Legal Director Vic Walczak: A Profile

A profile of Legal Director Vic Walczak, who is celebrating 20 years with the ACLU-PA

By Lauri Lebo, ACLU-PA Board Member

In his two-decade career with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Legal Director Witold "Vic" Walczak has earned a reputation as a formidable defender of civil liberties. He's famously tangled with creationists, immigration opponents, corrupt police forces and even a district attorney eager to prosecute under-age girls for texting clothed photos of themselves.

Those who know him say the state affiliate's legal docket reflects his commitment to defending the Bill of Rights, whether it is a high-profile church-and-state battle or the free speech right to swear at one's overflowing toilet in the privacy of one's own home.

He is a darling of the media, in Pittsburgh, throughout the state, and across the country. Reporters seek him out because they appreciate his always quick return of a phone call and his even quicker wit - a trait he has, admittedly, taught himself to reign in a bit over the years.

In 20 years, he has not lost his understanding of the price of injustice, whether defending anti-war protesters or fighting for a single father whose children were seized because he had consensual sex with a girl of legal age.

But ask people what they most attribute to the state ACLU's success under Walczak's leadership and their answers are simple.

"People just like Vic," said Kim Watterson, a volunteer ACLU attorney at Reed Smith LLP and president of the ACLU-PA's board of directors. "I just think he's a real ordinary guy, who speaks very passionately about issues, and connects those issues to people's lives."

Cyndi Sneath, one of the 11 parents represented by the ACLU-PA in 2005's Kitzmiller v. Dover intelligent design case, said that she and her fellow plaintiffs were instantly drawn to Walczak. "People connect with Vic because he's warm and personable," she said. "When meeting him for the first time, it's an instant feeling of connecting with a person who is genuine."

"We're lucky to have him," said Mike Louik, an attorney with Rosen Louik & Perry and past president of the ACLU-PA board. "Anybody in the ACLU family would tell you that."

In 1991, Walczak was a 30-year-old lawyer with five years of prisoners' rights experience under his belt and a commitment to civil liberties sharpened from time spent as a young college student in martial-law Poland.

He had followed Kathy, his doctor wife, to Pittsburgh, a place reeling from the collapse of the steel industry. Roslyn Litman, a prominent local attorney and volunteer ACLU lawyer, spoke to Walczak about prospects at some of the city's high-paying private legal firms. But she was particularly impressed with his passion for and knowledge of civil liberties.

At the time, the ACLU in Pittsburgh Chapter operated relatively independently from the state affiliate, with a separate operating budget, governing board, and legal docket. The chapter's executive director was about to retire, but there were no openings yet in the small but active office.

But Litman, who sat on the Pittsburgh Chapter's board of directors and legal committee, did not want to lose Walczak to a more financially lucrative position. "He was so passionate, articulate and committed to civil liberties," she said.

Litman contacted Louik, who chaired the Pittsburgh Chapter's legal committee, and urged him to meet with Walczak.

"I remember we were so impressed with his drive and commitment to the Bill of Rights," Louik recalled. "As far as he was concerned, coming to work for the ACLU in Pittsburgh was his dream job."

In order to hold onto him, a position for Walczak was carved from the sparse operating budget so that he might step into the executive director position when the time came a year later. For the next 13 years, he tackled cases in western Pennsylvania, establishing the ACLU's reputation as formidable foe of authoritarian bullies. Before Walczak became the chapter's executive director, the Pittsburgh media rarely mentioned the ACLU, Louik said. Now, he gets sought for comment not only in local cases, but for national stories.

Those who have watched him over the years speak of how he has grown into the position. When he started, he was a talented skilled young attorney. But as he himself admits, he needed to learn how to control his message.

"Sometimes when I'm litigating, I get this cocky Jersey attitude that I've learned to control a bit," Walczak said. "Years ago, in an interview with the Legal Intelligencer about something Allegheny judges were doing or not doing, I made the response that they were 'full of shit' and the reporter printed it. I was mortified."

