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Kent Willis to step down as leader of Virginia ACLU

Kent Willis

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia executive director Kent Willis is leaving his job at the ACLU, according to a press release from the organization. The ACLU’s Board of Directors, which learned of Willis’ decision to leave late last year, is conducting a nationwide search for his replacement.

“I could not have had a more rewarding job,” said Willis in a press release, “and I am proud to have been part of the ACLU’s many accomplishments and enormous organizational growth over the last 25 years. But something told me it was time to move on.”

Willis joined the ACLU is in 1987 and was promoted to executive director in March 1989.

“Kent has grown the ACLU from a small organization to a wonderful team of professionals who know how to litigate, advocate, and communicate with a wide range of audiences,” said ACLU of Virginia Board President Jayne Barnard in a press release. “Somehow, Kent has been able to keep all these functions working smoothly, meet crises with measured grace and a great wit, and work with our members and volunteer leaders to shape one of the most effective ACLU affiliates in the country.  For many Virginians, Kent Willis IS the ACLU.  We will miss his exceptional leadership.”

The organization noted that over the last 25 years, the ACLU of Virginia filed an estimated 300 federal and state lawsuits and prevented constitutional violations in hundreds of other situations by threatening lawsuits.

It said that during Willis’s tenure as Executive Director, the ACLU of Virginia:

  • Created a project that provided voting rights assistance to minority groups across the state during the 1991 redistricting process, enabling them to successfully lobby for racially fair election plans for the first time in their history,
  • Filed lawsuits challenging racially discriminatory electoral plans at the local level and was instrumental in drawing and defending in court Virginia’s first African-American congressional district since Reconstruction,
  • Represented Sharon Bottoms, a lesbian mother who lost custody of her child because of her sexual orientation,
  • Sued the Senate Finance Committee for holding secret meetings at a rural retreat to discuss the state budget (lost the case, but the committee never again met in secret),
  • Brought the first successful case in the nation challenging the right of public libraries to restrict patrons’ access to the internet,
  • Defended the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to avoid government loyalty oaths, the right of ministers to use public parks for baptisms, the right of Wiccans to perform marriage ceremonies, and the right of churches to feed the homeless,
  • Annually published the only comprehensive review of the Virginia General Assembly devoted exclusively to legislation affecting civil rights and civil liberties,
  • Brought the lawsuit that finally shut down the antiquated 200 year- old state penitentiary on Spring Street in Richmond,
  • Successfully represented lesbian Janet Jenkins when the Virginia courts attempted to toss out a child custody arrangement resulting from a civil union in Vermont,
  • Launched a successful challenge to the widespread practice of local governments opening their meetings with sectarian prayers (Currently litigating such a case in Pittsylvania County.),
  • Published Unequal, Unfair and Irreversible, the first comprehensive report on the failings of the death penalty in Virginia,
  • Defended on numerous occasions the right of homeless persons to solicit donations and, more recently, the right Latino day laborers to gather in public places to seek work,
  • Instituted the Virginia Voter Empowerment Project that, in conjunction with the NAACP, distributed thousands of “know your rights” cards to voters and provided an election day help hotline for more than 15 years,
  • Regularly defended the right of prisoners to practice their religion while incarcerated,
  • Mounted a successful legal challenge to Governor George Allen’s veto of the Virginia Motor Voter Law, bringing an end to Virginia’s closed voter registration practices and opening the way for voters to register at DMVs, libraries and other public facilities,
  • Successfully sued the Department of Corrections to force appropriate treatment for transgendered prisoners.