Monday, December 23, 2013

SLIDESHOW: 17 Reasons To Give To The ACLU

2013 was a busy year for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, check out some of our highlights below:
(click to the left or right of each picture to view the slideshow)

Defending First Amendment freedoms, equality, privacy rights and fundamental fairness requires constant vigilance and support. Each year, individuals and institutions demonstrate their commitment to those shared constitutional values through steady gifts and grants to the ACLU Foundation. We rely on the support of our members, volunteers and donors to do the work we do. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift today! DONATE

Friday, November 01, 2013

Big Blow for Women’s Health in Texas

By Mike Garvey, Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project Intern

These days, it seems that victories for abortion access and rights are rare. The news frequently portrays stories about restriction, not expansion, of access. So, supporters of access received something of a win Monday, when a district court judge in Texas issued a permanent injunction on a particular provision – that doctors performing abortions must have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the site – of a restrictive new state abortion law. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by, among others, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and a number of women’s health centers in Texas. The judge in this case ruled that the provision had nothing to do with safety and more to do with placing an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion. 

But Thursday, the Fifth Circuit of Appeals – following an emergency appeal by the state – overturned the ruling, allowing the law to go into effect while a legal case against it moves forward in court.

This isn't a small decision. It’s a disaster. Because the law was allowed to go into effect, according to the New York Times, as many as 13 of Texas’ 36 health centers that currently provide abortion services will be forced to stop providing them.

What the appeals court’s decision won’t decrease, however, is the number of women who decide that abortion is the right course of action for them. These are women who might live in areas those 13 clinics would ordinarily serve. They’re women who, because of this restrictive law, will be forced to travel long distances and potentially plan multi-day trips to access abortion services. They’re women who might not be able to afford to travel. They’re women who, having no feasible option, might decide to undergo an unsafe abortion. 

The appeals court itself found that the regulation might increase the cost of accessing a provider while simultaneously decreasing the number of providers. But because those are incidental effects of a regulation that serves a “valid purpose,” the regulation was allowed to stand.

The assertion that this provision is about women’s health is laughable. Texas is a huge state. Did its government not grasp that the admitting provisions requirement would make it close to impossible for poor and rural women to access abortion?

We know the answer - the effect of decreased access isn't incidental. This is a law signed by a governor whose stated goal is to wipe out abortion, period. It’s the intent of a state government that doesn't trust women to make decisions about their own lives, and values its own misguided judgment more than the people who actually provide abortion care. No, it’s not incidental. It’s patently intentional and leading us back to a pre-Roe world.

Mike Garvey is an MSW candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

From the Land of the Liberty Bell: Investigate the NSA

by Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of PA

Here in Pennsylvania, we have a full-time legislature, so as the lobbyist for the Pennsylvania affiliate of the ACLU, I have plenty of opportunities for face time with state legislators and staff. Since June, I’ve been hearing a similar refrain repeatedly: NSA surveillance is a major problem. We deal with a lot of state-level surveillance legislation, and I’ve joked with legislators and staff that Edward Snowden has made my job a lot easier.
Last week, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives formalized that concern by passing a resolution to protest the NSA’s sweeping surveillance activities and to call on Congress to create a special committee to investigate and to recommend revisions to the USA PATRIOT Act and for reforms at the NSA and the FBI. The vote on House Resolution 456 wasn’t even close.

The final tally: 194 to 2.

As an observer of civil liberties trends in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, I was not surprised by this overwhelming bipartisan vote. Our state House has made it clear on repeated occasions that it is serious about privacy. In October of 2012, the House defeated legislation to require DNA collection from people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime. Two weeks ago, the House passed an amendment to require prosecutors to obtain a search warrant before they can access data from a prescription drug monitoring program. Both of these victories for civil liberties happened despite the objections of the Office of the Attorney General and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

The Pennsylvania House has good reason to worry. Since June, disclosure after disclosure has revealed that the NSA is vacuuming up the call records of nearly all Americans and is filtering through the contents of our international communications. The disclosures haven’t stopped though, and with each disclosure more and more Americans are saying “Stop watching us.”  

Our state House made a strong statement in passing HR 456. We hope that Sens. Bob Casey, Jr.  and Pat Toomey and the rest of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation get the message clearly and support the USA FREEDOM Act introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) this week. Among other things, the bill rightly ends the indiscriminate collection of American call records, as well as prohibits the bulk collection of any other records, and requires a court order before the government can search through its databases containing the international communications of Americans.  

