Thursday, February 24, 2011

Next week at the state capitol

Two weeks ago, little did we know that the fun was only beginning at the state capitol.

The death penalty is a let's expand it. Huh?
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will vote on House Bill 317. This bill will add a new aggravating circumstance for capital cases. A person could get the death penalty if the homicide also involves a sex offense and the defendant was required to register under Megan's Law at the time. There are already 19 aggravating circumstances that could lead to the death penalty, and one of those is committing homicide in the course of committing another felony. But with HB 317, we want to be very, very, extra special sure that the person gets death.

The Everyone an ICE Agent Act of 2011
On Monday, the House Labor and Industry Committee will vote on House Bill 439. This bill would penalize any licensed employer in PA who hires a person without papers by taking the employer's license. Of course, the bill doesn't explain how the licensing board or commission is supposed to determine that the business did hire an undocumented immigrant. Does this bill only kick in if the employer is cited by the federal government? Does the licensing board have to conduct its own investigations and train its members as ICE agents?

Can't we just put them on double secret probation?

State Constitution? We don't need no stinkin' state constitution
It hasn't been posted yet, but the word is that the Senate Education Committee will vote on Tuesday on Senate Bill 1, the school vouchers bill. We contend- convincingly, of course- that SB 1 violates not one, not two, but three different provisions of the state constitution. Our legal analysis and our testimony on SB 1 are both available on our legislative webpage.

Meanwhile, back on the floor....
We don't expect floor votes this week on any bills on which the ACLU of PA has a position, but SB 3- prohibiting insurance coverage for abortion in the insurance exchanges- and SB 9- requiring government-issued ID for public aid- both continue to linger on the Senate calendar. Both bills are expected to detour to the Senate Appropriations Committee, but I also expect them to get a floor vote at some point soon.

You see what I have to deal with on a daily basis? Truth is, though, that I love it.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Guest Blogger Naeemah Johnson: Congratulate President Obama for standing up for equality in love

Naeemah Johnson is a10th grade student at Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia. She is interning at the ACLU for the spring semester.

Today President Obama ordered the Department of Justice not to defend DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). This is truly a surprise. Some people say gay marriage should be unconstitutional, if so, love also must be unconstitutional. Who is the government to tell people what gender they should marry or should not marry? When two people love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives with one another, they get married. So why can’t two females or two males who are in love with one another in get married in every state? To me, America is supposed to be the land of the free, people should be free to marry whomever they love. Our president understands this and is ready to change things. Many in the Congress won’t be happy with this. They don’t want Obama to have the power to make this decision, but he is the President. When Bush was in office he was selective in choosing which laws to enforce and got no trouble from the Congress. President Obama should be congratulated for standing up for equality in love. This is a change my generation can believe in.

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Breaking News: President Obama instructs Justice Department not to defend DOMA

According to a press release from the Department of Justice, President Obama has instructed the Department of Justice not to defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. From the release by Attorney General Eric Holder:
After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny.   The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional.   Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases.   I fully concur with the President’s determination.
This is huge news, and impacts the ACLU's case on behalf of Edie Windsor, whose marriage and inheritance rights were not recognized by the government after her wife and partner of 44 years passed away in 2009. There's a terrific video about Edie and her wife Thea and their case, which I highly recommend. It's embedded below.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

This Week at the State Capitol

This is a new feature I'm hoping to start doing on a regular basis, giving you a preview of what's going on at the state capitol. Although I'm doing this one on Monday, look for it late in the week before a session week, though I don't want to interfere with Chris's awesome Friday First Amendment Roundup.

This week promises to provide hours and hours of non-stop entertainment.

Talk Talk:
Monday, February 14, 12:30pm, Main Rotunda
Marriage Equality Press Conference
Marriage equality legislation, delivered just in time for Valentine's Day! Senator Daylin Leach has introduced Senate Bill 461 to allow lesbian and gay couples to join the institution of marriage and all of the benefits that go with it. Rep. Mark Cohen will introduce a civil unions on the House side. Polling indicates that either marriage or civil unions for same sex couples is supported by 65% of Pennsylvanians.

