The American Civil Liberties Union, stung by the backlash to its initial reaction to the George Zimmerman acquittal, has reversed its position on whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) should continue its post-acquittal pursuit of Zimmerman. The day after the acquittal, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero released a statement that endorsed the furthering of the DOJ’s hunt against Zimmerman, saying:
Last night’s verdict casts serious doubt on whether the legal system truly provides equal protection of the laws to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity. This case reminds us that it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime.
The statement also advocated additional federal guidance for law enforcement by using race and new legislation to stop racial profiling.
But the focus on civil rights flew in the face of the ACLU’s traditional position on guarding civil rights. In 1993, after the Rodney King incident, the ACLU adopted a policy that stated, “There should be no exception to double jeopardy principles simply because the same offense may be prosecuted by two different sovereigns.”
King had been beaten by L.A. police officers in 1992, and after they were acquitted, the ACLU was riven by a schism between those who believed the officers should be tried for violating civil rights and those who believed that the double jeopardy policy should preclude doing so. At first, the pro-civil rights group won, but a year later those who eschewed pursuing a second trial reversed the policy to ensure there would be no double jeopardy. At the time, the New York Times said the ACLU was “torn by internal disagreement,” and the Boston Globe said the organization was “twisting itself up in knots.”
After Romero’s statement went public and the subsequent backlash, ACLU Washington Office Director Laura Murphy wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday:
We are writing to clearly state the ACLU’s position on whether or not the Department of Justice (DOJ) should consider bringing federal civil rights or hate crimes charges as a result of the state court acquittal in the George Zimmerman case. The ACLU believes the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution protects someone from being prosecuted in another court for charges arising from the same transaction. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and that should be the end of the criminal case.
Romero suddenly had a quite different position on the matter, telling POLITICO:
I think there are real serious concerns about going back on the double jeopardy policy. It is a slippery slope that if you allow the government to prosecute individuals for one crime and then fail and try again, it creates the wrong incentives for the criminal justice system. Good civil libertarians will differ on this issue, like lot of our issues that divide the membership or the leadership, whether it’s campaign finance or whether it’s civil rights prosecutions after a failed trial. The unique part of the ACLU is that we have to balance some of the concerns that we have that are longstanding deep seated values like racial justice against broader concerns about the administration of justice . . .
But Ira Glasser, the executive director of the ACLU from 1978 to 2001, was irritated at the organization’s knee-jerk response to the verdict. He said Romero’s letter indicated “the transformation of the ACLU from a civil liberties organization to a liberal bandwagon organization.” He added:
It’s just astonishing to me that a statement like that could go out without any understanding that they were violating their own policy. The ACLU’s almost unique mission is to stand against the tide of turning Zimmerman and the verdict into the opportunity to be a symbol of everything that’s wrong with race and our criminal justice system in our country. No only didn’t they stand against the tide, they increased the tide. I was very unhappy with it.
Former ACLU board member Michael Meyers, who is black, echoed Glasser, saying:
The ACLU is out of line; a civil liberties organization is concerned with the accused getting a fair trial, which includes the right of effective counsel, due process, and protection against double jeopardy. No government, much less an angry community, is entitled to a verdict to their liking . . . The ACLU is not the NAACP; the ACLU is the guardian of individual liberty, not a victims’ rights or racial grievance group.
Other critics note that Romero’s statement was not the only evidence of the organization coloring the Trayvon Martin death as racial profiling; they pointed to
posts on the ACLU site that were titled “Justice for Trayvon.”
Ironically, the Supreme Court has stated repeatedly that simultaneous or successive prosecutions by either the federal government or the state government do not violate the portion of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution dealing with double jeopardy, but the ACLU has challenged that position.
The ACLU’s instinctive response to the Zimmerman acquittal notwithstanding, Romero insisted that the ACLU is not a mouthpiece for liberal interest groups, saying, “We’ve often had different points of view with our Planned Parenthood colleagues…We’ve had clashes with gay rights groups. It’s part of what makes the ACLU such a distinct player in these fields.”