Vic Walczak ’83 fights for civil liberties of all kinds. After all, it’s his job.
The sky is clear blue and the late-May weather is making its way into tank tops–and-shorts weather when a U.S. district court judge issues his ruling that Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. This paves the way not only for gay couples to marry in Pennsylvania, but also for the marriages of couples who had already tied the knot elsewhere to be recognized in the Commonwealth.
That evening in Pittsburgh, more than a thousand men, women, and children gather on a street in a trendy neighborhood to revel, reflect, witness, and, in some cases, publicly propose to longtime partners. Front and center is American Civil Liberties Union state legal director Witold Walczak ’83, who has been asked to emcee the rally. Walczak, called “Vic” by family, friends, and adversaries, has been instrumental in bringing the lawsuit against the state on behalf of 11 couples, a widow, and the two teenage daughters of one of the families.
Walczak has won a number of high-profile cases over the course of his career as a civil liberties lawyer — among them, protecting the right to vote, immigrants’ rights, and the right to protest against the president, as well as challenging the teaching of “intelligent design” creationism as science in public schools. But at this rally — amid the considerable elation on the streets, the many hugs from strangers, his jacket lapels dampened by people’s tears — it strikes him that this case may have the most impact of any he has taken on. It is a decision, he thinks, that defines so many people. It says to them, “You are entitled to the same rights as everybody else. You are a full citizen.” He has never won a case that brought so much unabashed joy. It is a good night.
Pulling no punches
Vic Walczak loves nothing if not a good fight — unless it’s the good cause behind it. His resolve to fight injustice was formed in his Colgate years, in part, during a three-month investigative internship in the public defender’s office in Washington, D.C. The philosophy major found himself mesmerized by life in the crime-ridden inner city. For someone who had grown up primarily in middle-class neighborhoods in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and New Jersey, this was a whole different world — and a scary one, at that.
During the internship, he gets to know the director of the D.C. Youth Advocate Program. When Walczak sees an opening for a counselor to work with kids at risk of entering the juvenile justice system, he tells the director he wants to work for her (he has close to six months left before the fall semester of his senior year). He is surprised when she hems and haws about taking him on. Then it hits him: she doesn’t want to hire him because he is white. So is she, but all of the counselors as well as the kids in the program are black.
Walczak may only have been 20 years old, but he was as sure of himself then as he is now. He tells her she is discriminating against him, and offers her a deal: Give him a one-day tryout. See how he does. But if she doesn’t give him a chance, he will file a complaint with the human relations commission in D.C. alleging discrimination. He gets the tryout. He gets the job.
And he gets his feet wet — really wet. He works intensely with four kids who are 14 and 15 years old. Spends time in their homes, at their schools, getting them released from the police station, taking them to museums and the zoo. He learns a lot about living in the inner city, living in poverty. It is a rewarding experience. But it isn’t enough. He may have helped those four teens, but he wants to attack social change in a broader way.
In the clinch
The sense of right and wrong was in the air Walczak breathed growing up. He had been born in Sweden in 1961, two years after his parents fled Communist Poland. Walczak’s maternal grandmother had died at Treblinka; his maternal grandfather managed to escape and spent the rest of his life helping prosecute Nazi war criminals. His grandfather didn’t talk about Treblinka or his work much. Walczak only recalls snippets. But it gave him a powerful sense of his heritage.
In 1964, his parents emigrated to America, settling, for awhile, in Tennessee. The Civil Rights Act was enacted that year, but the South the family had arrived in was still Jim Crow — separate black and white restrooms, water fountains, schools, and pools.
Walczak is 4 or 5 years old when his parents invite the neighborhood kids over to celebrate his birthday. His dad is the baker. What kind of cake does Witold want? The boy requests his favorite — a special torte made from walnut meal and topped with coffee frosting. The moment comes. Candles, the birthday song. His mom cuts the cake. Young Witold is wolfing it down when he realizes that, although a few kids have tried the cake, most of the others are just looking at it. It doesn’t look like the cakes they’re used to — yellow cakes with fluffy frosting topped with shredded coconut, or devil’s food cake smothered in fudge. It is an epiphany for Walczak. His family has different accents, different traditions. They are different. He is different. He would forever have a heightened sensitivity to what it means to be standing slightly outside the mainstream culture, how difference might hold someone back.
