I have been a “card carrying member” of the ACLU since 1967 and a Goldwater Republican since 1964. I?ve always considered those affiliations entirely consistent, and I wrote my book because I got tired of…
Recently the Indiana Civil Liberties Union brought a suit challenging the constitutionality of Indiana’s property tax assessment formula. We did so because we believe it violates federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection as well as provisions of the Indiana Constitution.
There were many expressions of surprise when we announced our lawsuit. Even many who agreed with our position suggested that it somehow constituted a departure from traditional civil liberties concerns.
What many people do not understand is that a devotion to civil liberties is based on a very simple principle — the principle that all government action is subject to the restraints imposed by the Bill of Rights. That is, the ability of government to make laws which affect us is limited by a set of rules, and those rules are to be found in the Bill
of Rights. To use fairly obvious examples, the legislature cannot abolish the right to trial by jury, or outlaw the Islamic faith or confiscate all firearms. Furthermore, it wouldn’t matter if a majority of the electorate supported each and every one of those actions — they would still be unconstitutional.
The alternative to the Bill of Rights, and to the position that government must play by the rules, is the triumph of simple power. The party that garners the most votes gets to impose its agenda- -unrestrained by rules or constitutional limitations.
The founding fathers understood what partisans of both the left and right frequently forget — the government that can impose my agenda today can impose someone else’s agenda tomorrow. No matter how convinced I may be that I am acting for your own good (suppressing a pornographic book or preventing a hateful KKK rally, for example), what I am really doing by using the state to enforce my position is legitimizing the use of state power.
Under the “rules” embodied in the Bill of Rights, government’s power cannot be used to treat similarly situated people differently (hence the ICLU property tax lawsuit); to suppress ideas (hence our representation of some fairly noxious people); or to prefer or promote one set of beliefs over another (hence suits challenging government sponsorship of religious observances).
Sometimes adhering to principle means you find yourself arguing for the rights of those you hate, or upholding a result you believe to be wrong. It was very difficult for many of us when the ACLU stuck to its position that the second trial of Rodney King’s attackers violated the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy – – the right not to be tried twice for the same crime. Many of us felt in our very bones that the first verdict was a terrible miscarriage of justice. But to depart from adherence to the rules to abandon our belief that the power of government must be limited is to endorse a very different principle: the notion that might makes right and that the only restraint on the power of government is the ability to win and hold elective office.