Pennsylvanians won’t stand for an overly-intrusive government that pokes its nose in our daily lives.

Labels: , ,

Friday, September 20, 2013

Breaking down barriers. But not in a good way.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to give a talk at the annual meeting of our south central PA chapter. The chapter always likes to get an update on what up at the General Assembly, so I oblige them.

Also, they meet at a bar. So there's that.

I started by raising three issues and asked our members to note what these bills have in common:
  • The creation of a prescription drug monitoring program (House Bill 317), run by the state government, in which they would collect personal data about people who receive prescriptions for medications on Schedules II through V of the federal controlled substances act. The existing bills on this topic, including HB 317, are extremely weak on privacy protections. Among other problems, every bill allows law enforcement to snoop in the database without a search warrant and without a finding of probable cause. They never have to tell a court what they're doing.
  • The collection of DNA samples from people who have not been convicted of a crime (Senate Bill 150). DNA would be collected from people who have been arrested but not convicted of felonies and some misdemeanors and then sent to the DNA databanks of the Pennsylvania State Police and the FBI. The government would not need a court order to collect the sample.
  • The use of an administrative subpoena to obtain personally identifying information about an individual from an internet service provider in child sex offense investigations (House Bill 90). An administrative subpoena is issued by a prosecutor's office and is not reviewed by a court. Under current law, prosecutors need to obtain a search warrant from a court to get this information.
You can detect the pattern here. All three of these issues involve advances in technology and easing the government's ability to obtain personal information about private citizens. Not surprisingly, all three bills are supported by the Pennsylvania  District Attorneys Association and the Office of the Attorney General, as they are currently written.

This is a disturbing trend. We are heading into territory where government officials will use technology to break down the walls between us and them. The revelations about the NSA's metadata collection have made that obvious.

They have to be stopped. Two weeks ago, Rep. Matt Baker of Tioga County announced his intent to introduce a prescription drug monitoring bill, so last week we asked our supporters to drop a note to their state rep to ask him or her to not co-sponsor the Baker bill.

Their appetite for our personal information is insatiable, and they'll only stop if they hear an outcry from the people.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Mazel tov: Thoughts on my freedom to marry

Dawn Plummer and Diana Polson, two of our clients in Whitewood v. Corbett

So, I got married last weekend. It was a small wedding, performed in accordance with my observant Jewish faith and practice as well as in accordance with the law and regulations of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And everyone had a lovely time, including me and my new husband, whose name is Sanford, but who is known as Sandy.

As we ran the errands and got all the required paperwork in order in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I couldn’t help but think about other couples who would like to get married, but can’t… like those who are a part of our ACLU-PA lawsuit to rid the state of its Defense of Marriage Act. Two weeks ago, as I waited in line to apply for and then a week ago when picking up our marriage license, I thought about those women whose loves may have the same name as my love, but who happen to be female Sandy’s. They can’t sit in a stuffy hallway in the Allegheny County Marriage License Bureau, smiling because you just can’t help it, and realizing how “official” everything is about to become. They and my gay men friends- couples who have been together for 20 and 30 years, and who have warned Sandy that he better treat me right – cannot know the tingle of saying for the first time, “This is my husband” or “This is my wife”, without anyone casting a sidelong glance.

Sandy and I are not exactly a young couple and we are combining two complete households, so we had no desire or need to register for gifts. Instead we thanked friends and family for the gift of their love and support and asked that if they wished to do something to honor and celebrate our marriage, that they make a donation to one of six specified organizations (including the ACLU-PA, of course). We received an acknowledgment from one of the organizations a few days ago—it was addressed to “Ms. Feige and Ms. R_______”. Obviously the Western PA Humane Society had no trouble acknowledging the marriage of what they thought to be two women!

As Jews, we break a glass at the conclusion of the ceremony as a reminder that not all is well and peaceful and joyful in the world and that our job is to make the world better – tikkun olam. I was happy and joyful on my wedding day but was reminded that not everyone can have that same joy and I am more committed than ever to doing what I can—as an individual and as an ACLU-PA staff member – to bring about the freedom to marry for all Pennsylvanians. 
Barb Feige, Deputy Director, ACLU-PA

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"A grave miscarriage of justice"

Last week, after 21 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, James Dennis of Philadelphia finally had his moment of justice. Federal district court Judge Anita Brody ruled that the 1992 conviction of Dennis for the murder of Chedell Ray Williams was “a grave miscarriage of justice,” citing highly questionable eyewitness identification, evidence that was withheld from the defense by the prosecution, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel. 

