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March Book of the Month: Fight of the Century

Fight of the CenturyFight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
Reviewed by Diane Rodriguez, Assistant Director

Our national anthem proclaims that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but it hasn’t always been that way for many Americans, and the struggle continues.  Many of the freedoms current generations now enjoy—and may take for granted—were not automatically guaranteed to many Americans. Dedicated advocates have fought in court for our rights, defending the oppressed and underrepresented. It is difficult, groundbreaking work to question the laws and norms of the day and speak up for what is truly fair, constitutional, and just. For the past 100 years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has made it their mission to “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Some of our nation’s greatest legal minds have worked tirelessly with the ACLU to defend freedom and justice for all. Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases celebrates a century of the ACLU’s work, discussing the cases through storytelling by some of our most celebrated authors. Their artful narratives bring the issues closer to home, relating these complex legal cases to our daily lives and reminding us that each and every liberty fought for is a treasure to be defended and protected for future generations.

Each case is introduced with a brief legal synopsis, followed by a story or analysis illustrating the humanity behind the legal issue. It is important to remember there are actual faces behind the “name cases” that get tossed around in the news and in political circles. Someone experienced great wrong before the case was fought and the injustice was righted. One example is Street v. New York (1969), where a 51-year-old African American New York City bus driver with no previous criminal record set his American flag on fire in protest following the shooting of civil rights icon James Meredith. The story of Sydney Street, told by Rabih Alameddine in “The Right to Offend,” tells how he was convicted of violating a statute making it a crime to publicly “cast contempt upon [the U.S. flag] either by words or act.” The ACLU argued that the part of the law regarding “words” was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on First Amendment grounds. Just as fascinating are the actual facts of the flag burning itself. Street was a veteran of World War II and a Bronze Star Medal recipient. He held nothing but honor for the flag, which he treated with the utmost respect until he set it on fire. He took care to see that the flag was properly folded and held it as long as he could before setting it upon paper, so it never touched the ground. His act wasn’t a malicious act against the flag, but a bold protest against the slaying of a community icon—an act meant to bring attention to a great wrong by exercising his freedom of speech. The illustration of his story brought clarity and purpose to his actions beyond the statutory language and legalese.

The story of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) was more than “a series of Supreme Court cases going back over 30 years, pitting the Constitution’s promise of the protection against self-incrimination against a favorite tool of law enforcement: the confession.” Ernesto Miranda was not a model citizen—a small-time criminal whose name eventually became a common term. In this case, the ACLU saw an opportunity for the Supreme Court to secure the rights of criminal suspects. Everyone now knows that to Mirandize means to inform a criminal suspect of his or her rights to remain silent and to an attorney. As Hector Tobar recounts in “Ernesto’s Prayer,” beyond the incarceration and court case of Ernesto Miranda was a series of events that ultimately made Miranda Rights a household phrase, as well as dramatic language in Hollywood crime dramas. One of the drafters of the Miranda language, Nevada County District Attorney Harold Berliner, was also a printer and “produced hundreds of thousands of vinyl cards of the new language” and sold them nationwide. One of the cards fell into the hands of television producer Jack Webb as he was writing the first episode of the crime drama Dragnet. He worked the phrases into the script and created an unprecedented fusion of constitutional law and popular culture, thus educating Americans of their rights for generations to come.

Fight of the Century effectively highlights approximately 40 seminal cases and their fascinating stories that the ACLU fought on behalf of all Americans. While the protections the ACLU has won in their first hundred years have enriched our lives immeasurably, there is more work to be done. In these uncertain times, it is comforting to know that the ACLU is on watch, persisting in their vigilance and passion for justice, offering a beacon of hope and protection for all Americans now and into the future.

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How About a Supreme Court Recipe for Thanksgiving?

SCOTUS ThanksgivingThinking Dessert here: which, for some, is the whole point of the holiday. And Table for 9: Supreme Court Food Traditions & Recipes has some for you to savor, as did all the members of the Court. Perhaps these sweetened their minds to face the issues on their desks a bit more amiably?

How about the Orange Cake with Grand Marnier and chocolate chips? There’s a recipe provided by Martin Ginsburg, the late husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who everyone knows doesn’t cook). His Frozen Lime Souffle (in yet another recipe collection) was said to be Justice Ginsburg’s very favorite dessert.

Your choice: that’s what Thanksgiving is all about—and why not make two desserts? For a copy of the Martin Ginsburg Orange Cake recipe, email the reference team at sfll.reference@sfgov.org and we will send it to you. For the many other recipes and conjunctions with previous Justices and the ones serving now, take a look at the book itself for other temptations such as Chopped Apple Cake, Deluxe Mango Bread, and Permission Pudding; or, as starters, Deviled Almonds or a Cowslip Sandwich. It’s the secret story behind those opinions, and one we can all relish.

