by Linda Sillitoe
Welcome to Utah
[p.63]Attorney Brian Barnard borrowed from Mormon parlance in quipping that Robyn Ellen Blumner “served a mission” as executive director. Not only was the period of time she spent in the Beehive State similar to LDS proselyting missions, but she carried a sense of purpose, as well. A New York City Jew, she came to the Mormon Zion intending to improve civil liberties among resistant natives. As she would confide to friends, “I never moved my bed to Utah.”
Blumner’s tenure as executive director of the Utah affiliate would become a significant juncture between the long and eventful period under Shirley Pedler and a dynamic era lying just ahead. Blumner refueled the organization’s waning energy with her own enthusiasm, bolstered fund raising and membership efforts, impressed her contacts and audiences alike, and promoted both negotiation and litigation by the affiliate.
Flying west from Manhattan, Blumner knew she was entering a rugged outback in civil rights territory. She made an “ignoble arrival,” in her words, touching down on the July day when the ACLU lost the Amos v. LDS Church case in a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that employees could be required to keep a current temple recommend in church owned, non-profit businesses. For-profit businesses—the Deseret News or the ZCMI department store, for instance—were not included in the exemption.
The Salt Lake Tribune lost no time in contacting the new executive [p.64]director for a profile. Printed in mid-July, the article pronounced Blumner undaunted by the Supreme Court’s “resounding defeat” of the ACLU. Blumner conceded the loss’s significance. “I was hoping to be ushered in on the wings of victory and it didn’t quite occur that way,” she told the newspaper.
However, she explained, she did not interpret this as a sign that her new position would be irrelevant. “Where I find the battle is in the volume,” she said. “The complaints come into the office by the dozen.”
Blumner expressed surprise at the media’s interest in her arrival. One of her first mornings in the state, she heard from inside her shower an announcement on a local news broadcast that she had arrived. Hailing from Manhattan, she hadn’t expected even to be quoted in a newspaper, let alone anticipated that her advent would be newsworthy. When the reporter turned up, she decided that interest must be manifest “for all New York Jews who came to Utah.”
Not every welcome was pleasant. She received a letter at the Judge Building office, reading, in effect, ‘‘Welcome to Utah, you worthless bitch.” The letter proceeded to comment on her ethnicity and background, suggesting that Utah would not provide her a safe haven.
Blumner knew the ACLU would not wear the same fit in Utah as in New York. Indeed, she had applied for and accepted the directorship in the Utah affiliate much as an ambitious missionary might accept an assignment to “Cannibal Isle.” Despite the hecklers, however, Utah generally would be impressed with this young attorney, and the affiliate would regard her warmly.
A press release preceding her arrival listed her accomplishments. She was assistant director of labor relations for the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority in Brooklyn, held a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations from Cornell University and a law degree from New York University. What the description did not say specifically was that Robyn Blumner, then approaching twenty-five, was a prodigy.
Born in Queens and reared on Long Island by school teachers and union members, Robyn had grown up politically aware. Her mother was a registered Democrat and her father an independent who sometimes voted Republican. “My parents were always current, and you had to be extremely quick-witted to survive the evening meal.”
[p.65]By age eleven, Robyn was tucking leaflets under windshield wipers to promote Senator George McGovern’s presidential candidacy. In high school she organized the Young Democrats of Glen Cove and graduated a year ahead of her class. By then she had decided that labor-management relations was akin to politics. “As in politics, there were two distinct sides, a goal to be obtained, and, often times, if you were working on the union side, you’d feel you were fighting for justice and due process.”
In 1961 she became an intern for congressional Representative Elizabeth Holtzman. She worked on labor management with an eye toward becoming an arbitrator since she had “always enjoyed the process of negotiation.”
At that point Blumner enrolled at Cornell University, knowing that its diploma would prove a valuable credential. “I couldn’t afford to pay for an Ivy League education,” she recalled, but learned that the State of New York partially subsidized labor relations students. She graduated with honors in 1982.
In pursuing a law degree, she discovered that she had adopted her grandmother’s abandoned quest. Although her grandmother graduated from law school, she had not been able to take the bar exam without serving a legal apprenticeship. “No one would hire a woman in those days, and so she became a mother. It came as a total shock to me, upon application to law school, to learn that my grandmother had a law degree.”
While studying law, Blumner worked most of the time for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and for the Staten Island RTA. She graduated and passed the civil law exam in 1985 and began negotiating contracts with thirteen labor organizations. Said Blumner, “This was an exciting place to be, and a very exciting place for a young woman to be.” At age twenty-three, she pulled in a salary of around $50,000.
“It didn’t take very long for me to become disenchanted, though,” she recalled. “It was a position that I felt required me to constantly lie…. You can call it puffery, you can call it bending the truth, you can call it colorful language, but often you were lying, and I despised that aspect of the job.”
[p.66]Ironically, considering her success, Blumner found her attention increasingly distracted by her volunteer work for the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, where she found the energy “overwhelming, even after hours.” She worked evenings with people “who were writing bits and pieces that would end up in arguments before the Supreme Court,” while her days on the job were filled with “arguing over a stupid work rule on a railroad.”
Soon she found the Reproductive Freedom Project “infringing on my day.” Her transit colleagues didn’t notice, but Blumner realized the attraction that civil liberties work held for her. She resolved to enter the paid ACLU ranks.
“When I first got the notice about the Utah position, I laughed. It was a lark, but I sent in my resume to Utah, which I could barely point to on a map.… I had never been there, and I only knew in the most general sense what the Mormon religion was, and the reputation that the state of Utah had.”