Judge Brody went so far as to say that “in all probability he did not commit” this crime.

In 1991, Ms. Williams was killed when she was robbed for her earrings by two men. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence and never recovered the stolen earrings. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of three eyewitnesses.

But half of the witnesses to the crime described someone who was taller and heavier than Dennis and didn’t pick Dennis from a photo lineup. Even those three who did pick him and testified initially identified him with hesitation. Ms. Williams’ companion that day described the perpetrators as people she recognized from her high school, which Dennis did not attend. And a witness who could have confirmed Dennis’s alibi that he was on a bus miles away from the shooting gave the incorrect time of day that she saw him, an error of which the prosecution was aware.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office withheld this critical evidence from Dennis’s defense counsel. Meanwhile, his trial attorney never interviewed a single witness.

Judge Brody vacated Dennis’s death sentence and conviction and ordered a new trial within six months. Otherwise, Dennis must go free, according to the ruling.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has yet to announce his next move, but in a statement reminiscent of his predecessor, Lynne Abraham, he claimed that Dennis’s appeals team is lying. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

This case should shock the senses. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania sought to execute a man under these highly questionable circumstances. Governor Corbett even signed a death warrant for Dennis in 2011, which was vacated by the federal court.

While those of us who work regularly on this issue- I’ve been doing it for 13 years- don’t really lose the outrage factor when we hear about a case like this, we are certainly not surprised by the circumstances that created it. Mistaken eyewitness identification is the number one reason why innocent people are convicted of crimes. According to the Innocence Project, 75 percent of people who have been exonerated by DNA testing were convicted by eyewitness identification.

Regrettably, official misconduct by public officials too often plays a role in wrongful convictions. While the Innocence Project does not quantify how often prosecutorial misconduct occurs, it notes, “DNA exonerations have exposed official misconduct at every level and stage of a criminal investigation.”

Finally, the commonwealth’s broken indigent defense system regularly leads to breakdowns in the criminal justice system. More than 200 death sentences have been vacated in Pennsylvania since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, and a majority of those involved ineffective assistance of defense counsel.

The confluence of these missteps in this case led to the conviction of and a death sentence for a man that a federal judge now says is likely innocent.

The death penalty in Pennsylvania is a failed government program. Jimmy Dennis’s day in the sun has finally come. And the day of reckoning for capital punishment should not be far behind.

Cross-posted at Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Voter ID Trial Day 12: Closing Arguments

By Sara Mullen, Associate Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Today was the twelfth and final day of the voter ID trial. In front of a full courtroom, which included Secretary of State Carol Aichele, attorneys for both sides presented their final arguments to Judge McGinley.

Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), argued for the petitioners. The law, she said, unreasonably burdens the cherished right to vote. Voting shouldn’t be a test of whether people are willing to go to PennDOT multiple times or endure immense physical pain to get an ID.  Pennsylvania’s constitution, unlike the U.S. Constitution, specifically states that “no power… shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right to suffrage.”

Ms. Clarke walked the court through the various figures for people lacking PennDOT-issued ID, including testimony from Rebecca Oyler, until recently an official with the Department of State, who estimated 4-5% of registered voters (or 320,000-400,00 individuals) lack ID, to Secretary Aichele’s statement at a recent legislative hearing that 3.5% of Philadelphia voters who voted in November 2012 lacked ID (if applied statewide, that would be 190,000), to petitioner’s expert Dr. Bernard Siskin’s estimate of 511,000 registered voters who lack ID. No matter who you ask, it is clear that at least a hundred thousand if not hundreds of thousands of registered voters are at risk of disenfranchisement.

Throughout her argument Ms. Clarke wove in stories of the real voters who would be disenfranchised if the voter ID law is allowed to go into effect. Voters like Marian Baker, an elderly Berks County woman who wanted to obtain a valid ID after she learned about the law. The last time she had renewed her ID she had to stand in line for four hours at PennDOT, but a leg injury prevented her from doing so again. She called PennDOT to explain her situation and asked for an accommodation, including obtaining an ID through mail, but was told she would have to wait “just like everybody else.” Unaware that the injunction blocking enforcement of the law had been extended to the May 2013 primary, she did not vote in that election, mistakenly believing she did not have the necessary ID.