After serving 13 years as the executive director, Walczak became the state's legal director in 2004.

Watterson started practicing law at the same time Walczak was hired as Pittsburgh's executive director. She has watched him transform not only the Pittsburgh office, but the state affiliate into one of the most prominent ACLU legal operations in the country.

"To be a great state legal director, you need to be a great lawyer and great in the courtroom," Watterson said. "And it goes without saying that Vic is at the top of his game. But in addition to his legal work, he's also done a great job of getting the hearts and minds of folks who don't necessarily identify as ACLU supporters.

"He is able to communicate effectively in simple terms to someone sitting on their couch watching him on TV, or listening to him on the radio about why they should care, about why this should matter to them. That's a rare quality for any attorney."

In 2003, he was named Federal Lawyer of the Year award from the Federal Bar Association's Western Pennsylvania Chapter.

"Today, not only is he probably the most highly regarded civil liberties lawyers in western Pennsylvania," Louik said, "But he's gone from our assistant executive director to being a formidable civil rights lawyer on the national level."

Certainly, the high-profile cases that Walczak has successfully fought helped earn him that reputation. The trial over Hazleton's anti-immigration ordinance in 2007 was making national headlines three years before Arizona's SB 1070 grabbed the limelight. Kitzmiller v. Dover drew attention from around the world.

But, as Louik points out, Walczak has earned attention for the less glamorous cases, but ones that nonetheless send out an important message to the public on free speech, privacy, and freedom of religion.

Unlike many other state ACLU affiliatess, long-time board members say Pennsylvania is somewhat unusual in that it doesn't typically set its legal agenda in advance based on issues and then go after cases.

"Vic is very responsive to what's called brush fire cases," Louik said. "Vic's approach is that we must be very responsive to those cases that pop up here and there in communities across the state, like lawn sign restrictions for political candidates. He would take those cases, and he's very good at moving quickly, and the result is that he's sending out a message to the broader public about what is constitutional and what is not. Hopefully he's deterring others from violating the Constitution.

Louik also said that Walczak has an innate knack for cases that attract attention. He recalls the 2008 case of Babines v. Adams Township, in which a woman who taught pole dancing as a form of exercise was denied an occupancy permit by her municipality.

"I was like 'Vic, pole dancing? What are you doing?'" Louik said. "Next thing you know, it's being featured in The New York Times."

"We haven't had a docket over the last several years that hasn't come from our intake line," said Watterson. "Intelligent design, Hazleton, our detention cases, student free speech? That all comes from the people. But I think what drew them to pick up the phone and call us is that Vic has spoken so strongly about freedom of speech and the role of government."

"He has a wonderful ability to talk civil liberties not only to other civil libertarians, but to other folks who don't get it," Louik said. "Additionally, he has won the respect and admiration of judges, not only because he's an eloquent spokesperson, but they respect his legal talent."

"Vic is wonderful in dealing with the media," Litman said. "He's really good at sound bites and really good at interviews. He gets a lot of press because reporters know they can rely on what he says. He doesn't overstate, although he's passionate about his views and protecting client's rights. And that comes across."

Since he was a boy, Walczak has a finely developed sense of what it must mean to be an outsider. The son of a Polish Holocaust survivor, he was born in Sweden and came to the United States at age three. His first language was Polish and he remembers being raised with customs outside the realm of mainstream America. It was this kind of outside-looking-in that honed in him a sensitivity to those who struggle to fit into society.

His family eventually settled in New Jersey and he graduated from Colgate University with a degree in philosophy (and where he played Division 1 soccer) and Boston College Law School. In college, he traveled to Poland in 1983 at the height of the Solidarity Movement. While there, he experienced firsthand police brutality and suppression of free speech. After taking pictures of officers beating protesters, he was attacked as police tried to seize his camera and fellow protesters helped him escape. After sneaking the photos out of the country through the consulate, he was strip-searched by authorities at the German border. The experience left an indelible impression. As an American, he has always taken civil liberties for granted. After returning home, he decided he would one day become an ACLU attorney.

