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Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law

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From the national legal director of the ACLU, an essential guidebook for anyone seeking to stand up for fundamental civil liberties and rights One of Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2016 In an age of executive overreach, what role do American citizens have in safeguarding our Constitution and defending liberty? Must we rely on the federal courts, and the Supr From the national legal director of the ACLU, an essential guidebook for anyone seeking to stand up for fundamental civil liberties and rights One of Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2016 In an age of executive overreach, what role do American citizens have in safeguarding our Constitution and defending liberty? Must we rely on the federal courts, and the Supreme Court above all, to protect our rights? In Engines of Liberty, the esteemed legal scholar David Cole argues that we all have a part to play in the grand civic dramas of our era -- and in a revised introduction and conclusion, he proposes specific tactics for fighting Donald Trump's policies. Examining the most successful rights movements of the last thirty years, Cole reveals how groups of ordinary Americans confronting long odds have managed, time and time again, to convince the courts to grant new rights and protect existing ones. Engines of Liberty is a fundamentally new explanation of how our Constitution works and the part citizens play in it.


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From the national legal director of the ACLU, an essential guidebook for anyone seeking to stand up for fundamental civil liberties and rights One of Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2016 In an age of executive overreach, what role do American citizens have in safeguarding our Constitution and defending liberty? Must we rely on the federal courts, and the Supr From the national legal director of the ACLU, an essential guidebook for anyone seeking to stand up for fundamental civil liberties and rights One of Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2016 In an age of executive overreach, what role do American citizens have in safeguarding our Constitution and defending liberty? Must we rely on the federal courts, and the Supreme Court above all, to protect our rights? In Engines of Liberty, the esteemed legal scholar David Cole argues that we all have a part to play in the grand civic dramas of our era -- and in a revised introduction and conclusion, he proposes specific tactics for fighting Donald Trump's policies. Examining the most successful rights movements of the last thirty years, Cole reveals how groups of ordinary Americans confronting long odds have managed, time and time again, to convince the courts to grant new rights and protect existing ones. Engines of Liberty is a fundamentally new explanation of how our Constitution works and the part citizens play in it.

