Marjorie Esman

Marjorie Esman, the longtime executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, announced Wednesday that she is retiring. (Photo provided by ACLU of Louisiana)

Marjorie Esman, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana chief who battled sheriffs over cages for prisoners, police over profiling and school boards over Bibles, has announced her retirement, effective at the end of the month.

Esman, 62, of New Orleans, has been executive director of the civil liberties group for a decade. She plans to remain active in social causes but will step away from an active role at the ACLU.

The group’s board president praised her tenure in a statement, and Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley said Esman made a mark with her words as well as her lawsuits.

“The role of the ACLU is very important in Louisiana because local government officials seem to ignore the Constitution on a fairly regular basis,” Quigley said. “She has been a referee, blowing the whistle.”

A New York City native, Esman moved to Louisiana to earn a doctorate in anthropology at Tulane University, studying ethnic mobilization among the Cajuns of southern Louisiana.

After several years teaching at universities, she returned to Tulane to earn a law degree. She said she saw it as a natural transition from her academic research.

“It’s all about people’s ability to assert and protect their rights of one kind or another and be respected for who they are,” she said.

Esman had a private law practice for 20 years, but in 1994 she also began taking cases on behalf of the ACLU. She said she enjoyed her day job of copyright and trademark infringement work but filed free speech lawsuits “for fun.”

In 2007, she took on the full-time job of executive director of the statewide ACLU, replacing longtime head Joe Cook. She said the group's lawyers were already addressing civil liberties crises in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, especially in the city’s criminal justice system.

Before the storm, the Sheriff’s Office housed about 7,500 inmates in a warren of jail buildings between Tulane Avenue and Interstate 10. In the days after the storm, many of those inmates were left to languish in deplorable conditions or were lost in state prisons.

Esman’s group filed lawsuits to help the prisoners. It also fought a long-running battle to reduce the jail’s size when it was rebuilt. It succeeded: the jail now holds only about 1,500 inmates on any given day.

The ACLU also was active in speaking out against racial profiling by the New Orleans Police Department and in calling for the reforms ushered in by the federal consent decree covering the department.

Similar targets were not hard to find elsewhere in a state with the world’s highest incarceration rate. In 2010, the ACLU challenged the St. Tammany Parish jail for holding suicidal inmates for days at a time in cages that were 3 feet wide, 3 feet long and 7 feet tall. The Sheriff''s Office announced that it would cut back on the time inmates spent there.

In 2012, she worked with Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Burl Cain to get the Legislature to expand parole eligibility for nonviolent offenders. She also testified in support of a successful measure to reduce penalties for low-level marijuana possession cases.

Despite changing attitudes toward criminal justice, the civil liberties group has encountered roadblocks elsewhere. Esman said she was discouraged there has been little progress toward passing a state law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The ACLU has always been a lightning rod of criticism from conservatives despite its insistence that it has no partisan stance. In Louisiana, the group has attracted some of its most heated opposition when it waded into social causes. Esman criticized a school board for allowing Gideon International to distribute Bibles to elementary students and former Slidell Mayor Ben Morris for hanging a portrait of Jesus in a city court.

"I fight daily with FEMA for the recovery of our city, and now we must fight these tyrants, this American Taliban, who seek to destroy our culture and our heritage," Morris said in response.

A letter to The Times-Picayune about Esman's critical stance toward the war on drugs was titled “What was ACLU chief smoking?”

However, even one frequent foe said he respected Esman. Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand often sparred with Esman in public, but sometimes he would ask her for advice in private.

“I think we got to a point where I felt comfortable calling her and bouncing stuff off of her,” Normand said. “That came out of respect. At least that’s how I felt about it. I never felt she was trying to sucker-punch me.”

Nevertheless, Normand said he had a hard time thinking of an issue where they came to an agreement.

Esman said she plans to remain active in social causes but will no longer hold an official role with the ACLU.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I’m perfectly happy for somebody else to take it into the next decade and beyond,” she said. “I need to step away and let someone else do it without me looming over their shoulder.”

The organization said it has begun looking for a new executive director. 

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge. | (504) 636-7432