ACLU head draws inspiration from 'the Boss'
Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, in his Oakland office. His affection for Bruce Springsteen decorates one wall, and mounds of case files fill his office.
Witold "Vic" Walczak, right, meets Bruce Springsteen backstage before a concert in Hershey in 2008. At the concert Mr. Springsteen played "Part Man, Part Monkey" and dedicated it to "the Dover parents and good science education" for their legal challenge against the teaching of intelligent design.
Witold "Vic" Walczak's affection for Bruce Springsteen decorates one wall.
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How much does Witold "Vic" Walczak -- the idealistic, indefatigable, likable-but-litigious-if-need-be legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union -- need Bruce Springsteen to get through the day?
Here's how much:
When Mr. Walczak, along with two other lawyers, took anti-evolutionists to court in 2005 over a York County school district's requirement that "Intelligent Design" be taught in biology classes, they'd convene their clients every morning before the trial to discuss the day's strategy.
And then, before heading to court, Mr. Walczak would play "Part Man, Part Monkey," Mr. Springsteen's satiric take on that other famous evolution case, the 1925 John Scopes "monkey" trial. "Everyone would groan, 'Oh, not that song again,' " he recalled, sitting in his cluttered Oakland office -- just underneath a poster of the Boss. "But I needed the inspiration."
He got it.
Not only did the ACLU win the first legal challenge of intelligent design, effectively sidelining that particular iteration of creationism pushed by the Dover School Board, but the case also led to two backstage meetings with his idol and fellow Darwinist, Mr. Springsteen. The first was before a Pittsburgh concert in 2007, and second a Hershey show in 2008, where the Boss, at Mr. Walczak's request, played "Part Man, Part Monkey" and dedicated it to "the Dover parents and good science education."
Talk about a job with perks.
The pressure, however, doesn't let up. Just last week, after the state Senate passed a bill requiring Pennsylvanians to show photo identification when they vote, Mr. Walczak served notice that the ACLU would sue the state to block the law as unconstitutional.
For Mr. Walczak, 51, this old battle between Republicans and Democrats seems a bit like the movie "Groundhog Day."
"You put incredible amounts of time into these cases and 15 years later you're looking to do them all over again, because there's so much backsliding," he says with a sigh.
Still, Mr. Walczak's courtroom skills remain a marvel to his colleagues, who are planning a "roast" in his honor at the Fairmont Hotel, Downtown, next Sunday, celebrating his 20 years with the state chapter, first as assistant executive director of the Pittsburgh office and then as statewide legal director -- where he has burnished the state ACLU's national reputation as a defender of civil liberties.
Intense yet personable, wildly quotable yet possessed with a fierce work ethic, Mr. Walczak has spent the past two decades taking on a pantheon of bad human behavior: from corrupt police officers to pole dancers to sexting teenagers, from Ku Klux Klan members to their opponents, sometimes as champion (sexting teenagers), sometimes as nemesis (those who would prosecute sexting teenagers and end up paying the ACLU's legal fees instead).
"Don't mess with us," Mr. Walczak says (using a fruity expletive instead "mess") to those who would think the ACLU is bluffing when it threatens to sue. That's been one of his most important missions -- to ensure that rogue government officials understand he means business.
"We'll still be nice. We're not going to stick a knife in your back. We'll always be above board, but we'll come after you if you cross us."
Not everyone is a fan.
"There are politically powerful people who will look for a chance to tell me privately how much they dislike him, but in public they have neither the courage nor intellect to take him on," says Cris Hoel, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Walczak on cases involving the 2009 G-20 summit.
In 2010, the ACLU filed a federal suit against the city of Pittsburgh, Police Chief Nate Harper and more than 15 other police officers for allegedly violating the First Amendment rights of 25 people arrested on the final day of the 2009 G-20 summit here. Some cases have since been settled, others are pending.
"When people think ACLU, it's always, 'I don't like those folks,' at least at first blush," says Kim Watterson, president of the ACLU-PA's board of directors and a lawyer with Reed Smith LLP.
"Every time Vic is on TV describing a case, he does it in a way that has skeptics saying, 'Huh, that makes sense.' "
His likability may also contribute to his success, although not always.
"I love Vic when he's not working. I just totally disagree with him, that's all," added U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the former mayor of Hazleton in Luzerne County, who tangled with Mr. Walczak after that city passed the harshest anti-immigration law in the country -- penalizing employers for hiring or renting to undocumented workers. The ACLU won the case and prevailed on appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the case last year and remanded it to a lower court after upholding an anti-immigrant law in Arizona. A decision is pending.
Possessed with a voice that could best be described as a rasp crossed with a honk, Mr. Walczak's special talent seems to be about making complex legal concepts crystal clear -- although sometimes his colorful language gets in the way.
"I once told a reporter that an opponent was 'full of [manure], and she quoted me. I was mortified."
Clarity is very important to the ACLU's mission. Absolutist in scope, the ACLU has, since 1920, defended all civil liberties, regardless of who benefits: neo-Nazis, dirty old men, mouthy teenagers or foreign detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Despite all the cases involving Christmas creches on public property, "The ACLU is not anti-religion," said Jon Pushinsky, a civil rights lawyer who noted that he and Mr. Walczak once successfully sued to prevent West Mifflin from using its zoning laws to block a predominantly African-American church in Hazelwood from relocating within its borders.
