Thursday, December 29, 2011

VIDEO: Thank you!!

From all of us at the ACLU-PA, a very sincere thank you for your support, no matter what form it takes. None of the work we do would be possible without tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, and millions of people nationwide, who contribute their time, their funds, or their good word to the work of the ACLU.

While we're at it, one final plug: there's still plenty of time to make a tax-deductible year-end contribution to the ACLU and ACLU-PA!

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 in Review: The death penalty for people with intellectual disability

For more than a decade, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has advocated to truly end the execution of people with intellectual disability, formerly known as mental retardation, in our state. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court's decision outlawing the practice in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, we pushed for the passage of legislation to end this grotesque practice. 

Since that case, we have worked with disability advocates throughout the state and with members of the legislature to implement a procedure that would require a judge to decide before trial that a person has ID and cannot be executed.  On four separate occasions, including earlier this year, the state Senate passed legislation with this procedure with overwhelming bipartisan support, but the bill has never made it through the state House.

Last week, the long struggle to implement the Atkins decision in the commonwealth took a turn for the worse. In a case out of Lancaster County, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court implemented a procedure for trial courts to follow when a defendant in a capital case files a claim of intellectual disability (ID).
  • The jury will rule on the claim
  • The jury will hear the claim after it has convicted the person of first degree murder
  • The burden is on the defendant to prove that he has ID
  • The jury's ruling in favor of the defendant must be unanimous
So what does this mean? This means that all jurors in these cases must be what's known as "death qualified," meaning that they must be willing to implement the death penalty.  Research shows that death qualified jurors are more likely than non-death qualified jurors to trust prosecutors and police and are less likely to trust mental health experts.

As one friend in the capital legal world told me, the Supreme Court's ruling is what a court does if it wants to nullify the Atkins decision in Pennsylvania. People with ID who are on trial for their lives are more likely to end up on death row as a result of this ruling.

The fight is not over. There is no doubt that this ruling will be challenged in federal court, when an opportunity presents itself. But it is a reminder that the courts are not always our friend. It's a reminder that sometimes our issues must be resolved at the legislature. Former Governor Ed Rendell supported our position. The state Senate supported our position. But we couldn't get it through the House, and now we're left with a horrendous ruling from the state Supreme Court.

And this is why we need your support. Please consider making a year-end, tax-deductible donation to the ACLU of Pennsylvania because freedom can't protect itself.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

2011 in Review: The Courage of our Clients

From Sara Rose in Pittsburgh:

The Mort family, with Isabella
As I reflect on the past year as an ACLU-PA staff attorney, foremost in my mind are the clients I represented. Sometimes, we focus more on the civil liberties we defend than the individuals who are affected - and while we say “the Constitution is our client,” it's the people we represent who illustrate why the Constitution is so important. It takes courage and perseverance to stand up for your rights. Their will and determination protect those rights for all of us. 

Steve Conway, a devoted father of three, became our client after Fayette County Children and Youth Services arbitrarily cut off his contact with his children. No one ever accused Steve of abusing or neglecting any of his children - CYS arbitrarily decided his legally consensual relationship with a younger woman constituted child abuse. He spent two years away from his children, including one with no contact whatsoever - no phone calls, not even e-mails. A federal judge ruled in his favor just before Thanksgiving 2010 - a few days after Steve was killed in a car crash.

Debra and Robert Conway, Steve's Parents, have continued the lawsuit on behalf of Steve’s estate. That was not an easy decision. They were forced to relive one of the most painful events in the life of their family – the government-enforced separation of their son from his children – and testify about those events during a four-day jury trial. Debra and Robert felt it was that important to stand up for their son’s rights, and to ensure that the heartache they endured at the hands of Fayette County CYS would not happen to another family.

Liz Mort and Alex Rodriguez were also separated from their child – this time in Lawrence County, by CYS and by Jameson Hospital in New Castle. Just three days after their daughter, Isabella, was born, two caseworkers arrived with two police officers to take her away. Liz had failed a drug test, administered by the hospital without her knowledge while she was in labor.
Read more »

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 in Review: Protect the Vote

When the calendar turns over on January 1, the struggle to stop voter suppression via ID will continue.  House Bill 934 has passed the Pennsylvania House, has passed the Senate State Government Committee (barely), and now sits in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Following the trend around the country, HB 934 creates obstacles to the franchise by mandating all voters at all elections to show one of a narrow list of acceptable ID. That list consists of a current, photo ID issued by the commonwealth or by the federal government; an ID from an accredited college or university; a senior care center ID; or a PA driver's license that has expired within the last year.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania opposes HB 934 because it will inevitably prohibit some U.S. citizens from voting. Research shows that as much as 12 percent of citizens do not have current government-issued ID. Do the math, and that's nearly one million eligible voters in Pennsylvania. When those numbers are broken down to look at demographics, those without ID are disproportionately the elderly, minorities, and people living in poverty.  We also expect adverse impact on people with disabilities and people who were recently released from prison.