Tuesday, February 15, 9am, Hearing Room 1, North Office Building
Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on cost-cutting measures in criminal justice
Despite the legislation passed last session, there is still plenty of work to be done. Pennsylvania still has a deep mandatory minimum sentencing scheme that needs rolled back, and programs that should help alleviate the prison population, like State Intermediate Punishment and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, have restrictions that make those programs ineffective. Meanwhile, the state is spending $800 million to build four new state prisons.

Wednesday, February 16, 9:15am, Hearing Room 1, North Office Building
Senate Education Committee hearing on Senate Bill 1
Welcome to the main event! SB 1 provides state-funded vouchers to low-income students to use at private, parochial, or other public schools. SB 1 violates three provisions of the state constitution that bar funding to sectarian schools, sectarian institutions, and schools that are not under the absolute control of the commonwealth. SB 1 also gives state funds to private and religious schools that can and do discriminate against kids for a variety of reasons, including disability, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and an inability to speak English. Public schools, meanwhile, take everyone.

I don't have our testimony posted on our website yet but will have it up at our legislative page by Wednesday. Meanwhile, you can learn more about vouchers from our friends at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and at the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

I often tweet when I'm at these events, so be sure to follow us @aclupa.

Rock the Vote?
Three bills on which the ACLU of PA has a position are currently on the Senate calendar. These bills could get a vote any day or might go to the Senate Appropriations Committee for fiscal considerations:
  • Senate Bill 3: We oppose. Bans insurance companies from offering abortion coverage within the insurance exchanges created by the federal government's healthcare reform. A woman who spends her own money on coverage couldn't get it within the exchange if SB 3 becomes law. We expect this bill will detour to the Senate Appropriations Committee before getting a vote sometime in the future. The Patriot News and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette have both editorialized on this bill.
  • Senate Bill 9: We oppose. Requires applicants for public aid to show government-issued ID or be denied. Supporters claim they're stopping people without papers from fraudulently getting aid but show no evidence that that's a problem. Meanwhile, academic analysis suggests as much as 11 percent of US citizens do not have government-issued ID. This bill should go to approps since multiple state agencies estimated in 2008 that SB 9 would cost the commonwealth $19 million to implement.
  • Senate Bill 42: We oppose. Shrinks the time frame in which persons who have committed sex offenses have to report certain changes, e.g. change in employment, to the state from 10 days to 2 days. It also treats a violation like a felony crime, not like a parole violation. Seriously, aren't we just setting these people up for failure?
Info about SB 3 and SB 9 is available at our legislative webpage.

Rock the committee vote
Since the war on drugs has been such a roaring success (/snark), the House Judiciary Committee will vote on three bills to expand the drug laws to add new substances- Spice et al, aka "synthetic marijuana"; Salvia Divinorum; and some chemical compounds I cannot pronounce.

So PA is building four new prisons at a cost of $800 million due to a bursting inmate population that has been caused in large part to the extreme sentencing laws for drug offenses we've implemented. And now we're going to add more substances to the list of what's illegal......If you continuously bang your head against a wall, at some point don't you realize that it won't make your headache go away?

Welcome to my world.....

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday First Amendment Roundup: Privacy on Twitter and Amazon, Free Speech "Anarchy,"

As the developing story in Egypt casts new light on the importance of free speech and privacy in the age of the Internet (and hopefully calls attention to threats to those freedoms here in the United States) as usual there are other, smaller dramas around the Country that you may have missed:
  • The ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Foundation have challenged the government's attempt to obtain the records of three Twitter users in conjunction with the FBI's WikiLeaks investigation. On that note, the ACLU has commended Twitter for defending the privacy of their users.
  • The ACLU also defended the privacy rights of customers in North Carolina, where state authorities were requesting information that could tie customers to specific purchases.
  • The Orange County, California district attorney's office has filed criminal charges against 11 UC Irvine students who protested a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the US last year. DA Tony Rackauckas's statement, in part: “We must decide whether we are a country of laws or a country of anarchy . . . We cannot tolerate a pre-planned violation of the law, even if the crime takes place on a school campus and even if the defendants are college students. In our democratic society, we cannot tolerate a deliberate, organized, repetitive and collective effort to significantly disrupt a speaker who hundreds assembled to hear.”
  • A speech by William Ayers at Georgia Southern University drew protesters from the Sons of Liberty, who were informed that they were not permitted to protest because they'd failed to register in advance.
  • The National Labor Relations Board (which, incidentally, has a Facebook page) reached settlement in a case defending the rights of workers to discuss working conditions on Facebook and other social networking sites.
  • A conflict is brewing in New Jersey over religious exemptions to state immunization requirements, as State Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. argues that the parents' word that immunization violates their religion should not be sufficient to grant an exemption.
  • The ACLU and several other organizations have launched the Develop For Privacy Challenge, a contest encouraging mobile phone application developers to address privacy concerns. Entries will be accepted at the contest web site until May 31.
We'll be back next Friday with another First Amendment Roundup. In the meantime, I hope you'll spend a little time celebrating the birthday of The Great Emancipator (and maybe the US's greatest LGBT President). If you have no other plans, it's also Evolution Weekend - so if your life's ambition is to finally reconcile religion with science, this is the weekend for you.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Then they came for immigrants and poor people....