Her attitude was typical in the Big Apple. “I think anyone from New York would consider Utah the outback, along with Mississippi, Alabama, Alaska, North Dakota, all of those. You know that when you take a job in Utah, you’ll be isolated. You’ll be within the ‘Peace Corps’ training aspect of the ACLU. You’re going to be-what is the term we learned in history?— ‘civilizing the natives.’”
She had decided that the Utah affiliate didn’t take her application seriously when she received a call from the affiliate’s board president Gerald Nichols. In very positive terms he invited her to Salt Lake City for an interview.
“I was so confident before I even flew out to Utah, that I called the newspaper and advertised my apartment.” For a New Yorker, this was extreme. Yet the thought of heading the Utah affiliate “was so absurd, I knew I’d end up doing it.”
Quickly upon her arrival in Utah, Blumner sensed that the job interview was not exactly an audition—it felt more like a draft. Regional director Dorothy Davidson picked her up at the Salt Lake International Airport and “immediately began to prompt me for the interview.” Ultimately, Blumner found herself in a room full of people—the board of directors.
[p.67]Undaunted, Blumner fielded questions, realizing “that I would get the job; there was no question.” Board members competed to wine and dine her.
“The day after I got back, Gerry Nichols called and offered me the job.” On principle, Blumner negotiated a bit then accepted. Yet she remained incredulous. “For the longest time, I couldn’t even refer to Utah without laughing, and saying, ‘I’m going to fucking Utah.’ I couldn’t believe I’d taken that step.”
In mid-May John Powell, national ACLU legal director, visited Salt Lake City to speak at the affiliate’s annual banquet. He wove his remarks around the danger of thinking that change won’t come, or will come slowly, if at all. Then Gerald Nichols arose to announce that Robyn E.
Blumner would become the new executive director. Even if the Utah affiliate didn’t fully realize it at the time, change was on its way.
Meanwhile, back on Long Island, Blumner, almost twenty-five, had been offered the assistant directorship of labor relations for the Long Island Railroad. The post would mean supervising around 30,000 employees. Her salary would rise to near $60,000. Instead she chose to attend a national ACLU conference in Philadelphia, then came west to Utah with the support of a 650-member organization. Her beginning salary was $22,000.
“You can’t live on money,” she would explain. “What good is a string of pearls if you don’t enjoy your day?”
Almost as soon as she arrived and settled into an apartment on First Avenue, Blumner was quoted in the Tribune on issues ranging from release-time seminary, the lighting on the St. George temple with city revenue, to Amos v. the LDS Church. The fact that all of these issues involved the Mormon church was not lost on Blumner, who later commented, “Church/state issues permeated every day in Utah.”
In the article she mentioned the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork and then addressed prison conditions, especially medical care. “I have a number of complaints from prisoners who appear to be in severe pain daily, and who are denied medical attention,” Blumner said.
Noting that the ACLU filed about ten to twelve lawsuits a year, the article continued, “Blumner said she would like to see more litigation, [p.68]and bolstering the corps of volunteer lawyers is high on her priority list.” However, the next paragraph picked up on the negotiator in her, as she added, “We attempt to solve people’s problems without lawsuits. Lawsuits are expensive; phone calls are not.”
The upbeat article closed: “Blumner even sees advantages to the fact that she is new to the state. ‘As an outsider coming in to the community, I am going to have a very open mind and will certainly bring a new perspective to the organization.’”
Blumner’s show of confidence, as she settled into the job, belied an inward trepidation. Later she would describe her adjustment as “very scary.” She knew no one, really, and had no on-the-spot mentor, although office manager Steve Francis and attorney Michael Janesch helped out for a time.
As she gained her footing, Blumner advertised for an assistant. One job interview produced a minister’s wife, who brought in clippings she had written for a weekly newspaper in another state. “With quiet almost modest answers, she responded to ‘the interview questions and sheepishly showed me the clippings,” Blumner recalled. As Blumner scanned the articles and noted the political activism listed on the resume, she realized that this community worker understood and could communicate complex issues. What she could not know was that Michele Parish sat before her a potential wolf in sheep’s garb.
“I hired her, and she was the best thing I ever did for the ACLU of Utah,” Blumner said. On July 17 the new assistant began work, and a vital mentorship began. In effect, Parish received a day-to-day apprenticeship unavailable to Utah’s other directors.
Initially Parish managed the office and worked with the volunteers, gradually becoming Blumner’s right hand. As she listened to Blumner vocalize her rationale of each issue and decision, Parish began to participate in the discussion. She soon substituted for her boss in several settings.
Before accepting the directorship, Blumner had negotiated a vacation in the East, and so she left in August. First she handed police officers a couple of especially virulent death threats, although she said she didn’t feel physically afraid. “If you can feel invulnerable in New York City, you can feel invulnerable after receiving a few death threats in Utah.” [p.69]The threats came as a reaction to her opposition to capital punishment, highlighted by the approaching execution of Dale Pierre Selby, convicted for three torture-murders in Ogden eleven years earlier.
With the help of Elizabeth Dunning, who headed the legal panel, Parish organized and addressed a candlelight vigil the night of the execution. The affiliate protested Selby’s execution as a matter of principle. Since Gilmore’s execution in 1977, seventy inmates had been executed nationwide. Unlike Gilmore, Selby vigorously appealed his sentence.
The following year Blumner would deal with a different twist in a death penalty issue, when Arthur Gary Bishop would be executed for the sex murders of five young boys. Since Bishop asked for execution, apparently without coercion, Blumner split with National and local precedent in deciding that the Utah affiliate would honor his wish.
