Many democratic countries have federal governments divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial, and the political system of the United States of America is not an exception. There is a reason for the existence of three branches: it ensures that no group or an individual gain too much power. In the US, the legislative branch is represented by the House of Representatives and the Senate which together constitute the Congress.
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Congress is granted many powers by the Constitution and responsible for the lawmaking process. Some laws generate vast social resonance; on the other hand, at times, the lack of appropriate legislation creates a dire need for change. Influential institutions such as the American Civil Liberties Union may come forward compelling Congress to pass a much-needed law or amend current legislation and at that, find supporters among citizens. This essay will discuss the ways the ACLU interacts with the legislative branch of the US on three relevant issues and discusses the controversies around the organization’s practices.
In 1917, the World War I and the striving for peace were the primary impetus to the foundation of National Civil Liberties Bureau that later grew into American Civil Liberties Union. The organization came forward in support of conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the military for that period. Back then, anti-war speeches and anti-war literature were not only frowned upon but also legally persecuted, so the objectors rescued their freedom when propagating their views. Even after the war, free speech was still a pressing issue, and the ACLU was making an effort to respond to the challenges of their time.
It was no earlier than in the 1920s when the members of the organization started discussing the most effective tactics to promote civil liberties and how they could interact with the Supreme Court to attain their goals. Some of the members were under the impression that legislation was the only viable solution. Others, on the other hand, saw hope in an array of Supreme court decisions that changed the social atmosphere. From then on, the assembly has been firm in their decision to fight for human rights through constant interaction with the legislative branch.
The ACLU in Washington D.C.
The ACLU has a nationwide network with staffed offices in every state, and Washington D.C. is not an exception. The ACLU of the District of Columbia was founded in 1961 whereas the organization itself emerged in 1920. Over more than fifty years, this the ACLU affiliate expanded their leverage greatly as they first covered the most of northern Virginia and Maryland and after taking over all of Virginia, assumed jurisdiction over Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.
The current physical address of the ACLU of the district of Columbia is 915 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005, US. It is a rather imposing ten-story building in a minimalist style with classic roman-greek elements such as porticos over the windows. In its exterior as well in the interior, warm neutral colors such as grey and brown prevail, which gives a visitor a calm, welcoming impression.
Admittedly, it should come as no surprise for an organization that defends human rights. Due to the specifics of their practice, the ACLU often comes under attack, and the aggression is usually limited to online threats. However, to prevent incidents, the building is provided with enhanced security which does not look intimidating, nor does it interfere with visitors’ daily errands.
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Nowadays the ACLU in D.C. unites 20,000 members that pursue their mission through legal action, advocacy, and education. The scope of today’s practice is incredibly broad as human rights are compromised across the country on a daily basis. Among the issues that the ACLU in D.C. deals with is criminal justice reform; for instance, throughout recent years, mass incarceration has grown into an adverse tendency.
The organization strives to eliminate discrimination against the minorities, be it people with disabilities, members of the LGBT-community, or oppressed racial and ethnic groups. The ACLU in D.C. supports religious liberty in court and fights for the rights of immigrants. In over than 50 years of its existence, the ACLU filed numerous petitions to the Congress and litigated in the Supreme Court to support the causes.
Ways of Interaction with Judiciary Branch
For an organization that is proclaimed to be “a voice of freedom,” it is crucial to seek the most effective ways to interact with the judiciary branch and facilitate the lawmaking process. One may outline three primary ways in which the National ACLU and the ACLU in D.C. in particular appeals to the Congress, congressional representatives, or endeavors to make amendments to current legislation in general.
The first way is through online petitions to the Congress that require a certain number of signatures to be taken into account. In the last two decades, online petitions have gained a significant deal of popularity. However, citizens seeking change are often scattered over numerous websites instead of uniting their forces. The ACLU enables the latter since as a well-known and influential organization, it attracts a lot of Internet traffic on its web-platform and is able to forward petitions directly to the Congress.
Another method of altering legislation in a meaningful way or bringing about new acts is in court. In the history of the ACLU in D.C., there have been documented hundreds of successful court cases, in which laws were challenged, recognized as unconstitutional, or amended to benefit the cause. Lastly, the organization helps strengthen the bond between citizens and their representatives, providing two-sided communication.
As a result, citizens are outspoken about their needs and opinions, and representatives receive an opportunity to take action on their behalf. Lastly, the ACLU gives commentary to the latest events, providing guidance as to how some of the tragic occurrences might have been avoided. The following paragraph provides an example as to how the ACLU in D.C. employs the first two methods to go about an issue and comments on an event.
The ACLU finds the realities of the current criminal justice system outrageous. The organization calls the system “broken” and the punitive measures that it resorts to unnecessary cruel and even archaic. Among the most pressing issues, the ACLU singles out inadequate investigative methods and harsh sentences that do not benefit incarcerated individuals nor the society in the long run. Currently, the ACLU seeks to gain traction with its latest petition against criminal injustice directed at Congress (“Real Criminal Justice Reform Now”). The organization is under the impression that courts are often overzealous in their endeavors to prove an individual guilty and punish him or her with no chance to restore their life.
