Deborah Ross’ ACLU leadership looms large in US Senate race

Deborah Ross left the ACLU 14 years ago to run for state House, but her time leading the civil liberties group has been a magnet for criticism in the U.S. Senate race this year.

Ross, a Democrat from Raleigh, is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in a race that’s drawing millions of dollars in advertising spending from outside groups.

Many voters are still not familiar with Ross as the Senate contest gets overshadowed by the campaigns for president and governor. So the Burr campaign and groups backing him have focused on Ross’ record at the American Civil Liberties Union in an effort to paint her as too liberal for North Carolina. Among other attacks, they point to concerns she raised about legislation placing sex offenders in a public database.

Ross, however, says the attacks misrepresent her stance on the legislation, and she’s quick to recount successes in her nearly eight years as the ACLU’s state director and lead attorney: Insurance coverage for birth control, efforts to combat racial profiling by law enforcement and a variety of other First Amendment issues.

She said her ACLU lobbying made her an effective legislator who crafted bipartisan bills – a strength that could help break through partisan gridlock in Washington.

“It was a huge advantage that I lobbied that Republican House (in the 1990s) and that I did so much work with folks on the other side of the aisle,” she said.

But the lobbying meant that Ross often publicly criticized bills she says she ultimately supported – such as the creation of North Carolina’s sex offender registry.

One of the Burr campaign’s first ads targeted Ross’ concerns about the registry. The campaign argued that she “put the rights of sex offenders over our families.”

In a memo Ross wrote to ACLU members, she said the registry “would make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society and start over and could lead to vigilantism.” She also argued that the registry might harm victims who were abused by family members because the victims’ names could become public by association.

“The unintended consequence is that people are going to be very surprised at who’s on the list,” Ross said in a 1997 News & Observer article. “It’s not Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s going to be a family member, a cousin or an uncle.”

But Ross said it’s wrong to claim she opposed the registry. “I’ve always been in favor of a sex offender registry,” she said. “When I became a legislator, I voted 18 times to strengthen the sex offender registry.”

She says she wanted lawmakers to consider potential consequences of the registry. “Nobody really knew what was going to happen with what was going to go out over the internet,” she said.

Ross notes legislators ultimately revised the bill to make it clear that victims’ names aren’t public record, but news reports show she continued to criticize the registry after it went online.

The registry bill’s sponsor, former Democratic Sen. Fountain Odom of Charlotte, recently wrote a letter to the editor saying Ross “showed leadership, asked tough questions and worked with me to make my bill and our state’s sex offender registry better.” Odom did not respond to an interview request.

Ross is hitting back at the Burr campaign’s criticism. “Richard Burr voted against budgets that would have funded the sex offender registry at the federal level,” she said.

The budget proposals Ross referenced included several million dollars for the registry; some were proposed by the Obama administration and faced opposition from Senate Republicans unrelated to the registry allocation. Burr’s campaign pointed to a list of bills Burr supported that cracked down on sex offenders.

“Sen. Burr has a long history of supporting legislation that strengthens the sex offender registry,” campaign spokesman Jesse Hunt said. “Ross’ reaction shows just how toxic this issue is for her with North Carolina voters.”

Republicans are now hitting Ross on a similar issue: a 1997 bill that made failure to report child abuse a misdemeanor. Ross threatened an ACLU lawsuit if the bill didn’t exempt clergy.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently launched a TV commercial highlighting the law.

“Who was she trying to protect?” the narrator asks over sinister-sounding music and footage of children. “Not the victims of sexual abuse. Deborah Ross: Too radical for North Carolina.”

Ross says her request to exempt clergy was in order to ensure the law complied with court rulings on religious freedom issues. Some were concerned that Catholic priests wouldn’t be able to promise confidential confessions, for example.

“It’s ridiculous to say that I would be opposed to protecting children from sexual predators,” she said.

Cultural clashes

Ross was an unusual choice for the ACLU job when she was hired in 1994. She’d graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school just four years before, and she was a municipal bond lawyer and tax litigator with the Raleigh firm of Hunton and Williams. She admits she didn’t have much courtroom experience.

“They basically hired a corporate lawyer to come in and be the legal director for the ACLU,” she said. “They wanted somebody who would professionalize the operation.”

Shortly after Ross took the job, Republicans swept to power in both the state House and the U.S. House.