"I went into law to help people who are getting the bum rap and not in a position to help themselves," says Mr. Walczak. "There's nothing better than going out and helping people because they're getting screwed."
The son of a Holocaust survivor and Polish immigrants who came to this country when he was 3, Mr. Walczak says his passion for civil liberties wasn't necessarily shaped by an all-American childhood in Scotch Plains, N.J., but when he went to Colgate University and majored in philosophy. He was inspired by John Rawls' iconic "Theory of Justice," a reconciliation of individual liberty with social equality.
Then there was Poland.
As a college student in 1983, Mr. Walczak was there visiting members of Solidarity, the pro-Democracy labor group, after helping their families who'd sought refuge in the U.S. with resettlement and finances.
But after taking photos of police beating protesters outside a church, the military police pushed him to the ground, demanding his camera. He argued with them, and three shipyard workers came to his aid, knocking the police down and urging him to run. He did, escaping on a streetcar.
For an all-American kid, it was a wakeup call: a friend of his at the U.S. consulate, horrified to learn about his contacts with Solidarity, turned on a large, 1950s-era transistor radio "and told me to whisper in his ear. I was incredulous, and asked if he thought the consulate was bugged. He said, no, he didn't think it was bugged, he knew it was bugged."
The friend ordered him to retrieve every scrap of evidence related to Solidarity, including film rolls and literature, which he then sent back to the U.S via diplomatic pouch. "Apparently I would have gone to jail in Krakow, not a very nice place."
At age 30, after five years working as an advocate for prisoners' rights, he came to Pittsburgh when his doctor wife, Kathy, was offered a job here. He applied for a job in then U.S. Attorney Tom Corbett's office ("They paid way too much money, so I came to the ACLU," he jokes), an irony not lost on him in the wake of the legal clashes he has had with the state's former attorney general, now governor.
"In the mid- to late-'90s I used to run into [Mr. Corbett] and we'd joke about who was more deluded, him or me in thinking that I could be a prosecutor," he said.
Sometimes his cases go national, sometimes they crop up in his own backyard. An Upper St. Clair resident, he recalls opening up a newspaper one day to discover that the township had fined a woman for displaying a painting on her lawn protesting a planned deer hunt.
"And I read this and say, 'This is ridiculous,' " he recalled. "And so I look her name up in the phone book, I find out her house, at 8:30 in the morning I knock on the door, I wake her up, and I say, 'Hi, I'm Vic Walczak from the ACLU. I read the story, I think you're getting screwed. I think we can help you. Are you interested?' "
That little case turned into a federal lawsuit -- which the ACLU won, costing the township $40,000 in legal fees.
Then there was the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which refused to allow the ACLU to buy $3,000 worth of ads to place on their buses advising ex-offenders that they still had the right to vote.
The ACLU won that case, too, which, he says, will end up costing the Port Authority nearly $1 million in legal fees.
So what will the ACLU do with all that money?
"Hawaii," he says, deadpan.
"Don't print that," he adds quickly. "I was joking."
No kidding: The state ACLU, a $2 million statewide operation with three offices and 18 employees, relies mostly on donations, and every day, eager volunteers field dozens of the truly weirdest phone calls ever -- "one woman was complaining that her neighbor's garden 'gnome' was deliberately positioned in a way that it was mooning her," recalled Susan McIntosh, the ACLU's intake supervisor.
Then again, sometimes those calls are for real, as in the "Eat a Bagel, Lose Your Baby" case -- as Reason Magazine described it -- when a distraught Lawrence County woman telephoned to say she'd eaten an "Everything" poppy seed bagel at Dunkin' Donuts, but when she delivered her baby the next day she tested positive for drugs, prompting the county's child and youth services to take the child. After the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit, the baby was returned five days later.
"What the ACLU stands for is what every schoolchild says every morning," he says, "the part at the very end, when they say, 'liberty and justice for all.' But when you ask people, nobody disagrees with liberty, nobody disagrees with justice. It's the 'for all' part that gets people. And that's where we come in."
With that kind of idealism, it's easy to understand Mr. Walczak's affinity with social crusaders such as Mr. Springsteen. After hearing the Boss sing, "Part Man, Part Monkey" while litigating the Dover case, he knew he had to meet him.
So, he wrote to local Pittsburgh rocker and Springsteen friend Joe Grushecky, but didn't hear back until he received a last-minute call -- THE call -- summoning him backstage while he was driving with his wife to hear the Boss.
Joe Grushecky "told me he'd given Springsteen a piece in Rolling Stone about the trial that mentioned me, and that Bruce said, 'Yeah, I saw that. I've always wanted meet that dude.' "
So when they did meet, Mr. Walczak told him he'd played "Part Man, Part Monkey" for inspiration every day before the case, and the Boss took note.
"He said, and I'll never forget it, 'That was such an important case. Thanks for doing it.' And then he said, 'You know, Pats [Patti Scialfa, Springsteen's wife] and I were just lying in bed a few weeks ago when 'Inherit the Wind' [the 1960 film about the Scopes trial starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March] came on and I said, they just did this case again.' "
The next morning, Mr. Walczak flew to San Francisco for a meeting, "but I didn't need an airplane."
First Published March 11, 2012 12:00 am