Throughout the fall of 1987 Blumner turned her attention toward building membership and funding. The affiliate was committed to the development program laid out during Pedler’ s tenure and determined to become self-sufficient. Blumner signed a “Dear Friend” letter with board president Gerald Nichols, suggesting that donors celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution by supporting the ACLU.
Another plea went out on October 21, this one from attorney and longtime ally Ross Anderson. He wrote that the “ACLU of Utah, under new and excellent leadership, is preparing to tackle a number of large and looming issues.” He identified these as the “deplorable conditions” at the Utah State Prison, police brutality, and a bill that would eliminate the power to commute a death sentence. While accurately forecasting the affiliate’s agenda, Anderson overlooked the perennially favorite topic: censorship.
Late that fall Blumner commented on a free speech issue after avowed racist Dwight McCarthy decided to replace his Counter-Marxist Hour with a racist format on KZZI-Radio. Blumner was quoted by United Press International, saying, “I would probably disagree with everything the Aryan Nation has to say, but it is a liberty for them to say it.”
In September the Salt Lake Tribune featured Blumner on the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Blumner noted [p.70]that Bork would limit free speech to political speech. “He would limit that category further by excluding from protection speech which advocates civil disobedience, which would subject to censorship the works of such writers as Thoreau, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr.…,” she said. The article continued: “The ACLU also objects to Bork’s assertion that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee a right to privacy, according to Blumner, because that opens the door to governmental regulation of contraceptives, abortion and parental rights.”
Utah state attorney general David L. Wilkinson answered this blast against Bork, writing in the Tribune’s Sunday “Common Carrier” column. Earlier Blumner had taken a swipe at a favored Wilkinson project, the ill-fated cable television bill. Now Wilkinson was eager to respond. He was identified in the Tribune as a former BYU graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, with a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He had served as assistant attorney general and Salt Lake County’s chief deputy attorney before his election.
Below the headline, “Who Is the Real Threat?” Wilkinson began: “I can think of only one better thing about Judge Robert H. Bork than the lift he has given to political cartoonists,” which he said was his “extraordinarily high qualifications.”
Wilkinson disputed Bork’s widely alleged racial prejudice by linking him with Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks, well known to Utahns as a former state supreme court justice and a former president of Brigham Young University. Oaks and Bork, Wilkinson wrote, had been “fledgling lawyers with one of Chicago’s largest law firms, Kirkland and Ellis,” when the pair intervened to “adjust” the firm’s ban on hiring Jews. Mentioning that Bork’s first wife, “who died after a long bout with cancer, was Jewish,” Wilkinson then left the issue of prejudice to attack the ACLU’s disregard of issues sacred to Utahns.
He began with freedom of religion. “For some years now, as I presume the new director is aware, the Utah ACLU has waged a campaign to rid Utah high school graduation ceremonies of prayer.” This, Wilkinson claimed, despite the “existence of state and federal cases specifically upholding the constitutionality of prayer at public graduation ceremonies.” He cited a 1984 Supreme Court decision that [p.71]“affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions.” The ACLU, he continued, opposes prayer “despite the voluntary choice of an overwhelming majority of Utah’s graduating seniors to include such prayer at their graduation ceremonies.”
Since Bork supported school prayer, Wilkinson asked “whether it is really Judge Bork or the ACLU which poses a threat to the individual religious freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of Utah.” Wilkinson also sided with Bork in opposing the “so-called ‘right of privacy’” regarding reproductive rights.
Two weeks later, on October 18, the Tribune published Blumner’s response under the headline, “Let’s Meet the Real Judge Robert H. Bork.” The Tribune listed Blumner’s legal degrees and background, then noted that “the views expressed in the article reflect the positions of ACLU of Utah.”
Blumner discounted Wilkinson’s law firm story but deftly omitted any reference to Apostle Oaks. She wrote, “Wilkinson extols the virtues of Judge Bork by relating to us a touching anecdote which portrays Bork as a fledgling lawyer championing the rights of Jewish applicants at his anti-Semitic law firm.” She continued, “This somehow proves to Wilkinson that Bork is not prejudiced. I suggest that rather than take a single isolated incident…, let us look to the record he himself has developed over a period of years as reflected in his writings and speeches.”
Blumner listed Bork’s criticism of the one-person/one-vote concept, statements favoring poll taxes and literacy tests for voters, his allowance of contracts that preclude real estate sales to African Americans, disregard for the rights of illegitimate children, disallowance of obscene language for political purposes, encouragement of government involvement in birth control decisions by married couples, and support of sterilization for habitual criminals. Regarding school prayer, Blumner said, “Indeed, the salient feature of Judge Bork’s constitutional ideology is that he believes the power of judicial review should generally be exercised to facilitate the ability of the majority to impose its moral views on the minority.”
Citing the founders’ reasons for creating the Bill of Rights, she wrote: “Wilkinson points to the fact that a majority of Utah’ s high school [p.72]students approve of prayer at their graduation ceremonies to support his contention that a challenge to that practice is a challenge to freedom of religion.” However, she wrote, “freedom of religion is not a matter that can be decided by the majority. It is one of those freedoms reserved to each individual’s conscience.”
She then slugged her way through the privacy issue to this summary: “Judge Bork throughout the hearings systematically retracted, recanted and equivocated, obfuscated, abjured, and foreswore virtually every constitutional position he had previously taken in print and in public,” before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-5 to reject him. She concluded: “Although he attributed his previous dalliance in backward thinking to the need to write provocatively in order to remain publishable, he failed to produce a single published word on his equally provocative metamorphosis of thought whereby he came to this newfound enlightenment.”
