Thursday, March 31, 2011

Next week at the state capitol

Next week the Pennsylvania General Assembly returns to session after a three week break for budget hearings. Some people complain that we have a do-nothing legislature. And they say it like that's a bad thing.

Here's what's on tap. Our analysis, memos, etc. on these issues are available on our webpage for the current session, unless otherwise noted.

FLOOR VOTE! Death penalty expansion (HB 317): HB 317 adds two new aggravating circumstances for death penalty cases, bringing the total aggravating circumstances that allow a prosecutor to pursue a death sentence to an even 20. We oppose. I missed the memo that the death penalty has been a success. HB 317 is currently on the House calendar for third consideration.

Taxpayer-funded private school vouchers (SB 1): We expect this bill will be voted out of the Senate Appropriations Committee (with a $1 billion price tag?) sometime next week. It will get a vote on the Senate floor soon thereafter, although that may happen the week of Apil 11. We oppose.

E-Verify for state contractors (SB 637): The Senate State Government Committee is scheduled to consider this bill to mandate state contractors to use the federal E-Verify database program on Wednesday. Never mind that the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in the Hazleton case that local governments can't do that. We want Pennsylvanians to make donations to the ACLU, but we want those to be private donations, not out of the general fund after we kick the commonwealth's a** in court. We oppose.

We don't have any published documents on E-Verify for this session, but if you're interested in more info, check out our webpage from the 2009-10 session.

Elimination of pre-HIV-test counseling and informed consent (SB 260): The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee will consider this bill on Wednesday. Under current law, a person getting an HIV test receives pre-test counseling and must sign a form, aka informed consent, to get the test. SB 260 wipes out the counseling requirement and requires patients to opt out of the test, rather than opting in. That's a violation! Again, no new info posted yet on this one, but our 09-10 session page has some commentary on why this is wrong. Also, national ACLU's HIV/AIDS project has a lot of info on why patient privacy in HIV testing must be protected.

Voter suppression (HB 934): The House State Government Committee will hold an informational meeting on Wednesday on HB 934, a bill to suppress votes by requiring photo ID at the polls. Members of the committee will debate the bill but not vote on it until a later meeting that is yet unscheduled. You guessed it....we oppose.

Did I forget anything? Oh, in what is sure to provide plenty of entertainment, representatives from the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) will meet with the House State Government Committee on Monday to discuss a resolution protesting TSA's extreme search tactics and a bill to create a new state crime of touching a person's genitals during a search.

Finally, Thursday is going to be action-packed for me. In the morning, I'll be testifying at the state capitol before the House Democratic Policy Committee on school vouchers. Then in the evening, it's off to Penn State for a panel discussion on sexting at the law school with Rep. Seth Grove (R-York County), Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, and Riya Shah, a staff attorney at Juvenile Law Center. It's at 6pm on Thursday in the auditorium of the Lewis Katz Law Building. If you're in the area, come by and say, "Hola!"

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The war on the poor continues: Photo ID to vote

The right to vote is an absolute cornerstone of our democracy. It is the most basic way in which the people have a voice in their government. So why are some state legislators trying to block access to the ballot box? Why are some legislators afraid of the voters?

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee held a public hearing on House Bills 934 and 647. HB 934 would require voters to show a government-issued, unexpired photo ID. Without it, they can't vote. HB 647 would require all registered voters to submit two photos of themselves, one of which would be kept on file at the county bureau of elections and the other which would be placed on their voter registration card. They would then have to present that card at the polls. Without it, no vote.

The written testimony submitted by the ACLU of PA is available here.

So why does the headline reference "the war on the poor"? If you didn't click and read the testimony, it's because a significant percentage of US citizens- 11 percent- do not have government-issued ID, and those without ID are disproportionately people who earn less than $35,000 annually, people over the age of 65, and people who are racial minorities. Sure, HB 934 allows free non-drivers ID cards for people without ID, but that provision is laced with the assumption that people without ID have a certain level of mobility and that they have or can acquire the necessary documents, e.g. a birth certificate, to get the free ID card.