In honor of his 20 years with the ACLU-PA, I asked Walczak to discuss his career and the cases of which he is most proud.

Q: What have been the most stark changes in the ACLU-PA in past two decades?

A: The growth in staff and the professionalization of the organization, which together increased our effectiveness in fighting for civil liberties. I have no empirical evidence - this is the intelligent design answer - but as we got more effective, slowly but surely, our work was publicized in all sorts of media. I think that inspired more people to want to join the organization and to also call when they have problems.

Q: What role have you played in those changes?

A: I hire good people. I've made some really good attorney hires. Also, I like to think I helped to professionalize our work. One of my earliest lessons was from my mentor at Maryland Legal Services, who told me, "The one feature that you can give away and never get back is your integrity." Once you give it away, that's it. So I've tried to be open and honest and professional at all times. I think that approach has increased respect from judges. They may not like what we do all the time, but they respect the quality and professionalism of the work.

Q: Where do you imagine we will be in another 20 years?

A: Progress is not linear. Are we going to have ups and downs? Yes, but I think the trajectory is up. Granted, the Supreme Court is making the doors for people to file civil liberties cases smaller and harder to fit through and harder to win once they get through. In light of this I think community organizing and lobbying will only grow in importance. So more staff, more cases, more public education efforts.

Q: How have you evolved personally since coming to Pittsburgh 20 years ago?

A: Intelligently. I've become better at the craft of lawyering, having spent so much time working with tremendous lawyers. I've grown in ability to translate complex legal issues into Joe and Josephine Six-Pack speak. So often lawyers, and even more so, really good lawyers, just don't know how to communicate in simple English so people will care.

Q: Has eternal vigilance gotten harder or easier in the past 20 years? In what way?

A: I don't think it's harder, but there are so many new challenges, it can be hard to keep up. With the advent of new technology, DNA for example, we are constantly being called upon to apply new standards of constitutional law to a new medium. Not a day goes by that we aren't asked for our expertise on case law and how it applies to this new technology and I say "I have no idea." Free speech cases about students and the Internet for example. Child pornography laws simply don't apply to those kids who are innocently and naively sending pictures to their paramours. The legal framework doesn't fit, so we are left figuring out how the constitutional law involving communication and art and photography shake out to adapt to this new technology. It keeps you humble. Not a day goes by that I don't feel inadequate. You just have to learn to live with it.

Q: If you weren't an ACLU attorney, what would you be?

A: An investigative journalist. I would like to be working to identify injustices and doing something to fix it. Like Upton Sinclair writing The Jungle, and the fact that the book changed our food laws. That was just so cool. Also, I'm so proud of my friend Joe Berlinger [documentary filmmaker behind the film Paradise Lost about the West Memphis Three, who were unjustly convicted for murder and spent 18 years in prison. They were released from prison in August.]. If he hadn't exposed the problems with their convictions, if he hadn't made that initial documentary, I have no doubt they'd still be behind bars.

The other thing I would be would be a national park ranger. I love being outdoors in beautiful, scenic places, especially mountains..

Q: What did you learn from Larry Frankel? (Frankel was a long-time ACLU-PA lobbyist and one of Walczak's closest friends, who died in 2009.)

A: Larry's legacy is that we can and must fiercely defend our nonpartisanship. So much of what we do is consistent with the liberal left and there is always a temptation to give in and identify only with them. But not every civil liberties issue can be identified as a "liberal" issue, most notably issues related to due process and privacy. And the ACLU's integrity is grounded in its nonpartisanship. When he was in Harrisburg, Larry was able to build bridges with a lot of unlikely allies. He taught us that we can't let political ideology get in the way of our work. Admittedly, it's gotten tougher in the past 10 years.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a cynic or as an optimist?

