU). They were there to celebrate with ACLU Executive Director Scott Crichton, general counselor Betsy Griffing and a handful of new and longtime ACLU staffers on the organization’s formal expansion into Missoula.
“This is a dream come true for me,” says Griffing, a former assistant attorney general and a constitutional law professor at the University of Montana School of Law.
Montana is one of five states the national ACLU has chosen for “strategic investment.” Over the next five years the organization plans to invest $10 million into offices in Montana, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and New Mexico to boost civil liberties work in those states. Montana’s office is one of the smallest “affiliates” in the country, but also one of the most effective at identifying constitutional infringements, forming public policy and heightening awareness of civil liberties issues.
For instance, Crichton and his staff have done groundbreaking work toward repealing the state’s death penalty and arguing for same-sex partner benefits, and they played a key role in convincing the Montana Legislature to unanimously reject the federal Real ID Act. Those are just some of the examples that caught the attention of ACLU’s leadership, prompting the national organization to make a larger investment here.
“For the last decade we’ve had a staffing pattern of three-and-a-half people,” Crichton says. When done hiring later this spring, the Montana staff will increase by five.
At the May 1 open house, the public defenders were the first to arrive to congratulate the ACLU staff. It was, after all, the Montana ACLU’s work that led to the passage of public defender legislation in 2005 that created the statewide public defender office—and created jobs for those lawyers six blocks to the west.