Walczak lost his way for awhile when he reached adolescence. His parents had gone through a nasty divorce and he was imbibing and inhaling his way to a substance abuse problem. Still, he arrived at Colgate as a Division I soccer player. It took some time, but he credits his future wife, now-pediatrician Kathy Wagner Walczak ’84, and three professors with helping him get his life back on track. The first professor was Ted Herman, head of the Peace Studies Program, who taught Walczak’s first-year seminar, “Leaders in Nonviolence.” Walczak was captivated by the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience and the writings of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. A soccer fan, Herman took an interest in the young player. He spent a lot of time with Walczak outside of class, talking about life and helping him see more clearly. Herman also pointed him toward the legendary philosophy professor Huntington Terrell. Terrell, who specialized in the study of ethics, was one of the most notoriously difficult graders at Colgate (As are for God, Bs are for Hunt, Cs are for everyone else, the saying went). Walczak took every one of Terrell’s courses. A rigorous exploration of right and wrong was just what he needed. The third influence, Jerry Balmuth, who taught philosophy of law and philosophy of logic, became Walczak’s closest adviser.
Walczak’s nine months in Washington coincided with the imposition of martial law in Poland. Although none of his family remained, he avidly followed events there. When he returned to Colgate for his senior year, he learned that the council of churches in Hamilton was resettling a Polish family ousted because of their involvement with the Solidarity trade union movement. The family had nobody to speak Polish with, so Walczak volunteered. He helped them with things like getting benefits, finding jobs, the kids’ schoolwork. He managed a fundraiser that covered the expenses the family incurred in coming to America. Having grown close to the family, he wanted to know more about what was going on in Poland. That summer, after graduation, he stayed in Gdansk with their relatives.
More than a few times during his six-week sojourn, someone clapped a hand over Walczak’s mouth before his impetuous habit of speaking his mind could get them all in trouble. He learned to appreciate freedoms he took for granted at home.
The relatives Walczak stayed with included a worker from the shipyard where Lech Walesa had started the Solidarity movement. Housing was hard to come by — three generations in one small apartment. Meat and toiletries were rationed. Everyone seemed fearful. In the 10th-floor apartment, before any discussion about politics, they would pull the drapes and turn up the radio. He could see that Solidarity was alive and well, albeit underground. Despite martial law, organizing was taking place. There were newspapers being printed, T-shirts being made — all illegal, but very exciting.
One Sunday, Walczak and his hosts go to Saint Brigita Church, the original hub of Solidarity. As they come out of Mass, an impromptu demonstration is starting. Almost immediately, the ZOMO, or riot police, appear, beating protesters with nightsticks. Walczak pulls out his Nikon. He is looking through the viewfinder when he is knocked down on the cobblestone street. Three black-suited police demand his camera. Walczak argues back. All of a sudden, his host and two friends run up and, as though they were linebackers, knock the police down, screaming for Walczak to run. They all fling themselves, breathless, onto a streetcar that pulls away before the police can catch up. His camera is intact.
A few weeks later, Walczak calls a family friend, the deputy consul in the American Consulate in Warsaw, to arrange a visit at his office. He can’t wait to tell him about all the activity he is witnessing. But when he gets there, as soon as he begins, the man shushes him and leaves the room. He returns with a big, old-fashioned radio, turns it up, and motions for Walczak to whisper. “You don’t think this place is bugged?” asks Walczak, surprised. “We know it’s bugged,” says the man.
He insists that Walczak bring everything he’s collected — film, underground newspapers, memorabilia — to be sent home in a diplomatic pouch. “If you get caught with this, you’ll spend time in prison in Kraków,” he tells Walczak. “I’m not going to tell you that we won’t get you out, but it could take a couple of weeks. And it’s not a very pleasant place.” Walczak complies. Several weeks later, when he is leaving Poland, his train stops at the Czech border. The door to his compartment opens, and a policeman demands his papers. He takes everything out of Walczak’s suitcase, even feeling around the seams. Finally he has him disrobe for a strip search. Walczak could only shudder about what would have happened had he carried any contraband materials with him.