A: Profoundly both. I don't know if I'm an optimistic cynic or cynical optimist. I've given myself those little tests that you see in women's magazines and I've always been off the chart on the optimist side. But my level of cynicism with government and politicians has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. Which is why I think the ACLU is as important as it's ever been in its 91 year history.

Q: What are the five ACLU cases you worked on of which you are most proud?

A: I actually have six.

1. Henson v. University of Pittsburgh The university denied lesbian and gay employees equal compensation by refusing to provide their partners the same health insurance benefits that they provide to spouses of heterosexual employees.

"We actually lost the case in 2004 due to procedural shenanigans, but it galvanized a discussion for sexual minorities in a way no other case did. Shortly after we lost the case the university changed its policy. The case was very timely and led to a public dialogue about gay rights so it brought progress."

2. Williams v. City of Pittsburgh In 1996, Walczak filed a lawsuit against the city of Pittsburgh on behalf of the NAACP, Parents Against Violence, and 66 individual police misconduct victims. Among the abuses challenged were the practice of arresting and jailing innocent people for exercising their First Amendment right to question or complain about police officer behavior; the arrest and prosecution of people on the basis of false charges; the undertaking of unreasonable searches and seizures in African-American communities; and the use of gratuitous and excessive force against citizens of all races.

"We spent three three years building that case and used it to entice the U.S. Department of Justice to enter the fray and use, for the first time, new powers Congress conferred in the wake of Rodney King's beating and the LA riots. Together with DOJ, we got a terrific court agreement that overhauled the way Pittsburgh managed and disciplined police officers. It had a tremendous impact in reducing police misconduct. Just a huge case."

3. Doyle v. Allegheny County In 1996, the county was failing to provide its public defender system with the tools necessary to enable it to adequately represent its clients, which numbered about 25,000 annually. The county had cut the public defender's budget so drastically that the office's attorneys had astronomical caseloads, making it impossible for them to visit clients, investigate cases, and prepare adequately for trial.

"We brought the case against Allegheny County based on the Sixth Amendment right to adequate legal representation. Here was a case where we were really dealing with lives and liberties. The office was recognized as one of the most dysfunctional public defenders by the American Bar Association. We were so busy at the time. We were juggling Henson and the Pittsburgh police department case, but it was so important. In 1998, we got a consent decree to double attorneys and support staff."

4. Acorn v. City of Philadelphia This 2003 lawsuit challenged the use of protest zones by the Bush/Cheney Administration.

"They were segregating protesters. Anyone who spoke ill of the administration was kept in a pen out of sight andout of mind of everyone including the media. I really pushed for national to take this on. If there is a core tenet of the First Amendment, it is that the government can't discriminate against people based on their views. The case ended up getting dismissed. In the course of litigating, the Secret Service disavowed that this was happening, agreed that legally it couldn't happen, so the court directed the Secret Service not to do it."

5. Lozano v. City of Hazleton A federal court in 2007 declared unconstitutional a local ordinance that sought to punish landlords and employers for doing business with undocumented immigrants. The case continues to wend its way through the courts.

"I think that case was really important because Hazleton was the first city of more than 100 to pass these anti-immigrant ordinances. Our prompt lawsuit, combined with our early success, threw a lot of sand in the gears of the anti-immigrant movement. Mayors all over the country were talking about adopting similar laws, but after the decision in 2007, many communities backed off. While some passed, I think the damage was kept down. I think the important takeaway message from this trial was that constitutional rights apply to everyone, not just U.S. citizens.

6. Kitzmiller v. Dover The ACLU-PA represented a group of parents in a challengea local school board's effort to incorporate Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution into science class. As the first constitutional test case of the concept, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, III ruled that ID was merely revamped creationism and thus a violation of the separation of church and state.

"This was a case about the integrity of science education in this country and preventing the encroachment of organized religion into public education. I think we incapacitated it, but it's not dead, and I don't think it will ever die."

--September 2011