The ACLU describes itself as "the largest public interest law firm." Its mission is stated on its website, www.aclu.org (accessed Feb. 16, 2010), as the following:
"The ACLU is our nation's guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.
These rights include:
Your First Amendment rights - freedom of speech, association and assembly; freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
Your right to equal protection under the law - protection against unlawful discrimination.
Your right to due process - fair treatment by the government whenever the loss of your liberty or property is at stake.
Your right to privacy - freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into your personal and private affairs.
The ACLU also works to extend rights to segments of our population that have traditionally been denied their rights, including people of color; women; lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; prisoners; and people with disabilities.
If the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled."
II. ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE
The American Civil Liberties Union is composed of two separate corporate entitites: the ACLU and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU engages primarily in legislative lobbying while the ACLU Foundation carries out most of the litigation and communication efforts. A contribution to the ACLU Foundation is tax-deductible but does not provide membership privileges. Membership is possible only through a non-tax deductible contribution to the ACLU. The two organizations share office space and employees, and are together commonly referred to as the ACLU.
The ACLU has two main governing bodies: the National Board of Directors and the National Advisory Council. The other two major components are the Affiliates and the Biennial Conference.
1. National Board of Directors
Overall governing and policy-making body
Meets 4 times per year
Composed of 83 members (30 at-large-members, one representative from each affiliate and the National Advisory Council's chairperson)
Has several committees that study issues and make recommendations to the Board
2. National Advisory Council
Advises the Board of Directors on policy issues
Without decision-making power
Members participate in Board's committees
Composed of 90 members, prominent americans representing academic, government, journalism and civil organizations
55 affiliates established throughout the US and Puerto Rico
Each has its own board of directors
Each acts independently from each other and from the main office
4. Biennial Conference
Held every two years
Participants are delegates from the National Board of Directors, the National Advisory Council, Affiliates and their staff
Develops and recommends policies to the National Board
When the Conference-recommended policies are rejected by the Board, they are submitted to the affiliates for secret-ballot referenda at the local level
If the results of the affiliates' referenda are in favor of the Conference-recommended policies, the Board's decision is overriden and the Conference recommendations become policies
In addition, the ACLU implements National Projects to carry out education and litigation on issues of particular concern to the ACLU:
Capital Punishment Project (Durham, NC)
Drug Law Reform Project (Santa Cruz, CA)
Free Speech Project (New York, NY)
HIV/AIDS Project (New York, NY)
Human Rights Project (New York, NY)
Immigrants' Rights Project (New York, NY and San Francisco, CA)
LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Rights Project (New York, NY)
National Security Project (New York, NY)
Prisoners' Rights Project (New York, NY)
Racial Justice Project (New York, NY)
Religion and Belief Project (New York, NY)
Reproductive Freedom Project (New York, NY)
Technology and Liberty Project (Seattle, WA)
Voting Rights Project (Atlanta, GA)
Women's Rights Project (New York, NY)
III. CASE SELECTION
The guidelines for affiliates and national staff (as stated in the ACLU's "Policy Guide") provide that, in general, the ACLU should select cases that will either create a precedent or implement a prior ruling of the US Supreme Court.
If there is a policy regarding the issue of a case, then the decision to take the case will be made at the state level by either the affiliate's staff, special lawyers' committee, or the affiliate Board of Directors. If the case is potentially exceptionally controversial, the staff and the affiliate's board will hold a consultation.
If there is no policy regarding the issue of a case, the matter will be referred to the appropriate committee of the National Board of Directors who will decide on the policy and will provide a recommendation.
If the matter represents an emergency, the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors will decide whether the ACLU should take the case. In any case, very few decisions are reached by a single individual or without wide consultations and are rarely unanimous.
The ACLU is involved in nearly 6,000 cases per year. It appears before the US Supreme Court more than any other organization except the US Department of Justice.