Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Freedom can't defend itself, so the ACLU assumes the role

MOST high school history textbooks mention the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" and the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

Certainly, all attorneys have come across these cases, if only in law school, no matter what type of law they practice. Indeed, even non-lawyers know these and many other cases. They are landmarks of history, but they remain, even now, vibrant reminders of what sort of a people we are and what sort we wish to be.

Nevertheless, one aspect of these cases is frequently overlooked in discussions of their importance. A large portion of the thousands of hours put into them, and into many others like them, was given pro bono. Volunteer attorneys donated their time and energy and skill to make the law.

Ground-breaking cases are frequently like that.

Many who choose law as a profession do so because of deeply held conceptions of justice. They are passionate about the law, and they want to use it to effect change in society.

One does not have to look hard to find examples of these sorts of people. They include John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, and Ralph Nader.

They represent every political persuasion and perspective. What they have in common is an interest in using their legal skills and training in the public interest as they understand it.

But most attorneys who practice public interest law as a career or as volunteers are generally less well known.

Locally, for instance, it is unlikely that many Ohioans can name the lawyers who participated in the Kent State trials of the 1970s or, more recently, the attorneys who helped settle the landmark racial profiling case in Cincinnati.

Yet those cases from Ohio have had far reaching implications for the nation. The settlement reached in Cincinnati has been exalted as a national model for dealing with problems of racial profiling. What we learned from the Kent State trials serves as a grim reminder of what happens when government oversteps boundaries.

While the attorneys on those cases may not have household names, they have left their mark on history. And most of them were volunteers, donating their time through not-for-profit public interest organizations.

Those organizations receive thousands of hours of pro bono legal work each year. Those thousands of hours add up to millions of dollars worth of donated legal representation.

The American Civil Liberties Union handles close to 6,000 cases annually in local, state, and federal courts. It has appeared before the Supreme Court of the United States more times than any other non-governmental organization. While all ACLU cases are coordinated by ACLU legal staff, the brunt of the litigation is performed by volunteers.

The ACLU of Ohio estimates that in 2002, Ohio volunteer attorneys donated more than $800,000 worth of legal services to the ACLU. We could not do the work without them.

And what those volunteers do is defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Those documents set forth the sometimes contradictory governing principles of our representative democracy: The majority governs through its democratically elected representatives; the majority's power must be limited to protect individual rights and the rights of the minority.

Before joining the staff of the ACLU of Ohio, I donated my time, as a member of the board of directors and as a volunteer attorney.

As a volunteer attorney, I was involved in cases concerning, among other things, racial profiling, the right of judges to speak freely in their judicial opinions, the requirement that persons stopped for traffic offenses be told if they are free to leave before being urged to consent to having their vehicles searched, and the right to due process in criminal proceedings.

I am proud of the work I did as a volunteer attorney, and I was deeply honored by the opportunity to advance the law and advocate for change I believed important. ACLU volunteer attorneys frequently report that work they do for us is the most rewarding of their careers.

The ACLU likes to say that its clients are the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are vital, vibrant documents which we as a people honor and respect. But the principles they embody require constant and continual nurturing.

Eternal vigilance, we always say, is the price of liberty. And we, the ACLU, its staff, its members, and its volunteer attorneys, are here because freedom can't defend itself.

Jeffrey Gamso, a Toledo attorney, is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

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