Karen Buck from the Senior Law Center gave some great testimony that included examples of seniors whom she's worked with who would be adversely impacted. I cannot find the testimony anywhere online, but trust me, it was great.

Supporters of voter ID insist that they're trying to combat impersonation fraud. But when one member of the House State Government Committee pressed Michael Bekesha from Judicial Watch on how many people have been convicted of voter fraud in PA, Bekesha said that he was aware of one guilty plea for registration fraud, which is completely different from voter impersonation fraud. Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation referenced voter fraud cases in PA from the 1920s and the 1800s.

Von Spakovsky also referenced his work at the Department of Justice, when the Bush administration prosecuted some voter fraud cases. What he failed to mention was that eight US Attorneys were fired because they told the administration that there was no evidence of voter fraud.

The evidence of voter impersonation fraud is extremely weak. Scratch that, it's non-existent.

HB 934 will certainly get a committee vote, probably sometime in April. Beyond that, it's future is unclear, but I expect this will be one of our biggest fights at the state legislature in the 2011-12 session. Please contact your state representative now and ask him or her to protect the vote by opposing HB 934. You can use our "find your legislator" tool to learn who your rep is and to get his or her contact info.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

First Amendment Roundup: Radicalization, Bigfoot, and Random Drug Tests

A bit late getting this up today, forgive me. I was waylaid by hearings to determine how radicalized I am. Word on the street is 85%, but no one can tell me where that number came from. Here, in no particular order, are some of the First-Amendment-related cases you may have missed this week:

I'll close by reminding you that this was also the (very depressing) week President Obama officially fully reversed his campaign position on Gitmo, reopening military tribunals and announcing that the United States may "need" to keep some individuals imprisoned indefinitely without trial. At this point habeas corpus has been lost so long he probably has Stockholm Syndrome. Poor guy almost made it to 800.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Greetings from Harrisburg, state budget edition

This week we react to Governor Corbett's mention of overcrowded state prisons in his budget address and give a preview of an expected House vote on House Bill 317, expanding the death penalty to add two new aggravating circumstances.

As always, you can check out our latest statements on civil liberties-related legislation at our legislative webpage.

Update, 5:34pm: Here is what Governor Corbett said about prisons during his budget address:
Last month my administration cancelled a prison project in Fayette County because we don’t need it and we can’t afford it. We also can’t afford to ask counties in our state to subsist on a prison-based economy. We need industries that generate wealth, not sorrow...

In 1993, Pennsylvania had 24,000 men and women in its prisons. Today that number is over 50,000. This number speaks to a failure. Sometimes it’s a failure in our schools, or in our society, but ultimately in the personal character of the criminal.

We need to fund additional parole officers to help freed inmates make the transition from the prison yard to Main Street. We need to think smarter about how and when and how long to jail people.

Please note that by playing this clip You Tube 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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Monday, March 07, 2011

The war on the poor continues: Drug tests for public aid

The war on the poor has been opened up on multiple fronts- in Washington, DC, and in state capitols around the country, including Harrisburg. Just at the ACLU, we've been addressing the U.S. House's proposal to cut family planning funding, including to our friends at Planned Parenthood, where many people with lower incomes go for a wide variety of services. And in Harrisburg, we're dealing with Senate Bill 9, mandating government-issued identification for public aid. (There's more on our opposition to this bill here.)

And those are just a few issues that fall within the ACLU's mission. Our friends at allied organizations are dealing with this full on assault in a broader way.

Today we had another reminder of how easy it is for the powerful to go after the vulnerable. Last week a bipartisan group of nine state senators introduced Senate Bill 719. This bill would implement random drug testing for people who receive cash assistance. At least two media outlets are exploring the issue since one of the senators issued a press release.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania's opposition to this bill can be summed up in three words- ineffective, expensive, and unconstitutional.

Ineffective. Statistics from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have found that the rate of drug use among public aid recipients is no different from the general population. SB 719 singles out this particular population for extra scrutiny.