Two weeks ago, we told you that the first bill to get a committee vote in the state Senate was Senate Bill 3, to roll back women's access to abortion care. Today we learned that immigrants and poor people are next on the Senate's list.

The Senate State Government Committee today passed Senate Bill 9, requiring applicants for many public aid programs to show government-issued identification, with some exceptions. I wrote about this bill last week, so there's no need to rehash our arguments.

But there is a genuine level of disappointment here about the direction the Senate is heading when the first two bills to come out of committee restrict women's access to healthcare and restrict citizens' access to social safety net programs like unemployment compensation. Who and what is next? LGBT people? Prisoners? Voting rights? Apparently, the budget deficit, the economy, and government reform are nowhere on the radar screen, based on these first few weeks. If this keeps up, we're in for a bumpy session.

Update, 3:05pm: Factual error on my part. About an hour before the committee vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed seven bills, so SB 9 wasn't the second bill out of committee this session in the Senate. Still, the point is the same.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Let's do the time warp again!

(I do realize that I've mixed my movie references. Just go with it.)

A friend of the ACLU of PA from an ally organization has said publicly that the state legislature is typically ten years behind the rest of the country. We can quibble over just how far behind the General Assembly is, but his point is well taken.

Early in the 2011-12 session, we've already had two reminders that our legislators are behind the times.

House Bill 41/Senate Bill 9: These pieces of legislation would require an applicant for public aid to show a government-issued identification before receiving that aid. Currently, most applicants show ID, but if they do not have it, the issuing department will work with them to get other records to establish ID.

The bill is framed as a way to stop people without papers from getting public aid, but there is no evidence that is actually happen. There is plenty of evidence, though, that a significant percentage of the citizen population does not have government-issued ID. According to the Brennan Center at NYU, 11 percent of US citizens do not have government-issued ID, and they are disproportionately the elderly, the working poor, and black adults. (pdf)

Colorado tried this in 2006 and lost money doing it. The state spent $2 million to implement the program and didn't save any money. Since then, some states have altered their verification process but without the ID requirement.

But here in PA the supporters of HB 41 and SB 9 continue to plow forward. Oh, and the Rendell administration estimated that these bills would cost $19 million to implement.

House Bill 308: At least with HB 41 and SB 9, what we've learned from other states is a relatively new phenomenon. When it comes to the death penalty, some of our state legislators are stuck in 1996.

House Bill 308 addresses capital cases in which the jury does not reach a unanimous verdict on the sentence. Under current law, if the jury is not unanimous, the judge implements a sentence of life without parole. This happened in a recent trial in Philadelphia in which the defendant was convicted of killing a police officer. Seven jurors wanted life and five wanted death.

HB 308 is the response to that trial. This bill would require a court to seat a new jury to hear another penalty phase argument. There is a mountain of evidence that shows that the death penalty is more costly than even life without parole. In the last three years, New Jersey and New Mexico repealed capital punishment, in part due to its large financial burden, and the Illinois legislature has passed a repeal bill, which awaits the governor's signature.

If HB 308 becomes law, it would only add to that huge payout that the commonwealth pays for the privilege (?) of maintaining the death penalty.

California has a law like this. It drags out the capital trial process, and it is expensive and painful to victims' families. The LA Times recently featured a story on the mother and grandmother of murder victims who is struggling to continue through the trial process and wants the prosecution to stop pursuing death. She just wants it to end.

They say adults have to hear something seven times before they learn it. Clearly, we advocates have our work cut out for us in bringing our legislators into this decade.

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