Friday, December 5, 2008

Interview with Art Spitzer of the ACLU

Introduction: When I first contacted Art Spitzer for an interview, he was more than willing to help, but he was decidedly confused. How could I possibly consider him, an aggressive litigator, to be a peacemaker? As I explained to Mr. Spitzer, I chose him for two reasons: 1) the type of work he does, fighting to make the world a more just place by defending the civil liberties of the oppressed, and 2) the way in which he does his work, taking what could otherwise result in a violent or dangerous struggle and moving it into the non-violent (if not altogether peaceful) arena of law. After I explained a little about myself, my interests, and my definition of a peacemaker, Mr. Spitzer was kind enough to share some information about his life and his work with me.

(Q &A):
What brought you to the ACLU?

Individual freedoms and liberty are very important to me in my own life. I’m an independent and nonconformist kind of person, and I think part of the appeal is defending the rights of people like me to live our lives the way we please.
I learned about and got involved with freedom of speech issues in high school and college (while I was in college the Vietnam War was going on, and I was involved in protests). I found it personally meaningful and interesting. I joined the ACLU while I was in college, but I’d always been interested in politics and that kind of thing since I was a teenager (I used to knock on doors for candidates I supported).
I gravitated to law school because I don’t have much talent for anything else – I can’t sing or catch a ball. I found that I thought like the law professors and to some extent the political science professors. We could understand each other. I wasn’t active in the ACLU while I was actually in law school taking classes, but after law school I came to DC and the ACLU. I did some pro bono work as volunteer for the ACLU at first, I think a total of 3 cases, and I liked that kind of work. I found it more personally interesting than litigating over the correct price of barrel of oil. I was lucky with the timing too, it was the right time to leave my job, and the ACLU happened to have an opening (the ACLU was a lot smaller in 1980 than it is today). I’ve never had second thoughts about it.

Have there been any individuals who particularly influenced your work?
I’ve learned from other lawyers I’ve worked with. When I came here in 1980, I was immediately the senior person on the staff as the legal director, and we didn’t have an executive director at the time. And the ACLU was in bad situation financially in 1980. No one was here to tell me what to do or to show me what had been done. I wouldn’t say I had any one mentor. But before the ACLU, I spent three and a half years working at a law firm, and that’s where I learned how to be a good lawyer. I worked with 20 others on different cases, and I learned different things from different ones.

What’s the most rewarding part of the work you do?

I’m spending my time doing stuff I believe in. It’s a plus that most days, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Of course, some days I know I have a brief due tomorrow and I’d better damn well close the door and get to work. But almost every day something unexpected happens. That’s part of the appeal of working within the general framework of civil liberties.

What’s the most challenging part of your work?
The hardest part of my job is trying to do everything. I still haven’t learned how to say “no” enough, and I’m always racing to get everything done. I don’t get to sleep.

Are there any particular civil liberties issues that you are passionate about?
Being in a very small office, I work on pretty much everything. But I think the stuff I care about most tends to be free speech and freedom of expression stuff. I tend to spend more time and feel more strongly about the liberty stuff (the ACLU focuses on liberty and equality) as opposed to others who focus more on equality issues.

How do you deal with losing a case that you care about?
I don’t really find that to be a big problem. In general, as a person, I don’t have very high highs or very low lows. My emotional life is fairly even-keeled, which is true of my personal life too. I’m disappointed if we lose, and I’m happy if we win, but I’m not going to jump off a building or start celebrating in a court room.

Is there any one case or one achievement that you feel most proud of?
That’s hard to say. The case I did that maybe had the most effect on people’s lives was a case I did way back in the 80’s where the question was, does the government have the same obligation to provide an indigent with the other help (besides a lawyer) that he might need in a case (a psychiatrist to testify for an insanity defense, for example). Most states by then had figured out to do that, but there were about a dozen states that didn’t. I represented a person in a death penalty case in Oklahoma where the state refused to provide a psychiatrist. The Supreme Court agreed with us, so he got a new trial. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison instead of death. All states then had to begin providing experts when necessary, and I don’t know how many times that has mattered over the years, but it presumably has affected a number of individuals.

What advice do you wish you’d had when you started working for the ACLU?
I’d say learn good study habits. That’s something I should have learned in junior high. And be careful how much work you take – learn how to say no.

Are there any mistakes you’ve made that you wish you could change?
I think the biggest criticism I’d make of myself is that I and the whole office take too many relatively unimportant cases and projects rather than focusing our efforts on a smaller number of more significant cases. Everyone agrees with the idea in the abstract, to go for impact cases, but then the question is, how do you decide which cases are the most important? Our answer has been to try to do everything.

Have you faced any particular challenges working for the ACLU as an organization?
The financial challenges of the organization in 1980 luckily weren’t my responsibility. Fundraising is a relatively small part of my job, and the ACLU has been stable more or less since the time I got here. There have been years where I’ve gone without a salary increase, but I’ve never had my salary cut and I haven’t been laid off.
There are internal fights about policies and personalities like you’ll find anywhere, and I don’t think I’m a particular expert at how to deal with that. For me, people have thought I was pretty good at being a lawyer and have concluded that outweighs any problems they might have with me (I can be a prickly individual).
Back in the 80’s, there were really no good ways for people in the different offices to talk (no-email then). There weren’t any frequent, regular staff meetings for staff around the country. Now, we have active listserves within the ACLU, with one for litigators. There’s a constant flow of communication, asking for opinions, advice etc. This has been a big change for the better in making the ACLU an effective organization, and for making it have a better sense of community. We have conferences once a year now. It feels to me more like a coherent organization than it was 25 years ago when it was much more local offices working in relative isolation.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m 58, and I’ll be 59 next month. I’m not planning to retire at any particular time. I might want to cut back on my hours - that would be healthy, maybe I’d actually get to sleep - but I plan to stay here until I don’t want to work anymore. Something else I might enjoy would be teaching – and maybe in the future I could if anyone still wanted me.

Conclusion: I came away from the interview with Mr. Spitzer, as expected, impressed by his work for the ACLU. I certainly admire what he has accomplished and appreciated the insight into a career path I might pursue. What stuck with me most, though, were personal aspects that Mr. Spitzer shared with me. I found myself shocked by my very lack of surprise at his recounting of short nights and long, work-filled days, along with his longing for balance in his life. I realized that I have almost come to expect that peacemakers and activists lead shockingly busy lives that significantly infringe on their personal and family lives. And while I admire Mr. Spitzer’s commitment (how do you turn down that deserving case when your workload is already overflowing?), I also find myself promising to remember the importance of just saying no. What good is a burned out peacemaker really going to do, after all? I think that as much as we all want to help take care of the world, we need to remember to take care of ourselves too.

*picture from for a dinner honoring Spitzer's 25 years with the ACLU

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