Meanwhile, one of the Senate supporters of the bill has admitted that he's seen no evidence of the type of voter fraud that ID would prevent.

Once again, the ACLU of Pennsylvania is working in coalition, this time with nearly 40 organizations in Protect Our Vote. This coalition has been doing the strategic work required to stop this bill, and we're getting a lot of great feedback at the state capitol.

The struggle continues, and we need to defeat this bill to protect the vote for everyone. The first few weeks of January will be critical. The Senate returns on January 17, and one Senate supporter has said that this should be done by early February to be ready for the primary in April.

The ACLU works on many important issues, and I would never want to rank any of them by importance. They all matter to someone or everyone. But there are few rights more fundamental to the health of our democracy than the right to vote. It must be vigorously protected. Your support gives us the ability to organize and lobby against this voter suppression tactic. Please consider making a year-end donation to the ACLU of Pennsylvania today because freedom can't protect itself.

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 in Review: A Six-Year Court Battle Over Voting Rights Education

Many Pennsylvanians, including some parole and probation officers, are not aware that ex-offenders retain their right to vote. Thanks to an ACLU-PA court victory, Pittsburgh buses will soon carry advertisements informing people of the truth.

Pennsylvania law allows ex-offenders to vote once they are released from prison, even if they are still on parole - but confusion about this law leads to misunderstanding and misinformation, and many eligible voters are denied their right to vote, or assume they will be turned away. When the ACLU-PA and Pittsburgh League of Young Voters partnered to promote awareness of ex-offender rights, the Pittsburgh Port Authority turned away their ads.

In August,the Third Circuit ruled the Port Authority violated the First Amendment. Although the Port Authority claimed the ads violated policy, the court held that rejection was based on the message. After six years of legal battles, we finally have the opportunity to educate Pittsburgh bus riders that ex-offenders have the right to vote.  We hope to run the ad on Port Authority buses in advance of the October 9 registration deadline for the 2012 general election. Equally important, this decision establishes precedent protecting freedom of speech from government censorship in public forums.  
Read more »

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011 in Review: Politics or health? Governor chooses politics

Today Governor Corbett signed Senate Bill 732, a bill to alter the legal landscape for women's health centers that provide abortion care. The governor signed the bill with little fanfare. He signed it behind closed doors and only announced it via a press release with a brief description of SB 732 and 12 other bills he signed today.

There's been little doubt, almost from the start, that the drive to force abortion clinics to follow ambulatory surgical facility (ASF) regulations has been driven by politics and not by what's best for women's health. While the supporters talked about women's safety, not a single medical association- not one- supported the bill and several opposed. Meanwhile, the supporters of the bill were those who think that women should have no access to abortion care, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the Pennsylvania Family Institute, and the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.

The supporters used the indictment of Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia as justification for the bill, but the original SB 732- the language that the other side amended into an oblivion- actually addressed the real problem in the Gosnell case- a lack of government oversight. SB 732 originally codified the inspection process for abortion clinics.  It was a bit heavy-handed and had some minor problems, but it was certainly better public policy than what the governor ultimately signed. And it actually was a direct answer to the problems that the Gosnell case brought to light.

Instead, zealots used the Gosnell case as an opportunity they've anticipated for years, an opportunity to place burdens so great on clinics that they might be forced to close, temporarily or permanently.  Now abortion clinics could be forced to install hospital-grade elevators, construct parking lots and driveways big enough for an ambulance, and double the size of their operating rooms for a medical procedure with a complication rate of 0.1 percent.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has fought this legislation since February with our allies in Pennsylvanians for Choice, a coalition of advocates and agencies that support women's access to reproductive healthcare. What's beautiful about the ACLU of Pennsylvania is that we can fight these struggles in multiple arenas. Our legislative department takes on bad ideas before they become law and usually does so successfully.  If bad legislation gets through, our legal team takes over and takes the government to court.  And our community organizers support that work across the board through public education, coalition building, etc. As I write this, our lawyers are analyzing SB 732 to determine if a legal challenge could be viable.

And that's why your support of the ACLU of Pennsylvania is so critical.  Without you, there might be one less lobbyist, one less lawyer, one less community organizer to push back when our government tries to erode our rights. I'm at the capitol every session day, and I can tell you that the threat is real.  Please donate today - because freedom can't protect itself.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Who's been naughty in Harrisburg? Who's been nice?

