Lunch With Civil Liberties Jihadists

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 03, 2010

The last decade has not been kind to those who make the protection of individual liberties their priority. They watched as America’s right-wing national government respected only a perverted reading of the Constitution’s second amendment while dismissing the other nine.

They anguished as the United States Supreme Court took its first steps back from protecting civil rights, as high-level Justice Department attorneys provided the Bush administration with justification for torture and - locally - as both the Hawaii state Senate (last session) and the state House (this session) beat a cowardly retreat from extending equal rights to same-sex couples.

They’ve heard a Honolulu city attorney routinely refer to members of the American Civil Liberties Union as “civil liberties jihadists” and a vice president of the United States describe water-boarding as an essential weapon in his war on terror.


Two Saturdays ago, more than 200 of the civil liberties faithful gathered in a Blaisdell Center dining room for the ACLU of Hawaii’s 45th anniversary Grassroots Celebration.

The lunch was forgettable (but for the ticket price of $45 that included lunch and contribution, who could expect better fare?), but the program was - to a scribbler sympathetic to “civil liberties jihadists” - downright inspiring.

As the United States wages two wars half a world away, the ACLU of Hawaii honored peace activists Charles M. Carletta and Mele Stokesberry of Maui Peace Action.

They presented an outstanding attorney award to the law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing for “30 years of taking tough cases.” In accepting, Louise Ing said that her firm “was committed to public interest and civil rights law from the top down.”

Senior partner Paul Alston bemoaned that “so few lawyers in Hawaii feel dedicated to the oppressed” that he feared his firm won because “there wasn’t much competition for the award.” Alston said that his firm provided a variety of legal services, but none so satisfying as those they devoted to public interest law. “That,” he said, “is why we went to law school in the 1960s.”

The ACLU awards committee also recognized Edmund Burke, a big firm lawyer who, in the words of presenter Roger Fonesca, “saw an injustice and set out to deal with it” - by going to Guantanamo Bay to represent uncharged terror suspects.

Burke told the civil libertarians that some 200 prisoners have been released since President Barack Obama took office, that 190 are left - 70 of whom have been cleared for release, and 70 who have been judged too dangerous to be released, “one of whom is my client.”

A final youth award went to 20-year-old Micah Inoue, a University of Hawaii-Hilo student for his work with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. Inoue spoke of the problems faced by the GBLT in the midst of the “hyper-masculine ideology of Hawaii” and “of the need to substitute diversity and inclusiveness for intolerance and ignorance.”

The luncheon ended with a speech by Anthony Romero, ACLU national executive director. Romero noted the hope embodied in the election of Obama to the presidency. “That was a remarkable moment for a Puerto Rican kid like myself,” he said. “It broke a very thick glass ceiling.”

But Romero accused Obama of substituting political pragmatism for some of his campaign promises - notably, to close Guantanamo Bay and uphold the law in regard to torture by the Bush administration.

“We in the ACLU must call out our allies and our enemies on their failures to respect civil liberties,” he said. “We’re going to litigate those cases as we’ve always done. We have a permanent interest in our values: equality and due process.”

Romero stressed that the ACLU’s national office doesn’t fight the primary battle: “Justice must be done locally, not just at the United States Supreme Court.”

In that vein, he criticized the Hawaii state House of Representatives voice vote in dismissing this session’s civil unions bill: “How disgraceful that you had silence in the face of discrimination. That was intolerable.”

The applause for that line was long and loud.

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