30 review for Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law

  1. 4 out of 5

    Chris Jaffe

    This was an excellent book by Cole, a law professor and currently one of the leaders of the ACLU. (He's argued cases for the organization before the Supreme Court). The main contention here is that law isn't something determined solely in dry Supreme Court decisions. Instead, changes made by the Supreme Court are often reactive, reflecting changes that have gone outside it - either at lower courts, at the state level, in scholarly journals on the law, in public opinion, or by international publi This was an excellent book by Cole, a law professor and currently one of the leaders of the ACLU. (He's argued cases for the organization before the Supreme Court). The main contention here is that law isn't something determined solely in dry Supreme Court decisions. Instead, changes made by the Supreme Court are often reactive, reflecting changes that have gone outside it - either at lower courts, at the state level, in scholarly journals on the law, in public opinion, or by international public (and legal) opinion. All these things play a role in shaping the law and guiding the courts. The engines of democracy are the work done by the citizen activists of the title. They make an impact. It's slow. It's hard going. But when change happens, it can seem like it happened overnight. To demonstrate his point, Cole looks at three examples: the gay marriage movement, the gun rights movement, and the drive to secure civil liberties during the war on terror. All started out looking like utterly doomed movements, but all perservered. (It's telling that Cole includes one movement from the right. His point here is less to argue "Hurrah for liberals!" - though he clearly is a liberal - as it is to argue that the process can be applied to all who wish to seek change. The back cover even includes a quote from a former NRA head who said it's the most accurate account of their legal movement he knows of. That section, the one on gun rights, was the one I found most interesting. The 2008 Supreme Court decision DC v. Heller was the first time the Court upheld an individual's right to bear arms. Until then, the Court had never invalidated legislation under the Second Amendment. Previously, based on a 1939 Supreme Court decision, the 2nd Amendment was seen as protecting only the state's prerogative to maintain a militia, not an individual's right to have his own personal gun. They NRA does NOT see themselves as trying to change law as trying to fulfill it. They ain't "living law" types but originalism. But a key part of their approach was to argue that the traditional constitutional argument was the one out of whack. Scholarship (not always funded by the NRA) argued this, going back to 17th century British laws. The NRA wasn't founded as a political organization. It didn't even do any lobbying until 1973. It's shift began with the 1968 Gun Control Act, which led to a backlash by its members (but not its more moderate leaders). Those leaders were pushed out in the 1977 "Cincinnati Revolt." The NRA got more political, though it only spends 10% of its budget on politics. It gained success at the state level. It grades all candidates on gun rights laws, and that alone. If two are tied, they pick the incumbent. They deliver votes. Their activism - and success - helps create more unity. One really key thing about them: they developed a community. In that regard, they are like the gay rights movement. The gay marriage movement won by losing. They suffered setback after setback, but learned from them and gained ground as they went. For instance, they learned that sometimes the best messengers of their movement are when straights support their cause. They learned to focus on empathy. They shifted from talk of rights, which often people would tune out, to talk of family - how they just wanted to have a nice, normal family. They, like the NRA, won victories at the state level, and that helped change the national conversation. As for civil liberties in the war on terror, that seemed like a truly doomed cause. Civil liberties often fall in wartime. Those being defended weren't even US citizens (usually). And after 9/11 people rallied around the White House. The guy who filed the first case about the Guatanamo detainees didn't think the case had a chance - but still felt it was the right thing to do. Yet the case won. How? Well, pre-9/11 stuff helped. Sure, the Court had decided in Korematsu during WWII that the Japanese-American round up was OK, but since then pretty much everyone agreed that was a terrible mistake. And that widespread belief could help here, as there was an obvious parallel. The detainees were rarely American? OK, play to foreign audiences. There were a few British detainees, and how did Britain feel about the US keeping some of their citizens captive with no trial and no release date? Not good, and the public/legal opinion put pressure on Tony Blair, which put pressure on Bush. Similar things played out in other countries as well. Also, like the gay rights movement, it helped to find good messengers. The ACLU found help from an unexpected quarter: many retired members of the armed forces and intelligence community. They didn't like wartime norms of how prisoners are treated being eroded, and their testimony gave more credence to the movement. John McCain was also on board with a lot of this. Also, the ACLU was able to frame it as a matter of the Bush administration vs. the rule of law. One person in the book noted that in a way, the Bush administration was a great thing for the debate, because of how high handed they were to precedent and tradition. By the time Bush left office, a large majority of the detainees had been released. (Under Obama, progress was made, but he was a disaster on human rights. He didn't add anyone to Guatanamo, but he didn't close it down, did drone strikes - and even for a time refused to acknowledge using drones). So the work is still being done here. Cole concludes with some main lessons/points - seven in all: 1) constitutional change often begins in other forms of state/federal/international law outside the Supreme Court, 2) most work is done outside the federal courts, 3) framing/messaging is as essential as the formal legal argument, 4) the work of constitutional reform is intensely political, 5) progress is slow, difficult, and incremental, 6) civil society organizations play a crucial role in constitutionalism, and 7) the Constitution lives in us and resides in US. He notes that similar movements are going on now dealing with limiting the influence of money on politics, opposing the death penalty, expanding property rights versus government regulation, and protecting the rights of the unborn.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Carl

    This one is well worth a read. It tells its tale by example - 3 of them: how LGBT activists surprised themselves & the world by achieving marriage equality in the courts, the strength of the hated NRA to thwart gun-control efforts & ahape the legal view of gun rghts, & the contention between civil liberties & security demands in the age of terrorism.. Lots of good food for thought here. I would say that it has not completely changed my view of gun rights or the NRA but it has given my a bit of r This one is well worth a read. It tells its tale by example - 3 of them: how LGBT activists surprised themselves & the world by achieving marriage equality in the courts, the strength of the hated NRA to thwart gun-control efforts & ahape the legal view of gun rghts, & the contention between civil liberties & security demands in the age of terrorism.. Lots of good food for thought here. I would say that it has not completely changed my view of gun rights or the NRA but it has given my a bit of respect for the opposition. I'm not inclined to believe that we need to come to terms with them instead of insisting on unconditional surrender. Further we need to learn from their techniques. What we need to learn is that politics required our close attention more than once every 4 years for a few weeks, & that a financial investment in political advocacy needs to be continuous & substantial - something like tithing. If we want to beat the Kochs, Dark Money, & ALEC, we have to learn how to steal their thunder.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Broadsnark

    This is not the most radical thing you will ever read. But given how many liberals are myopically focused on top-down federal government and supreme court level changes, it is extremely necessary. The most interesting part, how centralization constrains your options for change and works against small d democracy, is probably unintentional. But the main point of movements making the law - and every other kind of change - is crucial.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mike Hohrath

