His grandfather escaped from the Treblinka death camp, his grandmother died there. Decades later, when Witold "Vic" Walczak returned to his family's native Poland, a young man amid the Solidarity protests of the 1980s, he got knocked around and strip-searched by police. "At that point, I knew I wanted to be a civil liberties attorney," said Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Today, Walczak helps lead the legal fight for what is fast becoming Pennsylvania's preeminent civil rights issue: gay marriage. He's co-lead counsel, with Philadelphia lawyer Mark Aronchick, in the federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the state law that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman. No hearing date has been set, but the furor hasn't subsided since the suit was filed July 9 in Harrisburg by 10 gay couples. More than 20 gay couples were issued marriage licenses in Montgomery County last week after Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes announced he believed the state law was unconstitutional and would not enforce it.
Republicans accused Hanes of overstepping his authority by ignoring a law he didn't like, and protesters gathered at the office on Friday. Earlier this month, Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane stunned Republicans and same-sex-marriage opponents - and thrilled supporters - when she announced she could not ethically defend the ban in court, and would not. The next day, a Montgomery County pastor was arrested as he tried to reach Kane's office to pray for her. The controversy that surrounds big cases is familiar to Walczak, 52, who for more than two decades has pressed suits on free speech, religious liberty, police misconduct, immigration, and biblical creationism. This week, he's in Harrisburg seeking to overturn the state's voter ID law, which proponents say is aimed at preventing fraud and opponents call a political effort to disenfranchise minorities. "It's the world's greatest legal job," Walczak said. "Every day I get to wake up, survey the Pennsylvania horizon, see injustice, and say, 'We're just the people to fix that.' " The Soviet Union dominated Poland at the end of World War II. Within a few years, Jews were invited to leave. Many headed to the new nation of Israel, to other countries in Europe, to North and South America. Walczak's parents started life over in Sweden in the late 1950s, and he was born there in 1961.
The family emigrated to Canada and then, in 1964, to Nashville. As he grew, Walczak noticed the separate water fountains and restrooms for blacks and whites. His mother told him that people shouldn't be treated differently based on skin color, that it was wrong to segregate and discriminate. When he was about 10, his family settled in Scotch Plains, N.J., where he attended high school. As Walczak studied at Colgate University and majored in philosophy, conditions worsened in Poland. The Communist government declared martial law in 1981, banning pro-democracy groups like Solidarity and jailing activists.
After graduation in 1983, Walczak headed to Poland. At a demonstration, he raised his camera to take photos. "The next thing I know, I'm on the ground," he said. "There are three police officers standing over me demanding the camera." In conversations, friends would interrupt to tell him to stop talking about politics - their rooms were bugged and the government listening. "It was a window into a society without civil liberties," Walczak said. People had few physical possessions - no cars, small apartments, limited food, but "as I talked to them about what they could have, if they could change anything, they told me, 'The right to vote, the right to free speech.' “
As he left Poland, police entered Walczak's train compartment and ordered him to strip. They tore open his luggage. Satisfied he carried nothing illegal, or at having imposed an indignity, they moved on. "Poland - that partly explains who he is," said Eric Rothschild, a lawyer with Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. in Philadelphia. The two worked together on a landmark 2005 suit over the teaching of intelligent design in a York County school district. Rothschild said that while his cocounsel strongly believed in separating science from religion, he never forgot the parents and children at the heart of the case. "We were representing clients," Rothschild said. "Not an ideology. Real clients, real people." The ACLU infuriates a lot of people.
"No organization in America enables terrorism as much as the ACLU," conservative news host Bill O'Reilly has said, angered by the group's demands for due process for accused terrorists and its efforts to stop New York police from searching bags in subways. Even liberal supporters wince at some of the ACLU's clients, which have included the North American Man/Boy Love Association, the American Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Nation of Islam. "We don't stand up for terrorists or criminals because we like them," Walczak said. "We do it because they deserve the same process as everybody else. "Think about what every kid says in school everyday: 'Liberty and justice for all.' Everybody likes liberty and justice.
The problem is the 'for all' part." That's where the ACLU comes in, he said, by insisting that "civil liberties and rights belong to everyone, and that includes the least popular - the poor, the powerless, and the least popular." Walczak, who lives near Pittsburgh, joined the ACLU in 1991 after five years at the Prisoner Assistance Project of the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore, where he litigated civil rights claims on behalf of prisoners. He worked 13 years as head of the ACLU's Pittsburgh chapter before becoming state legal director in 2004. "You don't always see the combination: He's good on theory, very good on doctrine, knows his First Amendment issues," said David Rudovsky, the dean of Philadelphia civil rights lawyers. "He's always very good in court." Walczak's best-known case: Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a second Scopes Monkey Trial. It marked the first direct federal court challenge to a school policy that mandated the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution.
Walczak and his cocounsel argued for science - and the judge agreed, dismissing intelligent design as a "relabeling of creationism" and declaring that it could not be taught in the district. "He's a great guy, and it makes him an effective lawyer," said Cyndi Sneath, a Dover mother who was a plaintiff in the suit. "Somebody who really cares about the cause, and really cares about the people behind the cause." Walczak's next challenge is to force Pennsylvania to join the 13 states and District of Columbia that allow gays to wed. Legislative bills to legalize same-sex marriage have gone nowhere, and Gov. Corbett favors a permanent ban through an amendment to the state constitution. "We have a good chance," Walczak said. "If I didn't think we could win it, we wouldn't have brought it."