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Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases

Review

Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases

January 19, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is devoted to protecting the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to all individuals. A small group of politically active Americans, including Helen Keller, Jane Addams and Roger Baldwin, created the organization as the result of a fever that spread across America in response to post-World War I nationalist zeal.

The history of the ACLU is one of struggle and support of marginalized people and unpopular causes. It is also the history of the hope that America can offer its citizens as an example to the rest of the world of a Bill of Rights and the ideals for which it stands. One hundred years have neither diminished the ACLU’s passion nor its importance and insistence on the recognition of the protections the Constitution provides to every American, no matter how unpopular the cause and even if the people it protects sometimes despise the freedom it represents.

"FIGHT OF THE CENTURY is an inspiring and thoughtful book that attorneys and all citizens will find befitting of the ACLU’s substantial impact on American law and society."

FIGHT OF THE CENTURY is a unique collection of essays by a wide range of individuals whose body of work spreads far beyond traditional legal writing. Editors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman have selected influential, well-known writers, including Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, Salman Rushdie, Ann Patchett and Scott Turow, to offer brief essays about landmark ACLU cases. Each of them gives a unique take on historic decisions, such as Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade and Loving v. Virginia. In total, 40 cases are discussed here, and the essays range from personal recollections to narrative history. Each piece sheds light on the work of the ACLU as this remarkable organization shaped our Constitution and our country.

Sergio De La Pava, a New York attorney and author of three novels, has written a compelling essay on one of the ACLU’s significant victories, Gideon v. Wainwright, the Florida case decided by the Supreme Court that expanded the right to counsel to all serious criminal cases. Prior to the court’s ruling, many states provided attorneys only to those charged with death penalty offenses. In Gideon, the ACLU appeared as an amicus curiae, a friend of the court. But its written contribution was significant, and they were allowed to participate in oral arguments. The decision was unanimous in favor of Clarence Gideon, who was wise enough to ask the trial judge early in the proceedings for an attorney. Gideon persisted in that request all the way to the Supreme Court and eventually prevailed.

Contrasting the theory of the law with the harsh realities of life, De La Pava observes that Gideon and his unnamed client --- who is housed on Rikers Island in New York and facing a lengthy prison sentence --- have one significant difference: “I am never going to be sentenced on the case that links us. I’m free to theorize about the evolution of the right to counsel and the strange relationship it has birthed. Client wants to know when he’s getting out.”

In another essay, Scott Turow takes the ACLU to task for its support of the position in Buckley v. Valeo that certain money spent on campaigns is tantamount to speech and protected by the First Amendment. He continues to believe that the ACLU incorrectly argued that many forms of campaign donations should be treated as “speech.” It speaks volumes about the ACLU and its philosophy that a book on major decisions allows one writer to vehemently criticize its position, ending with Turow’s plea for the organization to declare, “We were wrong. We apologize to all Americans for a bad decision made with good intentions. We will work tirelessly to correct our mistake.”

FIGHT OF THE CENTURY is an inspiring and thoughtful book that attorneys and all citizens will find befitting of the ACLU’s substantial impact on American law and society.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 24, 2020

Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases
edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

  • Publication Date: January 21, 2020
  • Genres: Essays, History, Nonfiction, Politics
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501190407
  • ISBN-13: 9781501190407