Conservatives have argued for years that the American Civil Liberties Union is willing to subordinate its core mission to liberal politics. It’s an overstated indictment and there are lots of counter-examples, such as the ACLU’s opposition on free-speech grounds to limitations on political spending. But it’s also true that ACLU officials and members trend left, and this sometimes creates confusion.
Politico has an interesting story on the mixed signals ACLU officials sent about whether the Justice Department should file federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Such a lawsuit is the new objective of those who are rallying for “Justice for Trayvon.” (This amounts to a moving of the goalposts; the original definition of “Justice for Trayvon” was arresting Zimmerman and charging him in state court.)
On the day after Zimmerman’s acquittal, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero issued a statement saying: “Last night’s verdict casts serious doubt on whether the legal system truly provides equal protection of the laws to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity. This case reminds us that it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime.”
But a few days later, Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington office, sent a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. opposing a federal charge. “The ACLU believes the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution protects someone from being prosecuted in another court for charges arising from the same transaction,” Murphy wrote. “A jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and that should be the end of the criminal case.”
Politico noted that the issue of follow-up federal trials long has bedeviled the ACLU: “After the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of African American Rodney King, ACLU leaders split sharply over the possibility of a federal trial for the officers. The group eventually suspended its policy opposing double jeopardy — only to reverse itself the following year.”
Actually, you can support the federal prosecution of the officers in the King case and oppose a federal prosecution of Zimmerman. As The Times noted in an editorial: “The prosecution of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney G. King … was justified by the clear federal interest in protecting the constitutional right to be safe from harm in police custody. The convictions of two officers in that case were justified and welcomed. Here, however, there is no reason to believe that federal prosecutors would fare better than the state of Florida did, and there is no clear federal right to vindicate.”
A federal prosecution of Zimmerman after a thorough, fair and well-contested state trial would violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution’s insistence that no person should be “subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Opposing it should have been a no-brainer for the ACLU from the start.