The new executive director lacked the legal and political experience accrued by the state’s attorney general. But her response squarely articulated the ACLU’s position. Young she was, but she clearly entered verbal battles fully armed.
Meanwhile, on the national level, the advisors to U.S. presidential hopeful George Bush “discovered that the ACLU’s name evoked strong negative reactions among voters,” Samuel Walker wrote in In Defense of American Liberties. “They thus devised an aggressive strategy of labeling his opponent [Michael] Dukakis a liberal, attacking his veto of a flag salute bill, accusing him of letting dangerous criminals out on weekend furloughs—and of being an ACLU member.” According to Walker, the “connections were clear: the liberal Dukakis lacked patriotism, was soft on crime, and belonged to an organization that endorsed child pornography. Both Dukakis and the ACLU, Bush implied, were out of the ‘mainstream.’”
At first the vice-president’s charge-perhaps rousing a chuckle at its phrasing as “a card-carrying member of the ACLU”-brought “a rush of publicity and membership applications.” However, the attack continued, and so shortly before the election “the ACLU responded with its own media blitz.”
Executive director Ira Glasser chose his audience strategically in [p.73]speaking to the National Press Club. Glasser joked “that if Bush lost the election the ACLU might appoint him director of memberships.” The talk was broadcast live over National Public Radio and itself generated several thousand ACLU membership applications within the next few days.
All of this had the effect in Utah of focusing the spotlight more intently on Blumner. “Before I came to Utah, I thought I wouldn’t ever do any of the media,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to do television, didn’t want to do radio, didn’t want to be in the newspaper. All that, someone else could do; I had no interest in it. I soon realized that responsibility was not possible to avoid, and ultimately I enjoyed it—it was probably one of the great parts of the job, even a compensation beyond all others.”
Her schedule involved two evenings per week speaking at meetings or on radio and television. In October she opposed Bork at a press conference, countered LDS Special Affairs director Richard Lindsey on KSL Radio’s “Public Pulse,” and appeared twice on University of Utah television channel KUED.
As she met and spoke with Utahns, she decided “the most damaging condition to live under as a young person in Utah was to continue in your college career within the state. You had to get out and see the rest of the country.” Young Utahns might return and settle, she reasoned, but with an enlightened perspective. Accordingly, when she spoke at high schools, Blumner invited any student who wanted to apply to a university outside Utah to ask her to help with their applications. Six or seven students took her up on her offer.
As predicted early in Blumner’s directorship, prisoners’ issues pressed their way to the forefront of ACLU concerns and public awareness. For years cooperating attorneys such as Brian Barnard and Kathryn Collard had investigated and litigated to improve conditions at the Salt Lake County Jail. Late in 1987, ACLU lawsuits against the facility encountered a surprising but logical sympathizer. Democrat David Yocom was elected county attorney, replacing Republican Ted Cannon who was beleaguered by legal and political problems.
Pledging to return professionalism to the county attorney’s office, Yocom said he “tried not to be too adversarial regarding prisoner issues.” A former prosecutor, he had defended inmates during his years [p.74]in private practice. A new mental health facility had solved one serious problem, yet jail space was still tight and beds scarce.
Yocom began his administration a few months early due to Cannon’s problems. When he toured the jail, he found people sleeping on mattresses on the floor in unsanitary conditions. “I had to step over mattresses and bodies in the women’s section. It was so overcrowded, there weren’t enough bathrooms.” Yocom would reflect, “By anybody’s standards, we were violating these people’s rights.”
Unlike the penitentiary, the jail held people who had not been proven guilty but were awaiting trial. Salt Lake County, with 42 percent of the state’s population, dealt with 60 percent of its crime. The county tried releasing people held on misdemeanors, the new Oxbow facility was built in South Salt Lake City, and still the overcrowding persisted.
Meanwhile complaints about the Utah State Penitentiary in south Salt Lake County continued to flow into the ACLU office. Prisoners elicited little sympathy with the public, but the medical problems seemed not only urgent but unconscionably neglected.
True to her word, Blumner tried in 1987 and 1988 to negotiate with the Utah State Department of Corrections and its forceful executive director, Gary DeLand. Formerly an administrator at the Salt Lake County Jail, DeLand had tightened up security at the penitentiary. Before DeLand took over, Yocom would recall, the prison had suffered a couple of homicides a year and many assaults on guards. “Con bosses ran the institution,” Yocom said, describing “bands of roving animals, every one with a shank in his boot.”
Blumner maintained a cordial relationship both with DeLand and inspector general Lynn Lund. Nevertheless, “horror stories” continued to float into the affiliate. While maintaining administrative communication, the ACLU contacted attorneys and began amassing evidence for a complaint regarding the lack of medical care. When Blumner brought this material to a meeting at the attorney general’s office, though, DeLand was incensed. He recalled this incident as the only time “Robyn and I really got crossways.”
From the outset, and certainly in hindsight, DeLand liked Blumner. He took her to lunch, where she was “rather humorless—afraid I was trying to co-opt her, which is probably true.” Still, DeLand said, he [p.75]found her upbeat and practical. “She’d call up and say, ‘Here’s what we’re hearing, now what can we do?’ She was a pleasure to have in the office, and I wrote a kind article about her in the department newspaper.”