The commonwealth has argued that thanks to the “streamlined” process for obtaining a Department of State (DOS) ID at one of the 71 PennDOT locations around the state, voters can easily obtain the necessary ID for voting, said Ms. Clarke. But the Department of State’s own “exceptions spreadsheet” shows that hundreds of voters who applied for the DOS ID left PennDOT empty-handed, and even using the commonwealth’s figures (a major point of dispute during the trial), dozens of registered voters who applied for the ID before the November 2012 election either received the ID long after the election or never received it at all. If the voter ID law had been in effect, these legally registered voters would have been disenfranchised.

The commonwealth also failed to educate the public about the DOS ID. In its $4 million ad campaign, the Department of State chose not to include information about the existence of this “easily accessible” ID, nor how or where to obtain it. When asked about this oversight, Deputy Secretary for External Affairs and Elections Shannon Royer said they did not want to confuse voters by “talking about an ID most people had never heard of.”  Kurt Myers of PennDOT spoke of a “shared responsibility” that voters had to know what kind of ID they needed and where to obtain it, but if the information isn’t provided, “how can people take that responsibility?” Ms. Clarke asked.

For those unable to obtain an ID, the law provides no safety net, said Ms. Clarke. Unlike some other states with voter ID laws, the Pennsylvania version does not allow a voter who shows up at the polls without an ID to sign an affidavit affirming his or her identity. Pennsylvania also lacks another critical safety net other states have – no-excuse absentee voting.

Alicia Hickok, an attorney with Drinker Biddle Reath, argued for the commonwealth. She said that state employees worked “tirelessly and diligently” to help voters and took their responsibilities seriously. The voter ID law was to protect the public good – not the good of individuals or private interests. The Department of Aging has been reaching out to seniors, the age group most of the petitioners’ witnesses fall in to, to help them, she said.

Ms. Hickok disputed that large numbers of people lack acceptable ID, saying that petitioners’ expert played “fast and loose” with the data, and pointed to the fact that college students can use their student IDs if they have expiration dates and that those in nursing homes and personal care facilities can use an ID printed by that facility. In her rebuttal, Ms, Clarke noted that many colleges still do not issue voter ID-compliant IDs, and two Department of State officials admitted they do not track which nursing homes and personal care facilities offer their residents IDs and therefore did not know how many of residents were actually able to obtain an ID.

Ms. Hickok’s main argument was that the legislature was allowed to “regulate the franchise,” and that the voter ID merely regulates the election process – it does not “deny the franchise.” Requiring voters to show ID promotes integrity of the election. She cited Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections, a 2008 case out of Indiana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that Indiana’s voter ID law was constitutional.

In her rebuttal, Ms. Clarke noted that the challenge to Pennsylvania’s voter ID law differs in several critical ways, including the fact that petitioners brought their suit under the Pennsylvania constitution and not the U.S. Constitution. In the Indiana case, petitioners did not provide testimony from a single witness who would be disenfranchised – in stark contrast to the Pennsylvania case, in which numerous witnesses testified.

When the fundamental right to vote is burdened, said Ms. Clarke, we have to weigh that against the justification. In this case, the commonwealth has not argued that there is fraud. Instead, they say it is about the “integrity of the election.” Yet the Department of State’s top career official overseeing elections, Jonathan Marks, testified that he was confident of the integrity of Pennsylvania’s elections.

In the 16 months since the law was initially passed, despite numerous tweaks and attempts to improve the system, the state has still not been able to show that no one will be disenfranchised under the voter ID law. “It is time to put an end to this and enjoin this law,” Ms. Clarke concluded.

During her closing arguments, Ms. Hickok did agree to extend the preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law through the November 2013 election. Petitioners are asking that the injunction continue until the case has been completely resolved. They are also asking that the “soft roll-out” aspect of the injunction, in which voters are asked for but not required to show ID, be eliminated going forward.

Following the two sides’ closing arguments, the judge announced that the court was recessed and left. For several minutes, spectators and attorneys looked around in confusion, not sure if court would be coming back into session. Several minutes later, the bailiff stuck his head out of the door to judge’s chamber and called out, “Adjourned!” With that, the voter ID trial finally came to a close.