Eleanor Eisenberg came to Phoenix for what was supposed to be a short interim stint as the head of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Eisenberg left her post Friday — a job she had held for eight years. In the meantime, she racked up some victories in court but had only mixed success in her battles to keep lawmakers from nibbling away at individual rights.
But Eisenberg, 65 this year, said retirement does not mean the end of battles. She plans to stay active in what she sees as efforts by some groups to trim the independence of the judiciary.
Activism is not new for Eisenberg. In fact, she recalls trying to get people in her Bronx apartment building to vote for Adlai Stevenson for president.
That was 1952. She was 11.
As an attorney, she had headed a legal aid office and helped found an organization to promote volunteer work by attorneys.
Her transition to heading the Arizona ACLU was not a big leap — she’d been a member of the organization for 50 years. And that came from having lived through the McCarthy era, when the Wisconsin senator led Congress on a witch hunt for Communists in government and public life.
Eisenberg said she had relatives who were "blacklisted’’ during those years because they were identified as Communist sympathizers.
In Arizona, Eisenberg often has found herself the lone dissenting voice as legislators take up issues.
For example, one bill she spoke against in 2001 would have expanded the definition of what constitutes child pornography to include not just real children but also younglooking actresses and even children who exist only as pixel images.
"A ‘virtual’ minor is not a minor,’’ Eisenberg told lawmakers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee ignored her concerns, voting 8-0 to approve the measure. But she ultimately prevailed when the House killed the measure.
Eisenberg also has opposed bills to place new restrictions on sex offenders who have completed their prison terms.
She acknowledged those kinds of efforts do not help the ACLU win friends, as a majority of Arizonans may want harsher laws against pornography and sex offenders. Nor is she concerned the ACLU’s position often puts it at odds with the majority.
"People confuse democracy with majority rule,’’ she said.
"It’s a tough sled when you’re lobbying for the ACLU in the Arizona Legislature,’’ said Sen. Bill Brotherton, D-Phoenix.
Brotherton said there are times when Eisenberg has been effective, such as the measure on virtual child pornography. But Brotherton, a lawyer himself, said he’s battled with Eisenberg, such as when she opposed his efforts to do DNA testing on all people who are arrested so the results can be compared with evidence left at the scene of unsolved crimes.
Eisenberg also has earned the respect — if not always the vote — of House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix. The pair crossed paths and political swords when he was chairman of the S enate Judiciary Committee.
"She knew that she was fighting a losing battle,’’ Weiers said. But he said there were just enough times where she would point out a small flaw in a bill, forcing lawmakers to change it — or at least
think about it.
"It’s good for the system to have people like Eleanor down there,’’ Weiers said. "It’s always good to hear from the other side.’’
Eisenberg doesn’t do all of her battles in forums where politics rule.
Sometimes she tries public pressure, as when she urged then Gov. Jane Hull to halt executions until procedures for imposing the death penalty could be reviewed for fairness. Hull was unpersuaded.
And sometimes she goes to court.
Her organization sued the Department of Public Safety, saying officers engaged in "racial profiling’’ in traffic stops and ticketing. That resulted in DPS agreeing to change some of its practices.
And she got a federal judge to void a proclamation by Hull proclaiming a state "Bible Week.’’
But the ACLU was unsuccessful in getting state tax credits for donations to groups that give scholarships to private and parochial schools invalidated.