At 75, Md. ACLU stronger, smarter

May 27, 2007|By Susan Goering

In 1931, Elisabeth Gilman, daughter of the Johns Hopkins University's first president, hosted the founding meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, with national ACLU founder Roger Baldwin as her guest and keynote speaker. Ever since, the Maryland ACLU has been on a mission to breathe life into the Bill of Rights and the Maryland Declaration of Rights.

As we celebrate 75 years of fighting in constitutional democracy's trenches, we are able to take away some valuable lessons.

We've learned that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he reminded our impatient souls, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In 1931, criminal due process was a paper right. No criminally accused person in any state court had the right to appointed counsel. And in Maryland, threats of lynching - the most extreme breach of criminal due process - were rampant on the Eastern Shore.

The fledgling Maryland ACLU stepped into that breach on behalf of Euel Lee, an African-American man charged with murder, threatened with lynching and denied counsel. The ACLU won him a change of venue, though sadly Mr. Lee ultimately was executed. In the 1940s, in our first Supreme Court case, we argued that Smith Betts, a black man charged with robbery and found guilty without benefit of counsel, should have had the right to counsel. The Supreme Court disagreed. Not until 1963 did it overturn Betts v. Brady.

Second, we've learned that a solid foundation is the key to building a movement. Because it is the courts' role to protect the fragile liberty of minorities against the democratic will of the majority, rights in a constitutional democracy often come in the form of court rulings.

First Amendment rights may best illustrate the value of cases as cornerstones.

In 1931, the Supreme Court had never struck down a law or invalidated an arrest on First Amendment grounds. In 1939, the National ACLU convinced the court in Hague v. CIO that a Jersey City, N.J., ban on political meetings violated the First Amendment. Shortly thereafter, the Maryland ACLU defended the Maryland League for Planned Parenthood, which was being forced to cancel a city-funded meeting on "marriage counseling" because the Catholic archdiocese opposed it.

These early First Amendment cases were the foundation for ACLU victories in the 1960s and 1970s on behalf of Maryland civil rights demonstrators; protesters, including Jane Fonda, soliciting signatures on an anti-war petition among soldiers at Fort Meade; United Farm Workers picketing for a grape boycott; the Ku Klux Klan marching on main streets; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesting the circus; students forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance; homeowners touting political yard signs; and one fledgling filmmaker, John Waters - sprung from jail by ACLU Legal Counsel Elsbeth Bothe after filming a nude scene in Mondo Trasho.

Third, we've learned that although small victories are crucial, it's also important to think big. From the 1930s through the 1970s, our successes in civil rights cases were largely modeled on vindicating the rights of individual clients. We defended protesters arrested for sit-ins at segregated parks and restaurants, as well as citizens jailed for violating curfews during the 1968 riots. But we are also aware that Maryland's history of legal segregation has left a legacy that can perpetuate institutional racial inequity even in the absence of racist individuals. So, starting in the 1980s, the ACLU mounted long-running cases aimed at changing institutional and cultural practices. Several became national models.

The ACLU challenged the Maryland State Police policy of stopping motorists for "driving while black." We secured more than $500 million in additional state funding to help the state's poorest children get an adequate education. We demanded that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cease violating the Fair Housing Act and begin treating the entire Baltimore region as a single housing market in which institutional racism has concentrated impoverished people in the city. And we launched a series of voting rights challenges that made history by electing African-American candidates across the Eastern Shore.

Finally, we now understand ACLU founder Baldwin's warning: "No battle for civil liberties ever stays won." The Maryland ACLU was birthed amid abuses of power in the criminal justice system. Now we face new abuses in the form of warrantless wiretapping, government secrecy, torture, illegal kidnapping and more. Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs calls the current abuses "more threatening to civil liberties, and more hostile to core American values, than at any time in our history."

We are actors in a rerun, with many of the rights won in previous generations threatened again. One solace is that the ACLU stands at the center of this maelstrom, stronger than in the past and edified by lessons learned over 75 years.

Susan Goering is the executive director of the ACLU of Maryland. Her e-mail is

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