The fact that DeLand could be charming was not lost on the ACLU leaders. It did not allay their concerns. “My concern with the prison was really basic,” Blumner recalled. “There were medical care problems at the prison. Inmates were not receiving adequate or minimal care. That was the issue we were taking up when we were there. The negotiator in me attempted to work out an amicable solution to the problem.…”
DeLand said that he aided Blumner in seeing prisoner files so that she could check their tales against the facts. She admitted to him, he said, that the inmates’ stories did not always check out. DeLand offered this hypothetical: “He said he saw a doctor once, but he saw him twelve times.” Despite this optimistic example, DeLand recalled that Blumner told him the problems were “systemic.”
Some of the incidents later included in the complaint conjured up the deprivations of a dungeon. Joseph Ward, for instance, had been injured while on a work release program and returned to prison after receiving treatment. However, in prison he was not given antibiotics, although “he complained repeatedly of pain, discomfort, and odor emanating from his injured foot.” For nearly two weeks “Ward was forced to watch his foot die,” the complaint claimed, until his leg was amputated above the knee due to gangrene and infection.
Another inmate, Timothy K. Duncan, was struck in the eye with a two-by-four, but his injury was overlooked for three days. He ended up blind in that eye.
According to the complaint, Theodore Kent broke his ankle falling down a flight of stairs after he refused to pay other inmates for protection. “Repeatedly, over the next two and a half months, Kent requested that he be able to see a doctor and have an x-ray taken of his ankle and be treated.” Ten weeks after the injury he was admitted to the infirmary. His broken ankle had healed improperly, leaving him permanently disabled.
A heart attack felled John W. Dunning, Jr., in December 1985. The doctor said he needed immediate heart surgery, but the prison budget didn’t allow for it. He suffered angina and other heart attacks for another [p.76]six months.
While stories such as these haunted the affiliate office, the issue of overcrowding could not escape their attention, either. Despite the already cramped quarters, the state legislature recently established mandatory sentences for certain sex offenders, the Board of Pardons continued to detain inmates longer than the national average, and DeLand saw to it that parolees were hauled back for what the ACLU saw as minor violations.
Thus with around 1,600 inmates packed into the penitentiary, its three part-time doctors whose combined hours amounted to ten per week could not begin to serve the facility’s needs. Medications that were supposed to be dispensed at 7:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. were frequently not distributed until evening. Sometimes inmates handed them out. Emergencies were redefined by delays, and physical exams were moved to the bottom of the list. These limitations violated federal standards.
But to the uninformed public, DeLand’s hard-nosed approach was preferred over the ACLU’s perceived desire to coddle prisoners. Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley reflected this in his sketch of a bearded consultant inspecting the prison and asking in dismay, “What? No sensitivity seminars?”
Like the prisons, the Judge Building office was also filling up and becoming cramped. Blumner decided to move headquarters to about 400 East and 900 South streets, near Liberty Park. There, office space abounded, but the roof leaked and the building’s temperature was unpredictable. So finally Blumner packed up again and moved to office 419 in the Boston Building, 9 Exchange Place, a half block south of the Judge Building and on the corner of Main Street. Resettled, office work could continue smoothly again, as a variety of new challenges filled the schedule.
While the 1988 state legislature convened, AIDS and AIDS testing were in the news. Michele Parish was assigned AIDS issues and lobbied against a bill allowing emergency medical technicians to require patients to take an AIDS test. The ACLU provided information to the state attorney general’s office and requested that the governor veto the bill. Eventually issues were resolved without legislation.
[p.77]Later that year Parish would speak out when Bureau of Vital Statistics director Harry Gibbons suggested that prostitutes with AIDS be quarantined, and when a Third District Court judge required that people be tested for AIDS following arrests for disorderly conduct. Parish gradually gained confidence, but she shook with fright at her first presentation.
Throughout 1988 the telephone continued to ring. The affiliate adopted the cause of two men who alleged harassment by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Airport Narcotics Unit after they were detained for carrying a large amount of cash. A search showed no sign of illegal drugs. One, Dennis Barney, a masonry contractor from Salt Lake City, was defended by ACLU cooperating attorney Loni DeLand, a brother of the corrections chief. DeLand told the media his client had traveled to Denver to buy a motorcycle but did not make the purchase. The bearded, long-haired motorcycle club member was returning home to Utah when he was searched.
“No charges were filed and no arrest was made, yet…Barney was informed that in order to recover the money he would have to prove that it was clean,” Blumner wrote, adding that “Barney left the airport that day with a receipt. It is utterly outrageous to think that carrying cash is indicative of unlawful conduct and subjects the carrier to forfeiture if discovered,” she continued. “Consider for a moment the implications for Utah’s tourist trade when the first skier from California has all his cash confiscated at the airport. The message won’t take long to get out: ‘Don’t bring money to Utah.’”
Seven years later the Barney case would be settled after a review by the Utah Attorney General’s Office. At that time, the Tribune reported, the federal government’s war on drugs still prompted Drug Enforcement Administration agents to stop and search travelers for cash.
In another case the ACLU and the Utah Legal Clinic, with attorneys C. Dane Nolan and Brian Barnard, filed suit against the elite downtown Alta Club. The lawsuit stated that since the Alta Club served beer and acted as a state liquor store, it could not refuse to admit women as members without violating the Utah Civil Rights Act. For decades the Alta Club had welcomed its all-male membership through the front door [p.78]on South Temple, while the occasional female visitor was ushered in through a side door. Megan Marie Peters visited the Alta Club in
November 1985 and requested membership. Eventually the lawsuit prevailed, setting a precedent statewide.
