COVID-19 only underscores ACLU’s longstanding fight for society’s most vulnerable

Photo from the Elkton prison website.

As history painfully reminds us, during times of social uncertainty, political opportunism often leads to attacks on our civil liberties. 

At the ACLU of Ohio, we don’t choose between protecting people’s lives and safeguarding democracy. We can do both at the same time. 

Our organization’s priority work has long been about standing up for our state’s most vulnerable populations, while standing with the U.S. Constitution. That means, even in regular times, we are at the forefront fighting for those swept into our racist mass incarceration system, locked away in overcrowded prisons and jails; for refugees and immigrants; for women in need of abortion services and the preservation of their bodily autonomy; for disenfranchised and suppressed voters; for people with disabilities; for those living with health care disparities; and more. 

The COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the injustices faced by many, too often caused by callous politicians who ignore, then scapegoat, the most poor and marginalized among us. 

Pandemics have a way of cutting through and exposing falsehoods and systemic failures. Our society’s iniquities and our democracy’s fragilities are now much more evident for all to see. 

Since March 10, as this health crisis has unfolded, the ACLU of Ohio has relentlessly advocated for those placed in most jeopardy. We are sounding the alarms, filing lawsuits, organizing across the state — even airing television ads — on behalf of the many who are most vulnerable. Our staff may be physically remote, working from home right now, but in every way we are working harder than ever, and moving in lock step to accomplish our missional goals.

To date, the ACLU nationally has filed about 80 COVID-related legal actions, with more than 10 percent of those cases originating in Ohio.

Take, for example, hypocritical attempts made by the state in mid-March to co-opt the COVID-19 crises to deny Ohio women their constitutional right to time-sensitive abortion care. The ACLU of Ohio quickly fought back. We moved for a temporary restraining order, which we won. When the state appealed, the appeal was rejected by the 6th Circuit. A preliminary injunction was ultimately granted on April 24, which means Ohio’s abortion clinics remain open. 

On April 13, we filed a class action lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Elkton federal prison at Lisbon, Ohio, seeking release of the hundreds of prisoners who are medically vulnerable, and thus at risk of grave complications or death if they contract COVID-19, which has taken a foothold at the facility. We asked for a phased-release plan that would reduce the prison population to allow for social distancing. The court granted our request on April 22, ordering approximately 800 prisoners’ cases to be promptly reviewed and provisions made for their timely release.

We have filed successful habeas corpus petitions on behalf of medically vulnerable immigrants detained at four ICE facilities in Butler, Geauga, Morrow, and Seneca counties. Six people now have been released in the past 10 days, thanks to the ACLU’s intervention, and we’re still working fervently on behalf of many more.

We filed two separate legal actions related to Ohio’s primary election, with the goal of ensuring that democracy can thrive, even in a pandemic. Even if rescheduled or retooled to provide for public health and safety, Ohio elections must still comply with the laws and constitution of our state, and with the National Voter Registration Act. It’s also imperative that we safeguard future elections from political maneuvering and government overreach, including those who might try to misappropriate this pandemic as precedent for unconstitutional meddling down the road. 

We also filed two lawsuits in support of the pro-democracy campaign, Ohioans for Secure and Fair Elections, to place a measure before voters in November 2020 that would expand access, participation, and integrity of elections in our state. 

On April 14, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed 6-to-1 that the Ohio Ballot Board’s earlier decision to split the initiative into four separate measures was unlawful. The Court ordered the measure restored to one single package of voting reforms that would benefit all Ohioans.

Yesterday, unfortunately, the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas dealt the campaign a disappointing setback when it denied any relief from the ballot initiative signature collection requirements, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the governor’s mandatory stay-at-home order. Other courts have recognized that in these unique and extreme circumstances, adjustments to ballot access must be made to protect public health and our democracy. 

We will press on. Far from being dissuaded, distracted, or diminished by the COVID-19 crisis, the ACLU is proving that rising to the occasion, even during the roughest of times, is what people have come to expect from us.

This year marks the ACLU’s 100th anniversary, both nationally and in Ohio. It’s not lost on any of us right now that the ACLU’s formative years coincided with some of our nation’s most difficult and turbulent times, as civil liberties were under widespread attack at home during World War I and as the Spanish Flu ravaged, killing an estimated 675,000 Americans.

The ACLU, however, quickly emerged as a powerhouse champion for our nation’s most cherished principles of liberty and justice – even if those ideals were not yet, and are not yet, truly enshrined for all.

“This is an extraordinary time,” wrote one ACLU of Ohio member to us yesterday, “and I so much appreciate the ACLU’s extraordinary response.”

Safeguarding civil liberties, expanding civil rights, and promoting fundamental fairness for all people – these are the imperatives of any enlightened democracy. Yet, in times of extraordinary crisis, when some in our society are deemed expendable while others accumulate even greater advantage, the eternal vigilance of liberty must be owned forthrightly by every citizen of conscience.

J. Bennett Guess is executive director of the ACLU of Ohio.

J. Bennett Guess
J. Bennett Guess is the Executive Director at the ACLU of Ohio where he is responsible for leading the statewide organization to fulfill its mission to expand and protect civil liberties for every Ohio resident, with a specific focus on sentencing reform, bail reform, election modernization, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive justice. Before joining the ACLU, Ben held a number of high-level positions with the United Church of Christ’s national headquarters, based in Cleveland. Guess is a graduate of the University of Kentucky with a B.A. in journalism. He completed graduate studies in public administration at Murray State University, and earned a Master of Divinity at Vanderbilt University and a Doctor of Ministry at Chicago Theological Seminary.