In September 2017, a group of Jamaican fisherman were stopped and their boat was sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard. They were then held for over a month in inhumane conditions, including being forced to strip naked, clothed in paper-thin coveralls, and chained to the deck of Coast Guard ships.
One of the main ways ACLU-DC works to protect civil liberties and civil rights is through litigation. This section of our website documents the cases we’re working on now and those we’ve handled in recent years.
We litigate in the federal courts and in the local courts, and at every level: from D.C. Superior Court to the Supreme Court of the United States. We also litigate before specialized tribunals such as the federal Merit Systems Protection Board and the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. And sometimes we’re able to solve a problem by just writing a letter.
Usually we represent a client or group of clients who are parties in a case (plaintiffs or defendants), but sometimes we file amicus briefs (also called friend-of-the-court briefs), explaining our views on an important issue to the court even though we don’t represent a party in the lawsuit.
Most cases come to us through a letter or telephone call from people who feel that their rights have been violated. Some come from other lawyers or referrals from other organizations. Some come from following up on disturbing news reports or because we see a local example of an issue that’s being litigated elsewhere in the country. After initial screening and investigation by our staff, a committee of our Board of Directors, or sometimes the Board itself, decides which cases to pursue.
In deciding which cases to handle, we consider the importance of the civil liberties or civil rights issue that would be presented as a legal matter, the potential impact of the case as a practical matter (for example, how many people it would affect), the clarity with which the issue would be presented, the likelihood of making good law versus the risk of making bad law, the credibility and reliability of the potential client and/or potential witnesses, the usefulness of the case as a vehicle for public education about civil liberties and civil rights or about the ACLU, whether the case would go forward without ACLU participation, the resources that would be required to pursue the case and the availability of those resources, and the availability of other sources of assistance for the potential client. We do not consider the financial circumstances of a potential client.
Sometimes our staff attorneys handle cases alone, but often we work together with lawyers at the National ACLU or at other organizations, and in many cases we’re co-counsel with lawyers at private law firms who work “pro bono,” volunteering their valuable time because they understand the importance of protecting civil rights and liberties. Without their help we couldn’t begin to handle a caseload of the size or significance that we do. In the case descriptions that follow, we acknowledge the attorneys and organizations who have worked with us pro bono.
Over the years, we’ve handled hundreds of cases covering the whole range of civil rights and civil liberties, leading to concrete changes in such areas as freedom of speech and association, racial justice, police practices, LGBT rights, government employees’ rights, prisoners’ rights, children’s rights, immigration rights, and others. In the early years, as the ACLU of the National Capital Area, we covered parts of Maryland and Virginia, but today we focus on matters affecting people who live in, work in, or visit the District of Columbia, as well as matters involving the federal government. With your support, we will continue to protect and advance the rights of all the people of the District of Columbia.