Thanksgiving 2019

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November Book of the Month: Separate

SeparateSeparate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation
By Steve Luxenberg

Reviewed by Aaron Parsons, Reference Librarian

In Separate, author Steve Luxenberg examines the social and historical upheaval that encompassed the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction-era United States and that culminated in the ignominious 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation. Luxenberg begins by tracing the history of the separate but equal doctrine from the northern railroads where Jim Crow laws took hold before the Civil War—dispelling the myth that they originated in the post-war south. He goes on to recount the lives of several of the era’s important figures, including plaintiff Homer Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan (the lone dissenter in Plessy), Henry Billings Brown (the opinion’s author), Albion W. Tourgée (Plessy’s lawyer), and Frederick Douglass, leading to their fateful intersection in the Plessy case. The abomination of the Jim Crow laws persisted unabated until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, though they were continually challenged by abolitionists such as Tourgée and the wider Civil Rights movement. Separate helps the reader understand the lives and motivations that shaped both sides of the racial and equality struggles during a dark chapter of our nation’s history—struggles that continue to shape our striving “to form a more perfect union.”

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The Serial Set, Part 3: Supreme Court Nominations

Serial Set SCtOur first two Serial Set Posts discussed HeinOnline’s new database content of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, and the differences in the online offerings of Hein and Lexis. Now, for the last installment of our series, we dive into the documents themselves, since none of this would be worth the bother at all if the Serial Set didn’t offer the most vivid view of the history of the nation.

With the sting of Supreme Court nominations so recently in mind, the Year-End Report, 1st session of 97th Congress (1981) [Report of Senate Comm on the Judiciary, Nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor. Executive Report No. 97-22.], regarding the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, reminds us that consensus was once easier to achieve. Speaking about the recommendation to the full Senate (17 aye, one present), Senator Thurmond, then Chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, summarized those hearings [at p. 147]:

…The Committee recommended the approval of the first woman to be nominated to the United States Supreme Court. In providing the background and recommendation on which the Senate could fulfill its Constitutional duties, the Committee held three days of hearings and considered the views of a wide range of witnesses. On the recommendation of the Committee, the Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Twelve years later, in 1993, the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sent to the Senate Floor with a unanimous recommendation to confirm, with a final Senate vote of  93-3. [Nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Supreme Court, Report from Senate Comm on the Judiciary, Aug 5, 1993]

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And in-between, in 1991, was the highly charged hearing on the nomination of Clarence Thomas as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, with testimony given by Anita Hill of a pattern of sexual harassment by the nominee. With contemporary articles pointing out the all-but-too-close parallels to the conduct of the Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the Serial Set refreshes history, and our memory, with the report of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which ultimately made no recommendation on the nominee, and with the Committee vote tied at 7 to 7. [Nomination of Clarence Thomas, Report of Comm of Judiciary, no recommendation 7-7. Sept 19, 1991]

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Among the many speeches by Senators who rose to explain their vote, Senator Robert Byrd took to the floor with a singular and powerful eloquence, explaining why, in the end, he could not vote to confirm Clarence Thomas — ultimately rejecting the nomination in favor of the grace of the Court itself. [Senator Robert C. Byrd on the nomination of Clarence Thomas]

Even after the final vote, 52-48, the narrative continued, with a potent shift to the another part of the story.  A Temporary Independent Counsel was immediately appointed to investigate the leak of the confidential Anita Hill information, the disclosure of which triggered the public airing of the sexual harassment she detailed, and the hyper-charged televised hearings that followed.

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The subsequent Report of the Temporary Independent Counsel summarized all the key players, and yet in the end concluded that it was unable to identify the source of the disclosures. [Independent Counsel after Clarence Thomas hearings, part 1]

This report of the Temporary Independent Counsel was accompanied by a 172-page collection of exhibits. Among other materials, it included the Anita Hill statement, photographs of Anita Hill arriving at the Senate hearings, deposition testimony from the NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, editorial cartoons, and press reports and newspaper articles on colleagues of Anita Hill supporting her veracity. [Exhibits to Report by Temporary Independent Counsel.May 1992]

The Serial Set has all this and more.

As the 116th Congress, convened on January 3, 2019, begins its work, all the records of whatever comes across Congressional sightlines will be also eventually be added and indexed and become a part of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set.

Databases at the San Francisco Law Library, including HeinOnline and the Lexis are open to the public for free access at the San Francisco Law Library.

For more questions about research in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set or about the scope of other San Francisco Law Library resources, please contact the Reference Team at sfll.reference@sfgov.org   or 415:554-1772.