As he returned to the States to begin law school, the lessons he took away from Poland affected him profoundly. He had taken to asking people there, if they could have one thing, what would it be? He expected them to say a car, their own apartment, a vacation, maybe, or no long grocery lines. Instead, almost to a person, their answers were about the right to vote, freedom of speech, privacy, due process. He found it stunning. Despite how difficult everything was in their lives, what they wanted most was to regain their civil liberties.
Walczak might not have been ready yet to take on the world, but he was ready for law school. There was no question about what he was going to do with his life. He was going to safeguard people’s civil rights and civil liberties. And that’s exactly what he’s done.
Going the distance
The Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU, where Walczak has worked since 1991, is housed in a tall row house near several universities. Houses that have been in families for generations sit beside others turned into student apartments. Cars are shoehorned together along the sidewalks.
Walczak came on board as an associate director and quickly rose to executive director. His promotion to statewide legal director in 2004 gave him the luxury of focusing on impact litigation; as he puts it, lawsuits that try to fix systemic problems, and “the luxury to go from big case to big case.” His most well known, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, is billed by some as Scopes II — a reference to the famous 1925 creationism vs. evolution in teaching case. The school district in Dover, Pa., was the first in the country to adopt the teaching of “intelligent design” as science, as an alternative to evolution. The case received international attention, with film crews from Australia, the Philippines, China, Germany, and the BBC following the proceedings. “I remember waking up at four in the morning before the first day of trial and going for a run to settle my nerves,” Walczak recalled. He ran by the courthouse. The entire street was lined with television satellite trucks. That didn’t do much for his jitters, but at least he wasn’t blindsided when he walked into the building a few hours later.
Ultimately, the judge ruled in Walczak’s favor, calling intelligent design a religious view rather than a scientific theory, and thus inappropriate for teaching as biology. At the time called the most important case since Bush v. Gore by Court TV, it still stands as the definitive case on intelligent design and creationism, “a playbook for how to fight these challenges when they come back — and they’re already starting to come back,” said Walczak.
On a recent October morning, Walczak sits at his desk. Every inch is covered with papers and files. There’s not much floor space, either. Boxes of clutter lend the air of someone who finishes one case while already in the throes of the next. Above the window, a handmade paper chain spells out VICTORY. Co-workers made it for him after his important victory in the Pennsylvania Voter ID case. But it’s never a solo effort for Walczak. There’s always a team, often including volunteer lawyers, with Walczak usually lead or co-lead counsel.
Two model airplanes hang from fishing line from the ceiling, giving the illusion of flight. Those were gifts from a grateful Muslim client, a commercial airline pilot and Desert Storm veteran whose name had been placed on the no-fly list. Walczak took the case to court, where a judge insisted the Department of Justice produce evidence at a hearing. Like magic, two days later, the pilot was back in the cockpit, his livelihood restored.
Walczak, now 53, has light brown hair heading toward gray. No court appearances today, only phone conferences, so he’s dressed neatly but comfortably in a plaid shirt and jeans. His eyes are blue and thoughtful. He would appear formidable if he didn’t smile often (which he does), and if his smile weren’t from the heart (which it is). He’s attending the wedding of one of the plaintiff couples from the same-sex marriage case the coming weekend. His satisfaction is palpable.
Fiercely competitive — and occasionally cocky — Walczak still plays soccer. Or did, until a ruptured Achilles tendon sidelined him last March. The jury is still out on whether he’ll be able to play again. In the meantime, he bikes — most recently, a 100-mile arthritis fundraising ride with friends.
Last year was a big one for Walczak. About a week before the marriage decision, he got a huge resolution on another issue — the legality of the Pennsylvania voter ID law. The previous January, a state court had struck down a strict Pennsylvania law requiring all voters to show certain forms of identification at the polls. But the administration had appealed. Then suddenly in May, Governor Tom Corbett changed his mind and withdrew the appeal. “I think the governor looked at the polls and said, ‘I can’t be fighting this during the election,’” Walczak said. “It’s ironic that so much of what the ACLU does is driven by politics. We have politicians all the time saying, ‘Yeah, we know we can’t do that, but it’s good politics, and you guys will just sue us, and it will get overturned, and we don’t have to be the bad guys.’ It happens all of the time.”