It has been a busy December for the Pennsylvania legislature. They have delivered a number of legislative gifts—good and bad—to the boys and girls of our state. Some were painful setbacks for civil liberties like the final passage SB 732, which restricts reproductive health care access for women by altering the legal regulations for abortion clinics, and the passage of SB 1183, which was signed by the governor yesterday and requires lifetime registration for juveniles who commit certain sex crimes. But there were a few victories too. Here’s a recap of some of the action this month.  

The Naughty 

Abortion: House Bill 1977 passed the House; Senate Bill 732 passed both House and Senate. HB 1977 bars insurance plans in the health insurance exchange created by federal healthcare reform from covering abortions, with narrow exceptions for rape, incest, and imminent death. Of course, the health insurance exchange doesn’t actually exist in Pennsylvania yet. But just in case the legislature decides to create it, anti-choice advocates in the House wanted to be certain that women couldn’t buy insurance to cover their reproductive health care needs.

SB 732 has been called the worst thing to happen for women’s health in the Commonwealth since the Abortion Control Act passed in 1982. It requires clinics that provide abortion care to comply with hugely expensive and medically unnecessary new regulations. No medical organization supports it, and professional associations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, actively oppose the regulations. Undeterred, SB 732’s advocates insisted it somehow protects women and voted it through the House and Senate. It now awaits a signature or a veto from Governor Corbett.  

Juveniles: Yesterday the governor signed Senate Bill 1183, implementing the federal Adam Walsh Act in Pennsylvania. This is a bill that, among other things, requires lifetime registration for juvenile sex offenders. The recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders is only around 1%, and the collateral consequences of registration (problems finding employment, housing, etc.) can be devastating. At least two states, Texas and New York, have informed the federal government that they will not implement AWA. In Ohio, the first state to implement the law, legal costs to fight off lawsuits alone have cost the state $10 million. If Ohio had not complied with the law, it would have lost $935,000 in federal grant funding.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania General Assembly did not hold a single public hearing on the legislation.

The Nice 

Capital punishment: The Senate adopted Senate Resolution 6, which calls for a study of capital punishment in the Commonwealth. The resolution creates a task force to study issues including the cost effectiveness of capital punishment, whether there is bias in the selection of defendants for capital trials, and a number of other important issues. We hope that the study will shine more sunlight on how the death penalty functions in Pennsylvania, which is badly.  

The … Ambiguous 

Immigration: The bad news is that Senate Bill 9, which makes it a felony for an unauthorized alien to possess a public benefits card, passed the House State Government Committee on Dec. 6. We oppose SB 9 because of the risk that it will cause public agencies to deny benefits to people who are entitled to them, because either they lack ID or because the administrative burden of complying with SB 9 would slow down public agencies. The good news is that other, even more radical anti-immigration legislation hasn’t been moving forward lately. Hopefully the legislators have realized how devastating anti-immigration legislation has been in Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia, and will refrain from doing anything so detrimental to our economic recovery.  

Voting Rights: House Bill 934, which requires photo ID to vote, is another solution in search of a problem. The Senate State Government Committee passed it on Dec. 12 by one vote, and the bill is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee. There’s no evidence that in-person voter fraud is a problem in Pennsylvania, and legislators may realize that spending state money to implement this unnecessary law isn’t a good idea. We’ll see what happens.

So here’s our New Year’s toast to Harrisburg: “2011 wasn’t as bad as it could have been, though it was plenty bad. Thanks for being done for the year. Also, feel free to take it easy in 2012. In fact, if you’d like to just stay home, we wouldn’t hold it against you.”

Nathan Vogel, Frankel Legislative Fellow, Philadelphia

2011: The Year In Civil Liberties

It's been a very mixed year for we civil libertarians, with major victories and stunning defeats. On one hand, we're all happy to be out of Iraq - on the other, Gitmo is fast approaching its tenth year in business, and Congress has given the President nearly unchecked authority to detain or execute suspected terrorists. Don't Ask/Don't Tell died in 2011, and New York State doubled the number of LGBT Americans with full marriage rights, but Pennsylvania is once again considering a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. We've dramatically increased the number of Americans with access to decent health care, but Pennsylvanians may soon have to leave the state to get a safe and legal abortion. Through it all, we've been encouraged to see record numbers of Americans take to the streets to make their voices heard - and sickened to see them arrested, beaten, and pepper-sprayed for speaking out in a public forum.

See what I mean? Mixed year.

As we always are, the ACLU has been in the middle of most of these issues, as busy as ever in the courthouse and busier perhaps than ever before in Congress and state legislatures across the country. We've been so busy, in fact, that it's going to take us the rest of the year to tell you about it.