“There were going to be cultural clashes and constitutional issues coming on,” she said. “It was an exciting time.”

Within months, Ross was in court trying to prevent a 13-year-old boy facing rape charges from being tried as an adult. She continued to work on juvenile justice issues, joining Gov. Jim Hunt and then-state Sen. Roy Cooper – now the attorney general running for governor – in developing an overhaul of the state’s system for dealing with young offenders.

The bill aimed to treat juveniles according to the seriousness of their crimes, the risks they pose and their personal histories, while funding more detention centers, training schools and prevention efforts. Ross applauded the initiative but continued to criticize the state’s practice of treating 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults.

Ross also successfully pushed for state police agencies to collect race-based statistics on traffic stops – a response to reports of racial profiling.

“That was new at the time, but now that’s accepted as critical data by police departments,” said former state Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat who worked with Ross and now leads the N.C. Justice Center, a political advocacy group for the underprivileged.

Under Ross, the ACLU was involved in a variety of First Amendment issues, including a successful 2000 lawsuit against Halifax County schools. Ross represented a student who was suspended for refusing to wear a school uniform, which his great-grandmother believed was part of the Antichrist’s plans to prepare children for the end of the world.

“She believed that if he couldn’t think for himself, he wouldn’t be ready for the rapture,” Ross recalled. School districts now must provide religious exemptions to school uniform policies.

But the following year, Ross clashed with conservative religious groups when the ACLU opposed legislation allowing schools to post the Ten Commandments. She argued that the Ten Commandments could only appear in public education if they were integrated into the curriculum as an appropriate study of history or world religions. She said later, as a legislator, she voted for a bill that did just that.

The Senate Leadership Fund, which is spending millions on ads against Ross, points to the case as an example of “anti-religion activism (that) would fit right into San Francisco or Manhattan, but not in North Carolina.” The group notes that the ACLU under Ross also told a school it could not include “songs specifically concerning Jesus” in its Christmas pageant.

“People must have the right to freely practice their religion,” she said. “It is written in our founding documents and at the core of our values. If you look at my record, you’ll see I safeguarded those values.”

Ross sometimes worked closely with Republican legislators, including on a 1999 bill from Republican Sen. James Forrester that mandated insurance coverage for birth control.

“It recognizes the fact that insurance companies ... have ignored women’s health needs,” Ross said while lobbying for the mandate.

She also opposed a 1995 law that required unmarried females under age 18 to get a parent’s permission or a judge’s permission to have an abortion. Ross said delays resulting from judicial action could create health risks.

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican, pushed for the requirement before he joined the state House. “They were fighting tooth and nail against parental notice and parental consent,” he said. “They lost on that because the court had approved it and about 70 percent of North Carolinians wanted it.”

Ross continued to fight efforts to limit abortions when she joined the House. “She takes the Obama radical left position on abortion, that all abortion should be encouraged and paid for,” Stam said, adding that he’s had common ground with Ross on other issues like campaign finance. “She’s pretty doctrinaire on that one issue, but not all issues.”

Asked about the issue of parental consent for abortion, Ross said she has “a record of standing with women and survivors when it matters most.”

Ross stepped down from the ACLU when she launched her campaign for state House in 2002. John Boddie, who served on the ACLU’s board during Ross’ tenure, said she left the nonprofit transformed from “primarily a volunteer organization” to a group with a professional staff of attorneys.

Boddie said Ross also broadened the ACLU’s focus to include more racial justice and voting rights issues.

“Deborah was very pragmatic,” he said. “She was never one to tilt at windmills. She only had us take cases that were winnable and that we could accomplish something.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

Deborah Ross’ ACLU record

As state director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1994 to 2002, Deborah Ross:

▪ Supported a state mandate that insurance companies cover birth control

▪ Raised concerns that creating a sex offender registry would “make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society” and could identify victims who were abused by a family member

▪ Sought to exempt clergy from a law that made failing to report child sex crimes a criminal offense

▪ Represented a Halifax County student who wanted to opt out of a school uniform requirement for religious reasons

▪ Pushed to require law enforcement agencies to keep race-based statistics on traffic stops and arrests

▪ Opposed government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments

Coming next Sunday

A look at Sen. Richard Burr’s work on the Senate Intelligence Committee

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