By ACLU estimates, had the law requiring Pennsylvania voters to show ID been in effect during the 2012 election, 130,000 voters who turned up at the polls without the right kind of ID would have been disenfranchised.
“When that law was first passed, I was willing to give proponents the benefit of the doubt that there was some fraud out there that would be prevented,” said Walczak. “But litigation is a wonderful fact-finding tool. Politicians can stand up in the legislature and make any kind of bogus claim they want. On the witness stand, when we asked them to identify every instance of voter fraud, almost every case had no evidence. There were some situations where they had evidence, but when we’d review how a voter ID requirement would prevent fraud, it turned out to be a problem with registration — not [at] the polls. On the eve of trial, we actually signed a stipulation — which is an admission — that they could not identify a single instance of the type of fraud that would be prevented by this voter ID law.”
“It all comes down to, do you want to give any government official the power to decide who speaks and who doesn’t?”
For Walczak, the suit hearkened back to his question to people in Poland. “More often than not, it was the right to vote,” he said. “When I asked why, they said because voting is paramount. It’s foundational. If you cannot elect your officials and hold them accountable, then all other rights are in jeopardy. And that’s how I felt about voter ID.”
One of the cases that made people see Walczak as a force to be reckoned with was a class action suit in 1996 on behalf of the ACLU and NAACP alleging a pattern of civil rights abuse by Pittsburgh police after two black men died in custody. The Department of Justice, on high alert to issues of police misconduct after the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, got involved in forcing the city to sign an agreement that led to an overhaul of personnel management in the police department. None of this endeared Walczak, who had brought the suit, to then-Mayor Tom Murphy. The following year, the two went head to head again when the Ku Klux Klan announced that they were going to hold a big rally in Pittsburgh. Walczak remembers Murphy making an announcement from the steps of the City-County Building: over his dead body would the Klan have a rally in Pittsburgh.
“My first thought was, Tom, where would you like us to put the body?” Walczak said. He may not have been fond of the Klan, but he knew he would win when it came to protecting the Klan’s right to freedom of speech. At three in the morning, he found himself writing the brief for an emergency injunction to allow the Klan to proceed with their rally. It occurred to him that every case he cited to support the Klan’s right was from the civil rights movement. Murphy’s reasoning in not permitting the Klan to assemble in public was twofold, according to Walczak: The Klan message was not something Pittsburghers would embrace. And the city couldn’t guarantee that people wouldn’t do harm to Klan members. “Those are the same messages that George Wallace and Bull Connor and others used to say that civil rights marchers can’t march. It all comes down to, do you want to give any government official the power to decide who speaks and who doesn’t?” Walczak asked. “I can tell you, I didn’t, because I would be the first one censored by the mayor under that kind of standard. And, frankly, it’s usually the minority groups who need that free speech protection. Vigorously enforcing free speech with messengers you don’t like or whose message you don’t embrace is vitally important so that when you need that power, it’s there for you.”
Still, Walczak admits, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong can be difficult. “Not a day goes by that I don’t have to say, ‘I don’t know.’ And I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that,” he said. “When you’re dealing with things as important as people’s freedom, their livelihood, where they can live, whether they can stay in this country, and who they can marry — you can’t let the arrogance of pretending that you know everything stand in the way of getting it right. And getting it right always means listening to other views, ventilating the issues, before you make a decision.”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t have to say, ’I don’t know.”
His parents, he said, complain that he’s always so sure of himself. “But the issues they bring up are issues that we’ve discussed ad nauseam. I mean, gay marriage? I’m very sure, very sure where the line is drawn. I’ve heard all the arguments on the other side and I don’t think any of them are ethically or legally plausible. So in those kinds of situations, I’m cocksure. There’s plenty of situations where I have to say, ‘I don’t know the law on that, I don’t know how to resolve that, let’s talk about it.’ We have those calls every week. All the lawyers get together and sometimes we go two or three hours, trying to figure out, where do you draw the line, what rule should apply in this situation? It’s important to do the right thing. And what is right is not always so obvious.”
Walczak isn’t sure what his next big challenge will be. But, he said, “To be able to uncover injustice and then fix it is more rewarding than anything I can imagine.” One thing’s for sure, he’ll never run out of work.