Micah Kubic faced what he called the “terrifying” challenge of replacing Howard Simon as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida late last year.
Kubic spent the past three years in the same post in Kansas before taking up the mantle of the Sunshine State civil-rights organization that, under Simon’s 44-year watch, scored a series of victories in court battles about same-sex marriage, restrictions on abortions and voting rights.
Kubic, 35, who has a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, holds a master’s degree in political science and a doctorate in black politics from Howard University.
During a telephone interview this week, Kubic said that while it was “terrifying” to succeed Simon, whose lengthy tenure in Florida made him prominent throughout the nation, it was also “deeply flattering” to be chosen to continue Simon’s legacy.
“The very thought of coming after him is terrifying because the standard is so high. But it’s also flattering to think that someone anywhere believes that you could do anything to build on or even sustain the great infrastructure and the great program that he created,” Kubic said. “The only way you do that and the way that you cope with that mix of terror is just by visiting with folks as much as possible and getting to know them and getting to know the issues and the things that people care about and relying on others, working through others.”
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Micah Kubic:
Q: You’ve called Florida a “laboratory for attacks on civil liberties and civil rights.” Can you elaborate on that?
KUBIC: In a lot of respects, Florida is a critical state in the country, in the national discussion over civil liberties and civil rights. So many of the things that you see go national, whether they be attacks on immigration or on reproductive freedom or criminal justice or voting rights. The battles that you see here are ones that you often see replicated on an even larger scale nationwide. So, in a lot of respects, Florida is a place where, if you can turn back the attacks on civil liberties, on civil rights, you can have an outsized impact on the national dialogue and the national conversation. It really doesn’t matter which issue you pick in civil liberties, in civil rights. The front line of the battle is right here in this state. We have seen the experiment, is really the right word for it, new innovations in ways to undermine civil liberties and civil rights here in Florida. There’s just a long list. There have been so many battles over immigration that are here. Even just in the last couple of months, the sort of resuscitation of a grievance between local governments and federal immigration authorities in ways that I think are constitutionally suspect, that are certainly undermining immigrants’ rights. Voting rights is a great example, and Amendment 4 is a great example of how to undo this sort of damage. The disenfranchisement of over a million people here in the state is not a new innovation, in that this is something that the state did decades and decades ago, but also really had an outsized impact on the national conversation and frankly gave inspiration to other folks who wanted to make it harder for folks to vote around the country. And Amendment 4 is an even better inspiration for how this can be done better and how we can make sure that folks who should be eligible to participate are actually able to participate in our democracy.
Q: That’s a great segue into my next question. The ACLU played a significant role in the passage of Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment that restores the right to vote to felons who have completed their sentences. Voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment in November, and the new policy went into effect earlier this month. But some Republican leaders believe the Legislature needs to act to implement the amendment before felons can register to vote. What are your thoughts about the confusion and uncertainty surrounding Amendment 4?
KUBIC: I think the confusion and uncertainty that have emerged is an artificial creation. There’s no need for uncertainty. There’s no need for a lack of clarity, because the text of the amendment is very, very clear. It was designed to be self-executing so that no additional steps were necessary. The folks who wrote it were very deliberate about the way they wrote it. And the Supreme Court, when it reviewed it to put it on the ballot, was very clear in its interpretation of what the language meant, as well. So there’s just no need for all this extra sturm und drang over it. The text is very clear. Folks should be allowed to register, should be able to register. There’s no need to erect additional barriers to this process. The whole point of the amendment was to make it easier for citizens to participate in their democracy. It is a shame, and frankly a little silly, that we’re now having discussion about ways to re-establish barriers that we just got rid of. The good news is that last week, when it went into effect on Jan. 8, there were folks all over the state who went down to their supervisors of elections to begin the registration process. There was enormous enthusiasm, enormous interest in doing that. Folks showed up and they had their paperwork processed. Now we sort of have to wait a little bit to see the next step and how those registrations will be processed. But the law, the constitutional amendment, is now very clear that no additional steps are necessary, should be necessary. And anyone who says otherwise I think is just creating confusion where there doesn’t need to be any.
Q: Many of the ACLU’s legal victories have come from the federal courts, which blocked the state’s warrantless drug-testing of welfare recipients, overturned a prohibition on same-sex marriage and struck down as unconstitutional statutes restricting abortion rights. There is now a new, conservative majority on the Florida Supreme Court. Do you expect an ideological shift in the state’s high court to have a negative impact on civil rights litigation?