Meanwhile issues concerning religion continued to arise. Said Blumner later, “There were constantly church/state issues that came up. There wasn’t always litigation around them, but this was thematic of my career. The theocracy was such that the church and government acted in concert, and at times it was difficult to tell which was which.”
“Most glaring,” she recalled, were prayers offered in city council and county commission meetings. The prayers were “always Mormon,” with public officials and department heads “pulling people out of offices to lead prayer.” Some staffers regarded this as an orthodoxy test, which could reflect on their job security.
Although thought to be a revered tradition, attorney Brian Barnard found that this practice had evolved recently. Research showed that from 1911 to 1979 prayers were rare in city commission meetings; but in 1980, when the city switched to the council-mayor system, the prayers began. At that point the Society of Separationists, led by Chris Allen and Richard Andrews, protested and engaged Barnard as counsel. Now they were ready to take up the battle again and decided to sue.
When Barnard reported this to the ACLU board, the affiliate prepared an amicus curiae. “The media picked up the ACLU’s involvement,” Barnard mused, “and in the news it became the ACLU and the SOS without any explanation.”
The city council voluntarily suspended prayers while it studied the matter. Encouraged, Blumner quietly sent city attorney Roger Cutler’s memorandum to the Salt Lake County Commission, suggesting that the county suspend prayers as well. The commissioners decided to go on the evening news and denounce the ACLU.
Prayers at public meetings was business as usual in most Utahns’ minds. Upon becoming aware that the “always Mormon” format offended or oppressed those outside the LDS fold, government officials offered to invite ministers of other faiths to participate. As a Deseret News headline announced: “Salt Lake County Backs Prayers and Diversity.”
[p.79]In an effort to continue the prayers, the city drew up rules: they must be nondenominational, must not mention deity, and must not proselyte. Barnard pointed out that the state constitution made it clear that government was not supposed to support religion. Now the government was not only telling people to pray, but how to pray. But the issue faded from newspapers and television broadcasts as the lawsuit pended, only to resurrect later with enough energy to prompt a constitutional crisis.
Although Blumner was aware of prayers in the schools, just as Shirley Pedler had been, no one who contacted the ACLU yet wanted to go public. However, other religious conflicts came in. In one instance Blumner received calls from a woman getting a divorce. The judge happened to be her LDS stake president and sent the couple home from the courtroom to pray, apparently forgetting, Blumner concluded, “what role he was in.”
Another call came from the parent of the only non-Mormon child in a southern Utah public school. Her son was asked in class why he worshipped “the devil” (by virtue of his being non-LDS).
Utahns were aware of the LDS influence but compared it to the predominance of Catholicism in Boston, or Jewish influence in some areas of New York City, or Baptist influence in the South. Blumner did not see it that way. “Of the places I’ve lived where there’s a majority religion, none come anywhere close to what happens in Utah,” she said. “The reason is isolation. Utah is not highly populated, not diverse, and the surrounding region is relatively barren. So the pressure to conform, and the church’s free hand to impose itself into government goes unchecked. [The influence] is significantly more substantial than in New York in Jewish areas, or Boston in the most Catholic areas.”
As a result, Blumner said of the ACLU, “We were the lone dissent in Utah. There was no other organization, private or public, whose function it was to ensure that church and state stayed separate.” An example, she reported, was the controversy over prayer. “No other organization, private or public, really stood with the ACLU.”
Patriarchy pervaded in Utah beyond the LDS church. By March, news of Reynolds v. Reynolds appeared in the newspapers and on television. This involved a Salt Lake County father’s suit for custody of his two children, one still in the uterus of his estranged wife who was [p.80]seeking an abortion. The ACLU supported the woman’s right to choice, and in May Reynolds became national news, discussed in a Newsweek article on reproductive rights and restrictions.
Michael Jon Reynolds and Jennifer Franks Reynolds had been married for less than two years. Jennifer was pregnant when divorce proceedings began, a pregnancy which was nearing the end of the first trimester. When Michael filed for divorce on March 22, 1988, a restraining order was issued to prevent Jennifer from terminating her pregnancy. The father stated “that he desired custody of the parties’ living child and of the unborn child, and that he would absolve his wife of all responsibility…, including care and expenses. [She] argued that she had an absolute right to abortion.”
Although Michael Reynolds asked the court to “balance the rights and interests of the parties as in other domestic relations matters,” Judge David Young dissolved the restraining order and refused to extend it for another day while the husband obtained an interlocutory appeal.
When the hearing ended, Michael Reynolds and his attorney appealed to another judge for interlocutory appeal and a temporary restraining order. It was signed five minutes before 1:00 p.m. The order was served on a Salt Lake clinic about one half hour later. However, the abortion had already been performed.
In another instance dealing with marital and personal rights, on November 9, 1988, the Tribune reported that the ACLU was appealing a Vernal district judge’s ruling that a divorced graduate student must keep her married name since it was the same as her child’s. If the woman remarried, the judge ruled, then her name could be changed to that of her current husband.
In spring 1988 the Utah affiliate celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with an annual dinner and “Liberty Ball” featuring dancing to the band Condo Hostages. On Saturday, April 30, at the University Park Hotel, the now annual Renie Cohen Memorial Award was presented to Senator Frances Farley, a former board member who “consistently sponsored most of the progressive legislation to be introduced” in “an aggressively conservative Republican legislature,” according to the program.
Dr. Howard Ball, the keynote speaker, entitled his remarks, “Crosses in Dixie/ Swastikas in Illinois: Reflections on an ACLU Crisis [p.81]by a Participant.” Ball, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Utah, was described as a long-time civil rights activist and ACLU member.
