Every day, volunteers at the American Civil Liberties Union's Oakland office get phone calls from people claiming their civil rights have been violated. Some are legitimate and are dispatched with a simple phone call. Some take longer to dispute, and even turn into federal cases.
There are the wacky calls, too, says Susan McIntosh, the ACLU's intake manager -- such as the one from a woman who wanted the ACLU to sue Giant Eagle and Medicare because her store Advantage Card didn't cover her Medicare-funded prescriptions.
"We also get a lot of people calling to complain that a chip has been implanted in their heads," she says, noting that they are "not usually that upset about the chip -- only that it seems to cause a health problem, like cancer."
All fun aside, during the past 20 years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has racked up some serious wins in court. They include:
• Pittsburgh Police Consent Decree, 1997. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a 10-month investigation after a landmark lawsuit was filed by Witold "Vic" Walczak's office, concluding that Pittsburgh had tolerated a pattern of police brutality since the mid-1980s. The city disagreed, but entered into an unprecedented five-year consent decree mandating federal oversight of the police department's training, monitoring and discipline of officers.
• Dover v. Kitzmiller, 2005. The first legal challenge to the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools. The ACLU claimed that intelligent design was merely creationism re-packaged. After a six-week trial, the federal judge agreed.
• Lozano v. City of Hazleton, 2006. The first federal trial challenging a municipality's efforts to regulate illegal immigration. The ACLU won at the trial level and on appeal, but in June 2011, the Supreme Court vacated the decision and remanded it to a lower court for reconsideration in light of its ruling in favor of an Arizona employment law targeting undocumented immigrants. The parties await a decision from the appeals court.
• Allegheny County Public Defender's office consent order, 1998. A class action lawsuit was filed in 1996 charging the Allegheny County Public Defender's office was understaffed and underfunded resulting in deprivation of right to adequate counsel in criminal and juvenile prosecutions. The consent order doubled the budget and staff, and ordered changes in how lawyers handle cases.
• Same sex benefits, 1996. Henson v. Pitt, a suit trying to force the University of Pittsburgh to provide domestic-partner benefits to same-sex partners. The ACLU lost, "but Pitt ended up doing the right thing after that by giving the benefits," Mr. Walczak said.
• G20 summit protests, 2009. A federal judge refused to impose restraints on police harassment of people providing food and support to protesters, which allowed the police to effectively neutralize large-scale protests.