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Bruce McFarland: I say, God bless the ACLU

SCV Voices

Posted: July 3, 2010 9:17 p.m.
Updated: July 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.

This column originally appeared in July 2004

I love my country, but like many folks I’ve found the activities of some lawyers reprehensible. It’s easy to attack defense attorneys who aid popular sports figures charged with murder, and it’s understandable to chastise inept prosecutors and lame juries.

I don’t think it’s fair for someone to win a huge judgment for spilling their own coffee just because it was hot. The list goes on and on.

So what does loving my country have to do with bad judicial behavior? Our country is regulated by many laws and ultimately, by one of the finest documents governing self-rule ever written, our Constitution and its brilliant Bill of Rights.

Bill Clinton recently referred to our type of democracy as one that is ruled by the majority, but one that respects the rights of minorities. Isn’t that what our founding fathers thought, too?

When a doctor mistakenly removes the wrong organ, or when a drunk driver runs down your child, most people don’t just say “That’s too bad, mistakes happen.” We have a legal system that attempts to remedy wrongs by criminal and/or civil consequences. Most folks understand and support this concept.

What about issues that involve our civil rights? The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Our founding fathers also created the Bill of Rights to point out specific rights they didn’t want overlooked or overturned.

These wise men wanted to make sure the tyranny of the majority never removed or diminished the rights of the minority.

That’s where the American Civil Liberties Union comes in. I’m afraid some people don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — how the ACLU works and what it does.

The ACLU doesn’t write or enforce laws. It is not the arbiter of what is right or wrong, legal or illegal. The ACLU is merely an advocate for positions it believes are supported by our Constitution. It often argues cases against equally talented and sometimes better-funded adversaries in countless courts and before numerous judges and juries, before ever reaching the Supreme Court.

If the ACLU’s argument persuades the justices its position is constitutional, it wins the case and that becomes the law of the land. Don’t blame the ACLU if you don’t like a ruling.

The ACLU followed the Constitution and made our country a better place for everyone. Take a minute and recall some of the important rulings the ACLU fought for that are now the law of the land. Maybe you’ll decide to join the ACLU, or at least send them a thank-you note.

Powell v. Alabama in 1932 was an appeal by the “Scottsboro Boys,” eight African-American teen boys wrongfully accused of raping two white women. This was the first time constitutional standards were applied to state criminal proceedings. It was determined the poor performance of their lawyers at trial deprived them of their Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. I don’t know anyone who would want to be a black man accused of a crime in 1932 Alabama. There was a second decision in 1935 that held that excluding black people from the jury list denied the defendants a fair trial. Common sense now, but landmark in the ’30s.

Lovell v. Griffin in 1938: In this case on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Georgia ordinance prohibiting the distribution of “literature of any kind” without a city manager’s permit was deemed a violation of religious liberty.

Here’s a good one everyone takes for granted: Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948. This major civil rights victory invalidated restrictive covenants, or contractual agreements among white homeowners not to sell their houses to people of color.

Here’s another important case: Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. One of the century’s most significant court decisions declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, wiping out the “separate but equal” doctrine announced in the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

Here’s one I like that maybe you don’t. Just remember, the justices decided. Engel v. Vitale in 1962: In striking down the New York state regent’s “nondenominational” school prayer, the court declared “it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers.”

Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 invalidated a Connecticut law forbidding the use of contraceptives on the ground that a right of “marital privacy,” though not specifically guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, it is protected by “several fundamental constitutional guarantees.”

Where would our country be if it weren’t for the brave freedom fighters of the ACLU? How would your life be different without these landmark cases?

Here’s another of my favorites: Loving v. Virginia in 1967 invalidated the antimiscegenation laws of Virginia and 15 other southern states. Criminal bans on interracial marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and “the freedom to marry,” which the Court called “one of the basic civil rights of man.”

Here’s one for students: Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969. Suspending public school students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was unconstitutional, since students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Some of you will remember this one in 1971: U.S. v. New York Times. Enjoining the press from publishing the Pentagon Papers, leaked by a former Defense Department official, was unconstitutional prior restraint which was not justified by national security interests.

Here’s a big one from 1973: Roe v. Wade/Doe v. Bolton. Recognizing a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, Roe erased all existing criminal abortion laws. Its companion case, Doe, established that it is the attending physician who determines, in light of all factors relevant to a woman’s well-being, whether an abortion is “necessary.” Note to voters: Nov. 2 is around the corner.

U.S. v. Nixon in 1974. In the only amicus brief filed in this critical case, the ACLU argued: “There is no proposition more dangerous to the health of a constitutional democracy than the notion that an elected head of state is above the law and beyond the reach of judicial review.” The Court agreed, and ordered Nixon to hand over crucial Watergate tapes to the special prosecutor.

There’s a lot more, and you can check out the ACLU’s top 100 and all the current cases at I just have one more recent case.

In 2002’s Lawrence v. Texas, the Court struck down a Texas sodomy statute that criminalized private acts of sexual intimacy between same-sex couples, expanding the privacy rights of all Americans and promoting the right of lesbians and gay men to equal treatment under the law. I guess those justices must have been reading that “all men are created equal” or the “certain unalienable rights” thing again.

I’ll let you in on a secret: not even I agree with everything the ACLU does, but I think this country would be a much lesser place without its great work. God bless our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights and God bless the ACLU.

Bruce McFarland is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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