    One of the best required readings that I've had for a class in a long time. We went through this book chapter by chapter in my Introduction to Public Policy class for my Law minor. It goes through three constitutional activism case studies: Marriage Equality, the Right of Bare Arms, and Human Rights during the War of Terror. Each case study required the activist groups and citizens to use different strategies to enact constitutional change. Each had different actors and affected different levels One of the best required readings that I've had for a class in a long time. We went through this book chapter by chapter in my Introduction to Public Policy class for my Law minor. It goes through three constitutional activism case studies: Marriage Equality, the Right of Bare Arms, and Human Rights during the War of Terror. Each case study required the activist groups and citizens to use different strategies to enact constitutional change. Each had different actors and affected different levels of Local, State, and Federal Government. Each constitutional change was hard work and the result of dedication and persistent action. Each major constitutional court change had years of lobbying and consensus building behind it. The Right to Marriage Equality was a slow road, starting back when LGBT rights got on the radar back in the 1950's. Almost 65 years later, after a slow battle State by State, several referendum and court cases, building new tactics and strategies, marriage equality was finally enacted. This case study focused on changing the minds of the general population and getting the average citizen to accept the idea. The Right to Bare Arms had a different road. Back in the 60's when legislation passed that restricted the sale of handguns and put in background checks, there was a revolution within the NRA. The new NRA became the powerful advocate of the individuals right to bare arms that we know today. This was a battle of legal scholarship and of electing friendly legislatures. This one was a little different because the right to bare arms already existed, it just took some time to convince the Judiciary it referred to an individuals rights, and not the State's right to a Militia. The final case study was interesting because it is very closely related to a class I'm taking on Global Human Rights. This case covers the human rights violations of the Bush & Obama Governments in the War on Terror. It focused heavily on the detainment and lack of habeas corpus at Guantanamo bay and the Torture in CIA blacksites. The way that advocates fought for these rights was through convincing foreign citizens to lobby their governments to put pressure on the U.S.. All in all, this was a great book to see how consitutional change is enacted in the United States. I used to very skeptical of living constitutionalists, but I can see now that it takes a lot of work and social momentum to convince the judiciary to change constitutional rights. You need to convince your fellow citizens through every means at your disposal and work for a long time. God bless the country and Constitution that makes this possible.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sathya Vijayakumar

    This is a really important book for anyone with an interest in activism but no background in the law to read. It’s basic message is that constitutional law is shaped by concerted citizen action and public opinion rather than doctrine and the interpretation of precedents, and it illustrates this principle powerfully through 3 in-depth examples: 1) lgbtq rights 2) gun rights and 3) civil liberties post 9/11. Many people post 2016 election are looking for ways to contribute, and this book is a prac This is a really important book for anyone with an interest in activism but no background in the law to read. It’s basic message is that constitutional law is shaped by concerted citizen action and public opinion rather than doctrine and the interpretation of precedents, and it illustrates this principle powerfully through 3 in-depth examples: 1) lgbtq rights 2) gun rights and 3) civil liberties post 9/11. Many people post 2016 election are looking for ways to contribute, and this book is a practical guide as to how change has occurred through legal avenues in the recent past. One direct thing I learned from the book was the clear role that civil society institutions play in the marathon-like slog of committed reform. Before reading the book, my opinion of these orgs was less positive as I had thought that they played more of a purist role advocating for the ideal than a practical one. But after reading it, it’s clear that orgs like the NRA and the ACLU engage not only in acting as outside moral compasses, but in the practical endeavors of winning local elections and changing mindsets incrementally over time as well. Long story short, this book will leave a mark if you were, like me, unaware of citizen constitutional activism, and I highly recommend it to anyone passionate about social issues and looking for ways to get involved.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Naomi

    Disclaimer: David Cole was my law school professor for criminal justice before moving on to lead the ACLU and I respected him immensely as a professor (he took us all out to lunch!) and this book sounds exactly like him teaching us so admitting my biases. Even further, this book fundamentally justifies my career choices in arguing that civil society organizations and legal NGOs can actually change constitutional law through the combination of strategic litigation and out-of-court advocacy ("poli Disclaimer: David Cole was my law school professor for criminal justice before moving on to lead the ACLU and I respected him immensely as a professor (he took us all out to lunch!) and this book sounds exactly like him teaching us so admitting my biases. Even further, this book fundamentally justifies my career choices in arguing that civil society organizations and legal NGOs can actually change constitutional law through the combination of strategic litigation and out-of-court advocacy ("politics"). I found myself consistently drawing parallels to the new big rights pushes today (climate change? trans rights? abortion rights?) and thinking about the lessons of the case studies in this book. He chose his case studies well in an attempt to make this book not seen as a liberal think piece by juxtaposing gay marriage and the individual right to bear arms. But also his conclusion emphasizes the fact that the Constitution is a living instrument despite the orginalists' best arguments to the contrary.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Otto-tomas Tuuco

    Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole describes the possible access routes to amended law and new statutes. Positive progressive steps towards social change through activism. The importance of "Non-Profit" organizations in these steps toward positive societal and constitutional changes. Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole describes the possible access routes to amended law and new statutes. Positive progressive steps towards social change through activism. The importance of "Non-Profit" organizations in these steps toward positive societal and constitutional changes.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    This book is for anyone who's ever felt that citizens don't hold power over their governments. Through the lens of three case studies, Cole provides a roadmap for effecting change to constitutional law, and how that path can be unpredictable. This book is for anyone who's ever felt that citizens don't hold power over their governments. Through the lens of three case studies, Cole provides a roadmap for effecting change to constitutional law, and how that path can be unpredictable.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Hill

    Great book. Everyone should read it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Olivia

    3.5 This book was incredibly informational and an interesting set of case studies on Constitutional civil liberties. It was pretty easy to read, but definitely took some motivation to finish.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Caroline Mills

    A must-read for anyone interested in how social movements create legal change.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jonas Stephan Johnson

    Good day all is well please this is i faith a great book through lore the basic law through citizen thanks so much god bless proper have it good.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    The premise is covered pretty well in the first third (on the movement for same-sex marriage) and the rest can be safely skimmed or skipped. The idea that citizen activists and groups lay the groundwork for SCOTUS decisions through local, state, and federal activism is intriguing and worth remembering, but ultimately this would have worked better if it were about half as long.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Garrett

    Realized early on this would not necessarily be the book I expected, but finished it anyways. Largest disappointment was that it focused more on the ways legal organizations in civic society shape ruling outcomes than importance of voluntary civic associations to draw change. The focus within the coverage of legal/political nonprofits was on professional, paid staff members, rather than grassroots membership (even when covering the NRA, a large and influential group of millions of members, it re Realized early on this would not necessarily be the book I expected, but finished it anyways. Largest disappointment was that it focused more on the ways legal organizations in civic society shape ruling outcomes than importance of voluntary civic associations to draw change. The focus within the coverage of legal/political nonprofits was on professional, paid staff members, rather than grassroots membership (even when covering the NRA, a large and influential group of millions of members, it relies mostly on the views and writings of legislative and legal teams, along with history of academic articles on 2nd Amendment). High: The last section, on national security and habeas corpus rulings post-9/11, was the most interesting part, but mostly highlighted role of legal minds in elevating issues to public attention than on ordinary citizens getting organized to do something. Low: The marriage equality section, was merely a chronological telling of the issue through the state and then federal courts, with some mention of legal writings. Didn't get too much into local/state civic organizations shaping issue and organizing activist outside of judicial realm. Section seemed pretty rudimentary and Overall: Would like to have seen examples before past decade and to highlight how non-professional citizen activists have been more involved in topics. While thesis seems adequate and valid, not entirely convincing that "citizen activists," rather than merely organizations' staff, are to credit.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Matt Kovalcik

    Motivational reading for troubled political times.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Blakeman

    If you loved con law in law school, you'll probably love this one at it looks at gay marriage (Obergefell/Windsor/Perry), gun rights (Heller and McDonald) and individual rights of detainees (Hamdi et al). If you are not a lawyer, I think you will understand this book but I have no sense of the appeal to those outside the bar. It gets into the weeds a bit from time to time on facts but I found the gun rights chapters the most interesting. If you loved con law in law school, you'll probably love this one at it looks at gay marriage (Obergefell/Windsor/Perry), gun rights (Heller and McDonald) and individual rights of detainees (Hamdi et al). If you are not a lawyer, I think you will understand this book but I have no sense of the appeal to those outside the bar. It gets into the weeds a bit from time to time on facts but I found the gun rights chapters the most interesting.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    If you like reading about the building of cases to ensure constitutional rights, this is a very informative book. The sections on the war on terror and the NRA were really interesting. Good nonfiction to mix into my reading diet!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kaushik Iyer

    Somewhat overly succinct summaries of the development of gun-rights, marriage equality and civil rights in the civic conversation. A good overview of the history, and some of the primary actors.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Scott Browne

    If you are pessimistic about politics, you need to read this to find out how to bring about change!!!!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tristan Bills

    I'd recommend this book to activists passionate about civil liberties, lawyers and politicians interested in the history of civil rights, and concerned citizens who want to become more active. I'd recommend this book to activists passionate about civil liberties, lawyers and politicians interested in the history of civil rights, and concerned citizens who want to become more active.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bill Zarges

    never really finished---i read the intro and found the style boringly didactic. how many times in 20 or so pages can one state the same thesis?????

  22. 5 out of 5

    Gary Itano

    KPFK 16426.07 st David Cole, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law .45 Reversal of Korematsu.mp3

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

  24. 4 out of 5

    Plexi

  25. 4 out of 5

    Martha Ridgway

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lachlan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ashley Reid

  28. 5 out of 5

    B Lim

  29. 4 out of 5

    Josh Cayetano

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alyssa Hunziker

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