The topic was appropriate, for free speech and censorship issues rose repeatedly in 1988 regarding the licensing of adult sexually-oriented businesses. Blumner warned the Salt Lake County Commission that a proposed ordinance would not pass constitutional muster. In July Blumner spoke in support of the AIDS Foundation’s intent to distribute educational literature and condoms at the Neighborhood Fair in Liberty Park. Although Blumner would write an articulate open letter clarifying how such a practice was protected under the First Amendment, most Utahns were unimpressed.
A response, published in the Deseret News a few days before the holiday, asked: “What kind of a mind does Robyn Blumner have to say that the AIDS Foundation has a right to distribute condoms with the educational brochures at the neighborhood fair at Liberty Park on Pioneer Day?” The writer continued, “Personally, I have had enough of the many crazy decisions the ACLU tries to foist on us.”
Through the year, meetings continued with the Department of Corrections and the attorney general’s office over medical conditions at the penitentiary. Complaints also continued to come in. Finally both sides agreed to ask Bonnie Norman, the consultant who had inspected the facility in February 1987, to make another on-site evaluation. This time Norman, a registered nurse and part-time consultant for the National Institute of Corrections, would focus on medical facilities and procedures.
On July 20, 1988, the Department of Corrections and the ACLU drafted a joint press release announcing Norman’s five-day visit, beginning August 1. “Norman is expected to identify deficiencies, if any, and make substantive recommendations,” the press release stated. It noted that after her earlier inspection she had recommended a significant increase in medical personnel staffing levels. Since that time some new staff had been hired.
The press release continued: “The parties have agreed that Norman’s recommendations which can be implemented within the confines of the 1988 budget will be implemented promptly.” However, it added, [p.82]“items which require additional appropriations will be implemented only with appropriate department and legislative action.”
The public heard nothing about the inspection’s outcome until reporters became aware in October that a seven-page report had been prepared. By order of the Department of Corrections, the report was kept secret. Assistant attorney general Stuart Hinckley explained in a Deseret News article, “As their legal counsel, I would tell them to keep it confidential because the reason this document was produced was a threatened lawsuit.”
DeLand provided Blumner with a copy of the report after securing her promise that she would not share it with the media-a promise that miffed reporters. Blumner explained that she could only discuss the report in general terms, telling the Deseret News, “I thought it was a relatively positive report that put the department in a rather good light.” She added that the half dozen calls per month the ACLU received about inadequate medical care had dropped to one call every other month. The article continued: “She attributed the change to the number of nurses and medical technicians which has been boosted by one-third.” Nevertheless, Blumner told the newspaper that “the report suggested that a full-time doctor should be hired to replace the three part-time doctors currently providing medical care.”
Overall, the so-called “bad press” appeared to take a toll on the morale of prison staff, reported Christopher Smart at the Tribune. On October 26 Smart wrote that the acting medical director and four staffers had quit. “Marked improvements in the delivery of medical care at the Utah State Prison may have hit a snag when at least five medical employees resigned, possibly from a flap over the medical audit report.”
The article continued: “Televised accounts concerning the report and stark cases of abuse may have proved too much for the staffers.” He added that both DeLand and Blumner had described the television reports as unfair. “Those cases, they say, are old cases which occurred before the present administration took over.” The article pinpointed a particular news report in which Deland said the tape was edited to make him appear as though he agreed with the ACLU on the way in which an inmate lost a foot to gangrene. “It makes it sound like I agree with Robyn Blumner, that I’m letting people’s feet [p.83]fall off out here,” DeLand complained to Smart. He suggested that the medical walk-out was due to better work opportunities outside the corrections system.
From DeLand’s perspective, Norman’s report confirmed that the penitentiary was essentially meeting constitutional requirements. He assigned the present medical director to write a manual delineating proper treatments and procedures. DeLand said the director was unable to do so because he was too burdened with work, a reason, in Deland’s opinion, “which was partly true, partly not.” Over the medical director’s protest, DeLand sent his deputy director to run the medical unit. As DeLand would tell it, his deputy said, “‘I don’t know anything about medical,’ and I said it didn’t matter, they needed a manager.”
When DeLand shuffled administrators into a task force, he described it to Blumner as a powerful combination. She said, “Fine, if you do what you say, we’ ll leave you alone.” He never could quite understand why things changed.
The ACLU believed the reason was obvious. Without medical treatment plans and quality control, the prison could not expect to meet constitutional standards. Blumner would recall that at first DeLand “made some mild overtures toward negotiations.” Over time, despite her efforts at arbitration, Blumner doubted that prison conditions would significantly improve. In meetings she noticed how the attorney general’s office attempted to move DeLand closer to the ACLU position in order to forestall a lawsuit. This reinforced her own impressions that problems persisted at Point of the Mountain.
Such issues were clearly beginning to outlast Blumner’s patience. “We were like gnats, always in their face,” she said of people in power. “They’d swat at us and we’d go away, and then come back. We were always an annoyance.”
Prisoners’ rights represented a prime example: “The prison project was not completed by the time I left. By the waning months of my tenure in Utah, it appeared that a negotiated settlement was highly unlikely.” Blumner explained, “We hit a dead end in the implementation, the most important part. As far as I could see, it didn’t happen.”
That sluggishness seemed to represent resistance to change that Utah, itself, symbolized. “The ACLU can’t really change anything,” she [p.84]said. “We just hold things at bay until change comes from within.”Quietly, Blumner was job hunting.
