AIF Blog

The Future for Civil Liberties

May 12, 2015
As the US Supreme Court mulls over the marriage equality case, following the oral arguments delivered on April 28, it’s worth revisiting a session with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. Entitled “Civil Liberties: 2024,” the talk between Romero and the Aspen Institute’s Elliot Gerson covered a wide range of issues and how Romero thought they would play out in the following decade.
Romero correctly predicted that the Supreme Court would hear a comprehensive marriage equality case during their 2015 term, and he was bullish on LGBT people soon having full equality under the law. 
“We’re done; we’ve won,” he said, pointing to the speed with which most states have embraced gay marriage in the last few years.
But, on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision and well before the clash over Indiana’s religious freedom law, Romero also noted that the argument has change, and he predicted a long and tough battle between proponents of equal protection rights and those who claim rights based on religious beliefs.
Here’s his explanation on how the issue is evolving and on the ACLU’s stance on individual rights versus individual beliefs.
Politics and partisanship, said Romero, plays a huge role in the progression of civil rights. “When issues break across party lines, it’s really hard to find the way forward,” he said. But when Democrats and Republicans can find commonality on issues, “you can make real progress.”
Here are some examples of how Romero sees things playing out for major civil liberties issues in which the ACLU is involved:
On national security and civil liberties, Romero is not optimistic. Because President Obama continued the policies President George W. Bush instituted after 9/11, they’ve unfortunately become part of the new normal, he said. And government surveillance of people through phone and other records will be very difficult to undo absent court litigation.
On the use of drones, in particular for targeted killing, Romero said, “The drone issue will be interesting when the Chinese and Russians start using their own drones, because all of a sudden our rules that we have only applied to ourselves will be a little too broad for our counterparts in Russia and China.”
Criminal justice is an area where Romero thinks strong progress is being made; in particular because of bipartisan work on the issue. The ACLU might be fighting the nation’s high incarceration rate on moral grounds, but Romero is happy to work with Republicans whose position on the issue is a fiscal one: cutting government spending by reducing the number of people in the criminal justice system. Romero predicts the nation’s prison population will be cut by half by 2024.  
Restricting the right to vote, with photo ID laws or other rules, “is the most pernicious attack on civil liberties and civil rights,” said Romero. He scoffs at the idea that voter fraud is a problem, saying that the prospect of waves of undocumented immigrants flooding voting booths when they are living under the radar in other ways “is pure poppycock.” Yet the right to vote is essential because it keeps government accountable, and it should not be restricted. Romero is hopeful that politicians will see that with America’s changing demographics, restricting voting rights actually goes against their self-interest in the long run by punishing potential future supporters. 
On abortion and reproductive rights, “this is one where it’s moving in the wrong direction, and I don’t know the silver bullet other than to to give it everything we’ve got,” said Romero, citing as an example a Texas law that limits doctors’ ability to perform abortions. The stigmatization of abortion is the main problem, as he explains in this video clip.
Watch the full session here.
By Catherine Lutz, guest blogger