The ACLU actively participated in the United States v. Jones case, in which the plaintiff claimed that he was subjected to an unwarranted, illegal search. His case takes roots in Jones v. Kirschner in which Jones was found guilty of drug trafficking and sentenced to life in prison in 2004. Back then, the critical evidence was gathered using a GPS navigator installed on the private vehicle that he used for making purchases and selling illegal substances.
The United States v. Jones case was tremendously controversial since it was unclear whether the installment of the devices indeed qualified for a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. The majority opinion was that the police committed a trespass against the defendant’s personal property which technically meets the definition of a “search.” However, the installment was not warranted, and some expressed the opinion that that decision might be a turning point in the history of the Fourth Amendment.
Plaintiff Antoine Jones fought for his rights to privacy continuously from prison. His life sentence was repealed, but even an early release did not make him seek justice. As it turned, numerous violations had taken place, and namely, his house, nightclub, vehicles, and warehouse were all searched unwarranted and without his explicit consent. Throughout the years, the court of appeals dismissed the case, giving various reasons including Jones’ failure to state a claim and the qualified immunity of the defendants. In 2016, the ACLU appealed concerning Jones’ claims, and as a result, the court of appeals agreed that the searches were indeed a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
First, the warrant was invalid since it was for a daytime search, but the officers committed a trespass at 4.30 a.m. Second, Jones was not warned that they were about to enter his house. However, it was unclear whether, in Maryland, the Fourth Amendment prohibited nighttime searches. Unfortunately, in 2017, the Supreme Court denied the certiorari, and as of now, the status of the Jones v. Kirschner case is open.
In 2016, the ACLU in D.C. expressed their opinion on the shooting of Terrence Sterling. His death was another case of police brutality and might have been avoided. Earlier in the District of Columbia, the NEAR Act was introduced to draw data on stops and frisks by the police. The data could have been of great use in exposing racial profiling cases and discrimination, had the Act been adequately implemented.
The ACLU in D.C. attributed the death of Sterling to the negligence and cruelty of the Metropolitan Police Department (“#Terrencesterling: No Transparency, No Accountability”). Thus, the organization called for all the branches of the government to pass and enforce an act that would aid criminal justice and relieve racial tension.
Connecting Citizens with Representatives
There are numerous ways in which American citizens may partake in the lawmaking process or have an impact on it. Recently, it has been argued that one of the most effective ways that may result in fruitful cooperation between a citizen and the legislative branch of the government is calling representatives. On the ACLU official website, one is encouraged to fill in a simple form and wait for a staff member to route his or her call. Moreover, the ACLU gives sample statements that one may use in a phone conversation, for instance, for those would like Congress to vote “no” on the Kavanaugh case (“Congress: Vote No on Kavanaugh”). The ability to communicate with a local congressional representative is granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution which ensures freedom of speech.
Despite many successful cases and petitions, the ACLU is not a picture-perfect human rights organization. As many influential social institutions, the ACLU is not immune to criticism that often comes from those who deem the actions of organizations redundant. For instance, in his 2017 book “Twilight of Liberty: Legacy of the ACLU,” Donohue ponders the radical cost of freedom that the organization is fighting for vehemently.
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For instance, the ACLU opposes the war on drugs waged by the US government for many years. Drug trafficking is linked to higher crime and violence rates, and it is claimed that by fighting for the rights of drug users, the ACLU denies liberties to those who abstain from these substances (Donohue 302). The author discusses how the ACLU has so far opposed almost every measure taken to curtail drug use (Donohue 302). All in all, the main argument of the opponents is that in its interactions with the legislative branch, the ACLU sometimes fails to balance its liberal leanings with common sense. As a result, some of their best intentions might end up in a disaster.
Lawmaking is a complex process that requires taking into account relevant data on current issues and most pressing needs of the population. In the United States, the legislative branch is endowed with many powers which are balanced by the other two branches of the government and other institutions. One of the organizations that seek to partake in the lawmaking process is the American Civil Liberties Union.
With its long and rich history, the ACLU and its local affiliates interact with Congress in a number of ways. First, they file petitions to address the existing issues, and at that, they gather thousands of signatures from citizens. Other ways include defending the cause in court and aiding citizens in communicating their needs and requests to their representatives. Lastly, the ACLU makes comments on most resonant events and provides a framework as to how the situations might be handled.
“#Terrencesterling: No Transparency, No Accountability.” ACLU. District of Columbia. 2016. Web.
“Congress: Vote “No” on Kavanaugh.” ACLU. Web.
Donohue, William A. Twilight of Liberty: Legacy of the ACLU. Routledge, 2017.
Jones v. Kirscher, No. 14-5257 (2016). United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Web.
“Real Criminal Justice Reform Now.” ACLU. Web.
United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012). Supreme Court of the United States. Web.