John Whitehead On Protecting Individual Rights

Jun 2, 2013
Originally published on June 2, 2013 8:18 pm



It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn.

Like most Americans, Colonel Martha McSally had never heard of The Rutherford Institute. By any measure, she was an Air Force star, flying one of the deadliest planes in the U.S. arsenal, the A-10 tank killer. But while she led the way in the skies, she also had to fight on the ground against her own military hierarchy.

COLONEL MARTHA MCSALLY: You know, women stationed in Saudi Arabia were mandated to wear the full abaya - black abaya gown and abaya headscarf, sit in the backseat of the car, always have a male escort and were told to lie and claim the servicewoman as a wife instead of a fellow servicewoman.

GOODWYN: McSally couldn't decide what galled her most, that she was ordered to misrepresent herself as soon as she left the base, or having to sit in the back of a car - an officer - covered like some unpleasant piece of cargo while an enlisted man sat up front playing the role of her guardian husband, or last but certainly not least, having to submit to a sexist Muslim culture while she was protecting Saudi oil interests from the cockpit of her A-10. For six years, McSally reasoned with her superior officers to get the policy changed.

MCSALLY: Women who are representing the U.S. government in the military, being told to put on garb that represents, first of all, a faith that they don't necessarily follow, second of all, you know, let's stop kidding ourselves. It represents female apartheid.

GOODWYN: After years of in-house agitation, the fighter pilot was forced to admit she was getting nowhere. So McSally, a conservative Republican, reluctantly went to the papers. And the very day the piece ran on the front page of USA Today, she got a phone call. It was some guy named Whitehead.

MCSALLY: He read the paper, and he said: She needs our help.

GOODWYN: For more than 30 years, civil rights lawyer John Whitehead and his Rutherford Institute in Virginia have been coming to the legal aid of Americans who were fighting some element of their government, whether it's know-it-all school boards, overly aggressive police departments, clueless city or state governments or, in Martha McSally's case, the United States Air Force.

MCSALLY: And that's the kind of man John Whitehead is. I didn't ask for his help. He saw that I was in trouble, knew that this was going to be impacting my career. He believed it was constitutionally wrong, and he decided to find me.

GOODWYN: Whitehead and McSally sued the federal government, McSally vs. Donald Rumsfeld, claiming McSally's constitutional rights were being violated. And after years of stubbornness, the Air Force backed down and ended the policy. As for McSally, she went on to become the first woman to command the United States Air Force fighter squadron.

From the moment he graduated law school in the early '80s, John Whitehead was drawn to civil rights law. Like the ACLU, Whitehead developed a network of lawyers around the country who are willing to take constitutional or civil rights cases pro bono. Some describe him and The Rutherford Institute as libertarian. But Whitehead's not really a libertarian.

JOHN WHITEHEAD: We take cases that no one will get involved in a lot of times because the person may have a right-wing view or a left-wing view or something that someone in a hierarchy of another civil liberties group might not like.

GOODWYN: One of those groups Rutherford helped get all the way to the Supreme Court was the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, the antigay church group that likes to protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers. Rutherford says one of the hardest parts of his job can be his clients and what he concedes are their sometimes wacky points of view.

WHITEHEAD: I've often said that the large majority of my clients that I've had over the years I probably wouldn't want to eat dinner with. They'd give me indigestion. I just don't agree with their lifestyle or their viewpoints.

GOODWYN: Privacy fights over the use of domestic drones to overly invasive transportation security administration searches, two cases that might not ever see a courtroom.

WHITEHEAD: To give you an example, just a couple months ago, a lady named Millie Ramirez down in Arizona, she wanted to help homeless people. So on her driveway, she would put a little bookcase every Saturday where she would put cereal and food. She'd go to the local supermarkets and get the food that no one wanted and give to homeless people. Well, the city charged her with operating a retail business and brought the police out, actually, to arrest her.

So we intervened and got her right to do her little homeless thing on Saturday. Now, I look back on that case and say, great victory. That's what we're all about.

GOODWYN: The Rutherford Institute reminds some of the more famous civil rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union. And in some ways, they are similar, but there are important differences. ACLU President Susan Herman.

SUSAN HERMAN: Their mission tends to just be about individual rights. And our mission is just broader than that because we try to act on behalf of the entire Constitution, which also includes, also send important guarantees about democracy. And therefore, we've done a lot of work against voter suppression laws.

GOODWYN: And there's another important difference.

HERMAN: On the issues of reproductive freedom, for example, we believe that Roe versus Wade was right and that a woman does have a right to choose to have an abortion. My understanding is that Rutherford believes that the unborn fetus has a right to live. So that's a very different interpretation of what individual rights are.

GOODWYN: For John Whitehead, Americans' greatest cause for concern is government abuse of its power, and he's determined to curb overreach in the name of the average citizen.

WHITEHEAD: The greatest gift to the world is our Bill of Rights. I mean, we've got the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to associate with whomever we want and to protest. We have the right to be free from government officials touching us on our bodies or scanning us or watching us. We have all those rights, but we're going to have to stand up and fight for them.

GOODWYN: In an age when the federal government hunts down whistleblowers and seizes journalist phone records, John Whitehead is not likely to go out of business any time soon. His latest book, "A Government of Wolves," will hit the stores June 25.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.