Over the next ten days, we'll review some of the highs and lows of 2011, to let you know what the ACLU has been doing for you - both in Pennsylvania and across the country - and to remind you why we need your support. In return, we hope you will consider becoming a card-carrying member (if you're not already), making a tax-deductible year-end contribution, or both - because if there's one thing we want you to know about our work, it's that we can't do it without you.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Standing up for the Constitution: Brave citizens, independent judges, and vigilant civil rights advocates

By Guest Blogger Steve Harvey, a partner at Pepper Hamilton and counsel in the Dover intelligent design case

It’s hard to believe that six years have passed since Judge Jones handed down his famous decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, also known as the intelligent design case. He received much praise and some scorn for that decision. The praise was for enforcing the First Amendment in the face of a blatant and fundamentally dishonest attempt by the school board to promote a non-scientific, religious alternative to evolution in public school science class. The scorn came from several misguided national commentators who suggested that because he was appointed by a Republican president, he should have disregarded his oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States and favored the school board defendants and their attempt to promote religion.

Thankfully, Judge Jones followed his instincts, his oath, and the law, but the criticism reminded us of the importance of judicial independence. This issue rears its ugly head yet again this week as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is vying to become the Republican presidential nominee, made a public statement attacking the federal judiciary. He decried what he sees as a "steady encroachment of secularism through the courts to redefine America as a nonreligious country." And he said that he would force judges to defend unpopular decisions before Congressional hearings, arresting them to secure their appearance if necessary.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would take these comments seriously, but Mr. Gingrich apparently believes that incendiary attacks on federal judges for doing their jobs will help him win some votes. Let’s hope he is wrong and these attacks backfire on him. And let’s remember all of the federal and state judges who do their jobs every day by enforcing the law to the best of their ability, without fear or favor.

And while we are at it, let’s say a word of thanks to the everyday citizens, like the plaintiff parents in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, who stand up to injustice and illegality by serving as plaintiffs in the name of unpopular causes, like the right to guide their own children in matters of religion and faith. Whether Mr. Gingrich knows it or not, the right to be free from government interference in matters of religion and faith is at the very core of the American political and legal system. That’s why it’s in the First Amendment. We’re counting on brave citizens, independent judges, and vigilant civil rights advocates, like the ACLU, to make sure it never changes. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Greetings from Harrisburg! Good news (yes!) from the state capitol

The news on civil liberties out of the state capitol isn't all bad. Learn more about three positive developments this week at the General Assembly. 

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube's privacy statement on their website and Google's privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU of PA's privacy statement, click here.

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Anti-immigrant sentiment overrides legislators’ concern for Pennsylvanians

When the House State Government Committee passed Senate Bill 9 on Tuesday, it also taught a civics lesson on how a legislative body should not make decisions.  In rejecting 10 out of 11 proposed amendments, some legislators on the committee seemed to be more interested in demonstrating animus towards immigrants than in carefully considering the welfare of the people of Pennsylvania.

If SB 9 becomes law, it would require applicants for public benefits to verify their citizenship or immigration authorization with identification before they could receive their benefits. We oppose SB 9 because it’s based on a belief—derived more from prejudice than fact—that there are large numbers of undocumented immigrants illegally collecting public money.  There isn’t reliable evidence to support this claim. Instead of solving a real problem, SB 9 promotes bias and discrimination.

In quick succession, legislators shot down 10 amendments that would have measured and mitigated the harm that SB 9 causes. One amendment would have expanded the forms of ID that applicants could use to prove their eligibility. Another would have exempted persons older than 50 years of age from SB 9’s requirements, because so many senior citizens lack the kinds of ID that can establish citizenship. The committee even rejected an amendment that would have required agencies to study the impact of SB 9 on their programs.  SB 9’s supporters weren’t even willing to learn about the actual consequences of their bill.

The only amendment to pass was the one the chairman offered himself.  It allows applicants without the required ID to fill out an affidavit promising that they can lawfully receive benefits.  They are then checked against the SAVE database, a federal program that is intended to check citizenship and immigration status.  We welcome this change, but the amendment contained two other provisions that make SB 9 substantially more harmful.  SB 9 now makes it a third degree felony for an undocumented person to possess a benefits card, despite the fact that in some situations federal law permits undocumented immigrants to have a benefits card, and requires the state to post identifying information about people unlawfully receiving benefits on a public website.  Punishments should fit the crime, and that is hardly the case here.

It’s not too late to stop SB 9.  It is still possible to defeat it when it reaches a vote before the full House of Representatives.  Between now and then, we need to make sure our legislators know what their priorities should be.  Instead of political posturing, we need them to thoughtfully consider how to protect the rights and needs of Pennsylvanians.

--Nate Vogel, Frankel Legislative Fellow