It Takes a Cuban

After a legendary career as president of the Miami ACLU, John de Leon is heading even further south

John de Leon is attracted to conflict like an umpire to a baseball game: It's a fair ball as long as everyone plays by the rules of the U.S. Constitution. During the past four years, it often seemed as if no major controversy or protest occurred in Miami-Dade County without his presence. His tireless advocacy raised both the profile of his organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the importance of the Bill of Rights to heretofore unknown levels of recognition in South Florida. De Leon's willingness to listen and connect with groups from both ends of the political spectrum taught them to rely on and trust him.

As president of the ACLU's Greater Miami chapter, de Leon often made people angry. Those who mistook his easy demeanor and unpretentiousness for lack of will quickly realized their error. During Hurricane Elian, for example, he managed to infuriate Cuban hard-liners with his assertion of the rights of Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father; conversely his insistence that the boy's Miami relatives should have their day in court maddened those who would later welcome Janet Reno's raiders.

The 39-year-old attorney possesses a naturally inquisitive mind and an adventurous spirit. Tall, heavyset, and most often conservatively dressed, nothing about his appearance would mark him as an influential person, yet de Leon's pure advocacy has earned him genuine respect in a place that tends to worship more superficial values. His adroit use of the media and seeming ability to attend every meeting in town helped get his message out. At the same time he never let his own personality get in the way. The results changed our community.

As state ACLU executive director Howard Simon says, "John de Leon gave censorship a bad name in Miami."

A list of de Leon's accomplishments as Miami's most prominent advocate for the Bill of Rights reads like a road map through a morass of bureaucratic arrogance, stupidity, and intolerance. Killian High principal Timothy Dawson oversteps his boundaries and nine students are arrested, strip-searched, and expelled for publishing a pamphlet titled "The First Amendment," which contained racial epithets, vulgar language, and lewd cartoons. De Leon rises to their defense and the charges are dropped. The feds try to stop Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez from staging a hunger strike on the sidewalk in front of downtown's federal building, and the ACLU intervenes in federal court and wins. An overzealous county bureaucrat bans the sale of Cigar Aficionado at Miami International Airport because the magazine features a favorable story about Fidel Castro, and strong ACLU advocacy forces Mayor Alex Penelas to rescind the order.

And de Leon's ACLU wasn't merely concerned with First Amendment issues. Just as he fought for free speech, he also devoted considerable energy to defending the Fifth Amendment: "No person shall ... be deprived of life...." The full extent of his work to curb police violence in the inner city might surprise those who only know him for his many interventions on Cuban issues.

De Leon comes from a long line of diplomats and government ministers in Cuba. His parents fled the island in 1959, and his grandmother had to convince Che Guevara to free her son, de Leon's father, jailed by los barbudos in the early days of the revolution. John is the youngest of three children, and the only one born in the United States, arriving on Valentine's Day 1962. De Leon's parents settled the family in Keystone Point in North Miami, purchasing a house on a canal where they still live. Although de Leon grew up geographically removed from the Cubans of Little Havana, exile issues were always present in the house.

He credits his parents and his Catholic-school education with setting much of his moral agenda, but when he was a teenager, several of Miami's civil-rights milestones made an impact, too. De Leon remembers the attempted murder by car bomb of radio commentator Emilio Milian in 1976. (Milian, an advocate for free speech, lost both his legs in the parking lot of a radio station. Many believe his tolerance of divergent viewpoints was to blame.) As a teenager he attended Archbishop Curley High School on the edge of Liberty City, where his senior year coincided with the McDuffie riots of 1980. After a jury acquitted police officers charged with the beating death of black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie, the area around the school became ground zero for the riots, which lasted several days. For the first time de Leon truly became aware of the problems of the inner city after years of living beside them.

After graduating from the University of Miami, de Leon enrolled in Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. There he interned at the D.C. Public Defender's Office as part of a criminal-justice clinic. He loved going into the jails and helping those in need. Upon his return home, he had an unhappy yearlong stint practicing business law before joining the Dade County Public Defender's Office in 1987.

Shortly after taking that job, de Leon began questioning his part in what he viewed as treadmill justice. His caseload grew to about 140 first- or second-degree felony cases, mainly involving drugs, rape, or armed robbery, and each punishable by up to 15 to 30 years in prison. Thrust into a different trial every three weeks, de Leon began to feel he wasn't serving his clients. He quit after two years and enrolled in a master's program at Columbia University's School of International Affairs.

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