Right after I (Steve Markoff - who also is the chairman of ProCon.org) joined the ACLU Foundation Board of Southern California in 1979, I began trying to find out exactly what they did - given that their supporters spoke about their importance to our Democracy and how the ACLU had consistently defended our freedoms for almost 60 years, while their detractors spoke in similarly strong terms of how the ACLU has weakened our Country and represented Communists, criminals and others opposed to our democratic way of life.
Some widely held views seem to be:
The ACLU has been vital in maintaining our personal freedoms by fighting for the principles contained in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The ACLU has the guts to take unpopular case with bad facts involving important principles.
The ACLU has been out of the mainstream and has tied up our courts with unnecessary litigation.
The ACLU has been more concerned with the rights of the accused than with the rights of victims and has in effect, been a criminals' lobby.
The conflicting views reminded me of the fable where three different blind people felt an elephant and the described it. The first touched the trunk and described the elephant as a large snake; another the leg and proclaimed the elephant like a tree; the third touched its testicles (actually elephants testicles are inside their body) and described it in a rather complicated way. Who was right? Nobody - or maybe everybody.
I did find the ACLU published the following description of its work in its constitution:
"The objects of the American Civil Liberties Union shall be to maintain and advance civil liberties, including the freedoms of association, press, religion, and speech, and rights to the franchised, to due process of law, and to equal protection of the laws to all people throughout the United States and its possessions. The Union's objects shall be sought wholly without political partisanship."
-ACLU Constitution, Section 2
They also published a 513 page policy guide for taking cases which I found as complex as their constitution insufficient to understand the organization. I then asked the Director of ACLU National (National) if they had or could put together a "one pager" describing the organization in clear simple terms. The Executive Director (Ira Glasser) penned in 1982, a one-page document, which answered many of my questions, (but was and remains unofficial. (Click here to read.)
Then complaining how I believed the ACLU had the best "product" in the world (Our Constitution and Bill of Rights), but the worst marketing (it must be if most Americans didn't support the ACLU), I thought they needed and, I offered to put together, a 4 or 8 page brochure describing the ACLU (including the 1982 one pager) for business types - or those that didn't have the time or interest to read the voluminous ACLU marketing pieces.
After many drafts of the brochure I decided it needed a marketing book - something objective that would show in simple terms the depth of the organization. I finally came upon the idea of the Batting Average of the ACLU in the Supreme Court - information I thought would be catchy, (millions of Americans talk about the batting averages of baseball players; something I admit I never understood), easy to define and something that would hopefully show the organization's impact on our lives.
I then called National for the ACLU's U.S. Supreme Court cases and was surprised to learn that they had never compiled that information. Being reasonably stubborn, I set out on what turned out to be an 18 year journey of assembling the data myself - with the help of assistants, secretaries, researchers, attorneys, electronic databases, and several organizations - including the ACLU and some of its members.
After viewing the Batting Average data, I believe few could argue persuasively that the ACLU hasn't been a potent, effective and consistent force in molding the legal, and therefore social policy of America.
I hope this effort will attract others to the richness of the Batting Average data - probably those with legal or social science interests, and will be the foundation for ongoing analysis of the following data for years to come. And now I can complete the draft of my proposed ACLU brochure!