KUBIC: One of the things about the ACLU is that we have been around for nearly 100 years now. And that means that we have seen all manner of courts, at the state level, at the federal level. We have gone before judges who perhaps don’t agree with us very often. We’ve gone before judges who are considered very conservative. We’ve gone before judges who are very progressive. And yet, despite the constantly changing nature of the courts, we’ve managed to win victories because we are not rooted in any particular political view but rather an interpretation of the Constitution. I would not say that because the political composition of the court is changing that that means that there are no longer opportunities to have civil liberties and civil rights defended. Because the history of the ACLU is one of defending these rights successfully regardless of the political context. Now, does that mean that the specific arguments that get made and who they appeal to maybe changes over time? Yeah. Do you have to take that into account? Absolutely. But we are not political in the sense of worrying about it in that way, and that means that we are better able to defend these rights no matter who is on the court. The second thing I would say about this is that, in so many respects, the work of the ACLU is not just winning litigation anymore. It’s not just appearing in court. It’s about building a broader movement to defend civil liberties and civil rights. And that means we have to look beyond the court as well. No court will ever be our savior on civil liberties and civil rights, not at the federal level, not at the state level, not now, not in 1965. The courts are not our savior. We have to be our own savior. If we want to defend civil liberties and civil rights, we can’t just rely on a couple judges wearing black robes to do that for us. We have to do the hard work at every level to build that movement. And that’s work that can happen regardless of who Ron DeSantis appoints to the Florida Supreme Court.
(What kind of work does that entail?)
Making sure that you are actually building a strong, people-based movement. You do that through advocacy. You do that through organizing. You do that through initiatives like Amendment 4. Amendment 4 was something that had to go before the Supreme Court to actually get on the ballot, but they didn’t have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ that they agreed with it. There are all sorts of other tools that you have at your disposal to make sure that we are defending civil liberties and civil rights, and we have to use every tool under the sun in order to be successful. Different tools are appropriate in different contexts. Different issues call for different things. And for that matter, the way that we most successfully defend freedom in the state and in the country is by making sure that people themselves are informed, know what their rights are, and are willing to speak up and defend them. In an ideal world, none of these things actually go to litigation at all. Because the only way you get litigation is if someone’s rights have already been undermined and hurt and so has already suffered. And in a perfect world, we stop things legislatively or through organizing or through public action, so that no one gets hurt in the first place to tee up a lawsuit.
Q: You have a doctorate in black politics from Howard University. Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet just pardoned the Groveland Four. Given the state’s history, what’s your take on racism in Florida today?
KUBIC: I think that racial injustice is one of the most pressing issues facing this entire country. That is certainly true here in Florida as well. There is no doubt that Florida has its share of issues with racial injustice, and many of these have made national headlines. In criminal justice policy, where the state’s incarcerated population is disproportionately made up of people of color. Amendment 4, the voting rights thing we’ve already talked about, disproportionately disenfranchised people of color, and especially African-American men. Immigration, I think it would be folly to suggest that there is not a racial component to some of the battles that we see over immigration in the state. Florida is very much in line with national trends in that racial justice is a pressing issue that we have to fix. It is simply not acceptable that someone’s life chances should be impacted just because of their race. Those are not our values. They should not be our values. And that means that we have to do something about it. In a state like Florida that is so large and so diverse, there is a special responsibility, a special obligation to do something about racial injustice to point to what a large, thriving state could look like without racial animus.
Q: What do you see as the biggest civil rights fight in Florida looming on the horizon?
KUBIC: For the moment, probably criminal justice reform. It’s just an enormous battle. It is a big thorny topic. We have a system that puts far too many people in prison who do not need to be there, where the safety of the community is not improved by them being there and their lives are not better by them being there, the lives of their families and the community around them are not better for them being there. It’s expensive and it’s something that we have created over the last 40 years, right? We have created this terribly unjust system that does not actually do the things it even says it sets out to do very well. And there’s a lot of damage in the meantime. It took 40-plus years to create this system and we now need to do everything we can to improve that system in a much shorter timeframe and get this right. I think that is a great big issue here in the state, mostly because the prison population is so, so, so large, and the racial disparities in the prison population are so, so, so large. If Florida were able to have really meaningful reform, the kind of reform that is supported across the ideological spectrum --- folks on the right, on the left, in the center and everywhere in between --- that would really be a national model for how to do this and again provoke even bigger systemic changes that bring us closer to what our values as a country really are.