Baltimore Sun, September 2004
Its members range from lawyers to college students and past clients have included everyone from John Waters to public housing residents to Baltimore City schoolchildren. For over 70 years, the ACLU of Maryland has fought for the rights granted to every United States citizen by the Constitution through litigation, letter writing, lobbying and marches, and its work has affected nearly every minority group, as well as the American people in general.
“We want to represent as many people as possible and protect everyone’s civil liberties,” says Stacey Mink, director of development for the ACLU of Maryland. While the national headquarters are in New York City, most states have their own local chapter, including Maryland, which has a chapter in Baltimore with over 11,000 members (the national organization boasts over 400,000 members). Housed in the Meadow Mill, the ACLU of Maryland’s 15 staff members work day and night to protect Maryland citizens’ liberties while tackling an endless amount of cases. “We focus on large-scale impact legislation for lasting social change,” says Mink.
This year, the ACLU of Maryland has been involved in litigation and legislation concerning many different issues. Fox example, the ACLU continued its fight for Baltimore City schoolchildren and parents by challenging in court the state’s failure to provide an adequate education to students as required by the Maryland constitution. Additionally, the organization has been actively involved since the mid-1990s to find better homes for public housing residents following the demolition in the 1990s of the large public housing units in Baltimore City. When the housing units were demolished, many low-income African-American families were faced with living in housing to be constructed in the same unsafe, segregated and economically depressed areas until six families filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14,000 other low-income families in 1995. Since June 2003, more than 300 families have moved to better housing in integrated neighborhoods throughout the Baltimore area, while over 4,000 families have applied for new desegregated housing programs in areas with better schools, higher wages and safer streets.
Another local issue adversely affecting the African-American community is that of racial profiling, an issue that the ACLU of Maryland first brought to the national spotlight in 1993. The issue revolved around the police’s use of race during traffic stops when conducting drug investigations. The original racial profiling lawsuit was filed in 1993 on behalf of Robert Wilkins, an African-American attorney, and his family, who were wrongly searched in Western Maryland.
“This was the first case that brought exposure to the problem,” says Deborah Jeon, managing attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “I came to the ACLU in 1990, and we were receiving complaints of racial profiling on I-95. Most of the original complaints came from those individuals already in jail from drug possession charges, so they were not the best candidates for a lawsuit. However, when Robert Wilkins – an attorney and a Harvard graduate – was searched illegally, we began to develop a case. It was a big fight and a lot of work but very necessary.”
Jeon notes that in 1995, the Maryland State Police agreed not to use racial profiles; however, it was obvious that race-based searches continued. “It was still a real problem. Statistics showed that about 75 percent of drivers stopped were African-American,” she says, while African-American motorists only accounted for about 17 percent of highway traffic in these areas. In 1997, the court agreed with the ACLU that police continuously used racial profiling. Since then, Jeon and the ACLU have worked with the NAACP to continued to challenge appeals and seek monetary compensation for the defendants.
Working to extend the rights of minorities that traditionally have been denied rights – including Native Americans and other people of color, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people, people with disabilities, prisoners and the poor – is also a big part of the ACLU’s work. One of the biggest issues for the ACLU of Maryland has been the debate over gay marriage.
“Obviously this issue has been percolating for some time, and there’s been pressure by the gay community in Maryland to do something about the issue of marriage, which we’re happy to do, as it’s a fundamental human right to decide who you want your spouse to be,” says David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. Consequently, in July, the ACLU sued Maryland county clerks charging that the state law denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates the Maryland constitution. The lawsuit was made on behalf of nine couples and a recently widowed man in a same-sex relationship. The ACLU worked with Equality Maryland to charge that the law violates the state constitution’s guarantees of equality.
“We carefully deliberated to be sure that this was the right thing to do at this time, and we concluded it was,” says Rocah. “We don’t file a lawsuit without a lot of careful thought by our staff and without approval of our case review board.” The ACLU case followed the landmark Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling in February that stated that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional in the state, which set off a series of political debates, including President George W. Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
The ACLU also worked with Equality Maryland to help pass the Medical Decision Making Act in the Maryland House of Delegates, which was aimed at granting individuals the right to make healthcare decisions for their partners in hospitals.
“The justice system can be very slow and frustrating. We simply cannot take on all the cases that come through the door,” says Jeon. “However, it’s a privilege to work on these cases. The clients are the heroes of our work.” “Between phone calls and written requests for assistance, the numbers are over a thousand,” adds Rocah. “A lot of people don’t realize, though, that the we can accomplish a lot without litigation. A simple phone call or e-mail can solve a lot of problems; however, nothing would be possible without the volunteer staff and volunteer attorneys.”
Not all of the ACLU’s work is as large scale as racial discrimination and gay marriage. For example, the ACLU of Maryland successfully filed a lawsuit in 2002 on behalf of a man who lived on a houseboat in Port Deposit in Cecil County who had been told that he was ineligible to run for Town Council because he was not a resident of the town. The organization also defended a former state trooper and paramedic who was denied family leave to care for his newborn daughter and seriously ill wife; two officers who refused to change their hairstyle that reflected their religious beliefs; and prisoners whose families were being charged outrageous rates for collect calls made from the prisons.
Additionally, free speech is a main concern for the ACLU of Maryland. “In this post-Sept. 11 world, we are very concerned about free speech,” says Mink. “Watchdogs like the ACLU have an important task now to help protect freedom,” adds Rocah. The ACLU of Maryland has been actively involved in examining some provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that it believes violate civil liberties. Also, the ACLU challenged a rule at the University of Maryland, College Park where free speech was restricted to certain “free speech zones.”
“Apart from the legal merits of a case, we often say that our client is the Bill of Rights,” says Rocah.
For more information on the ACLU of Maryland, go to www.aclu-md.org.