“I virtually started looking for something as soon as I arrived…,” she said later. “I knew Utah would be a temporary stop-over, that it was a training ground in effect, that I would never be able to truly make a life in the state of Utah, that I would seek my fortune elsewhere. I thought I would be there a little longer; I thought I’d be there two years. But when Florida became available, I applied.” She missed the green coast and wanted to live in a more populated state.
“I’m a New York Jew from an Ivy League school, who felt 100 percent licensed to operate in Utah because I had no ties to the state,” she explained. “I went there intending to go after the issues because I knew my position was temporary. In Utah we could work through the courts and the legislature, but we couldn’t do anything affirmative or pro-active.”
Although Blumner directed the affiliate for only one and one-half years, certain advances were made. Utah still depended on National but was now flexing the muscle of improved finances. “My board was thrilled with what had occurred. We had raised money; we had memberships; we had won respect, grudgingly; we were winning if not in court, at least on the telephone and behind the scenes a lot of times,” Blumner recalled.
Nor was the board entirely surprised with her decision to leave. A new board member, Boyer Jarvis, would reflect that Blumner “had far too much ability and ambition to stay in Utah very long.” He further observed: “Robyn had a remarkable ability to advocate and push the issues of the ACLU without antagonizing people.”
Dorothy Davidson observed that Blumner built on the membership base that had been laid by Shirley Pedler. In addition, as Utah’s population continued to shift toward the Wasatch Front, a more urban and liberal citizenship was developing. As Blumner left in early 1989, the Utah affiliate was, in fact, nearing the kind of issue-driven jet stream that the national ACLU had soared along on in the 1960s. Three high-profile lawsuits, each with tremendous energy, were about to rise from the plethora of complaints to seize the public’s attention.
Blumner felt she left the affiliate prepared to cope with whatever [p.85]the future held, and she had no doubts who her successor should be. “Michele was the natural choice to follow me. She had all the talents necessary to be an executive director.”
The board of directors was more cautious. Parish lacked Blumner’s law background and work experience. Jarvis later commented: “There were some misgivings. It was clear that Michele was no Robyn; in fact they were very different.” However, Parish was appointed acting director with a chance to prove herself before a final decision was made.
Blumner left just before some issues peaked, but her farewells were said in the wake of personal accomplishment. “I left on a high,” she said. “I did not wait until they asked me to leave. I did not wait until the honeymoon period was over.”
On January 15, 1989, the Tribune reported that Blumner had “a heightened understanding of the culture, leaving 250 more card-carrying ACLU members in the state” than when she had arrived. It quoted Blumner saying that “Utah is a very special place. The thing that makes it so special is that there are more unsung heroes per capita here than probably any other state in the nation.” She said she had been surprised by the complexity of the society, yet still found an overwhelming leveling influence. “I have never before lived in a place where one’s religion so affected one’s social choices,” she said. “One’s religion here seems to dictate the choice of friends, associates, activities and even business contacts. I find that disquieting,” she concluded.
Blumner was praised by Skyline High School administrators who had taken advantage of her youth and articulateness. “She has been a great role model for the girls in the sense of motivating them to set goals early, to aim high and work hard to realize those lofty aims,” the Tribune quoted Vice Principal Betty Yanowitz.
Blumner was praised by assistant attorney general Paul Tinker, chief deputy to former attorney general David Wilkinson. “I thought Robyn did a good job as ACLU director,” he told the newspaper. “I’m not one to agree with every ACLU position, but we found some we could agree on, and even on those we didn’t agree, we were able to make progress. Robyn was good because she sincerely wanted to find a solution to the problems she found that we could all live with. She listened to our position when it differed from hers. She didn’t have a [p.86]chip on her shoulder, which is the case with some other ACLU officials I’ve dealt with before.”
“An affiliate is built in incremental steps,” Davidson would comment later. “Each director made a substantial contribution in strengthening the ACLU presence in Utah.”
When Blumner arrived in Florida, her presence did not attract the same attention as in Utah. However, before long she was embroiled in a high-profile case involving the Santerian religion, a case that would be argued and won before the Supreme Court. By 1992 Blumner was serving on the executive committee of the national ACLU.
On November 18, 1990, the Tribune ran a feature on Blumner, datelined West Palm Beach, Florida. The article began with an incident that likely would not have been well-received in Utah:
It was yet another debate on the censorship circuit and Robyn Blumner…decided to have some fun with her anti-pornography antagonist.
Before beginning a slide show of nude portraits, Blumner warned that some people might want to leave lest they become “irresistibly overcome by the need to commit a sexual assault.”
She turned to her [opponent]: “John?”
John Tanner—the Volusia County, Florida prosecutor, born-again obscenity crusader, and Ted Bundy prayer partner-raised his middle finger to suggest that Blumner commit an anatomically impossible act.
“I started verbally prodding him, which is my style, and he flips me the bird,” said Blumner, twenty-nine…
Since the New York native and attorney arrived in Miami in February 1989, the civil liberties group and its telegenic executive director have become increasingly visible in the wake of high profile cases.…
Supporters credit her with re-energizing the ACLU’s flagging Florida operation by capitalizing on renewed interest…[in the] right-wing rollback on civil liberties.
Her willingness to defend all comers—from chicken-sacrificing Santeria followers to gay prisoners forced to wear pink tags—has put authorities on notice that even casual violations of constitutional rights will not be tolerated.…
[p.87]Near the article’s end carne Robyn Blumner’s pronouncement on Utah. Regarding the land of her first directorship, she said: “Utah is the bland leading the bland.”