Expensive. Drug testing is expensive. It requires financial resources to give the tests, ensure confidentiality, and to run checks to guard against false positives from prescription drugs and other legal substances, like poppy seeds. Numerous states have cited costs as the reason for not starting such a program.

The federal government has a drug testing program for its employees. It found that it spends $77,000 for every one positive drug test because so few people test positive.

Unconstitutional. A drug test is a search, and under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the government cannot conduct this type of broad-based search. The government must have reason to suspect a person is using illegal substances before mandating a drug test.

Michigan is the one state where a law like SB 719 passed. It was struck down by the court of appeals for the reasons cited above.

I'm not a fan of using violent language like "war" or "assault," but the types of initiatives that lawmakers are now pursuing suggest nothing less than an all-out war on the poor. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in the PA Senate, and SB 719 will go nowhere fast.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Next week at the state capitol

Next week will be a big week at the state capitol as Governor Corbett gives his first budget address, a proposal that his budget secretary has suggested would be a "day of reckoning."

But on the civil liberties front, it appears all should be relatively quiet, for a change. Several bills in which we have an interest have been re-referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee, including Senate Bill 3, banning insurance coverage for abortion in the insurance exchanges created by healthcare reform, and Senate Bill 9, requiring government-issued ID for public aid. Bills expanding the controlled substances law are currently on the tabled calendar, and SB 1, the school vouchers bill, is expected to go to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Though the legislature is always full of surprises, no committees are scheduled to vote on civil liberties-related bills.

The biggest potential threat this week is House Bill 317, which adds two new aggravating circumstances for capital cases. It would bring the total number of aggravating circumstances, i.e. circumstances in a homicide that could lead to the death penalty, to 20. At a time when Illinois and Montana are considering repeal of the death penalty, followed on the heels of repeal by New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico, this bill actually expands the death penalty here in PA.

It's possible that HB 317 could get a vote next week. One would think it would go to the House Appropriations Committee before getting a floor vote since the death penalty has proven to be a very expensive government program. But one never knows at the capitol.

After next week, the legislature breaks for several weeks for budget hearings. (Yes, I'm already thinking about the days off I'll be taking this month.) Ah, but civil liberties will still be on the docket this month, as the House Democratic Policy Committee will hold several hearings on school vouchers and the House State Government Committee will hold hearings on ID to vote (on March 21) and on a resolution asking the federal government to address concerns raised over TSA airport searches (on March 30).

In between, I'll be getting some rest. It will really crank up in April.

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First Amendment Roundup: School vouchers, religious expression in schools, and the right to protest

It's been an interesting week, to say the least, what with the Obama Justice Department announcing they will not defend DOMA, and the ACLU joining with other groups to ask that California resume marrying gay couples and Walmart stop treating female employees so badly. Here's our run-down of some lesser-known first amendment stories you may have missed.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Video: Kitzmiller v Dover is on the web!

NOVA produced a pretty great episode a couple of years ago about our 2005 case against teaching intelligent design in science classes, Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District. It's almost two hours long and examines the case from several angles, and it's pretty entertaining - and it's actually a pretty good two-hour lesson on the basic tenets of both intelligent design and evolution theory, including the origins of the flagellum, the relevance of using a mousetrap as a tie clip, and the missing link between creation and intelligent design, "cdesign proponentsists."

The video is available on the web for free. The embedded version below comes from Google Video, which loads considerably faster than the one at While I'm at it, I'll also plug Devil in Dover, a book about the trial written by ACLU of Pennsylvania board member Lauri Lebo, who also appears in the NOVA episode.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Video update from the state capitol

It was a rough day for civil liberties at the state capitol. The Senate Education Committee passed SB 1, creating taxpayer-funded school vouchers, and the House Judiciary Committee passed HB 317, creating two new aggravating circumstances for capital cases. Plus, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe has brought anti-immigrant legislation back to the fore with a press conference today.

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