Frontier Civil Liberties

Protecting civil liberties in Texas is not for the faint hearted, and Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, was a longtime journalist who earned her spurs as a political and investigative reporter and editor before she retired as editor of the Abilene Reporter-News. She also was an advocate of freedom of information and birth control before those became controversial and in 2008 she took over as executive editor of the ACLU’s Texas outpost.

In a recent speech in Austin, she said that in January 2009, after eight years of President George W. Bush, she was looking forward to President Barack Obama, who taught constitutional law and criticized the Bush administration’s infringements of civil liberties. “We thought the Obama administration would give us a rest, but it hasn’t quite turned out that way.”

Among the disappointments was the Obama administration’s fight to keep warrantless wiretaps, which were part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments adopted during the Bush years.

The ACLU also has challenged the Obama administration’s claim of authority to kill American citizens on foreign soil who advocate terrorism against US targets, as the previous administration had claimed, she noted. “Anyone who is willing to entrust Barack Obama with that authority should ask themselves if they’re willing to trust George W. Bush or any president who comes after with the same authority,” she said.

The ACLU will continue to fight the authorization of indefinite military detention of terrorism suspects that was included in the National Defense Authorization Act that Obama signed into law in December, even though the Obama administration Feb. 28 issued procedures that effectively waive that authority.

But for all the ACLU’s reservations about the Obama administration’s regard for civil liberties and Democratic congressional leaders who are pushed around by hardline Republicans, the performance of Republicans in the dozen statehouses they control demonstrates why the Dems still are far preferable.

At the state level, Republicans are noted for their infatuation with the 10th Amendment (the “states’ rights” amendment) and the Second Amendment (“right to bear arms”) almost to the exclusion of the rest of the Bill of Rights.

Republicans came into power with the idea to “get government off our backs and into our wombs and bedrooms,” she said.

Much of the assault on workers and women at the state level is driven by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-driven group that has authored many of the right-wing initiatives. including voter ID bills that threaten to prevent millions of Americans from voting if they lack the proper documents.

Texas is one of eight states where Republican-dominated legislatures passed voter ID laws last year. Section 5 of the law requires 16 Southern states with a history of voting discrimination against minorities to “preclear” changes in election law with the US Department of Justice before they can take effect.

The Department of Justice reached the almost inescapable conclusion that Texas’ new law requiring voters to present a state-issued photo ID is likely to reduce participation by minority voters who don’t have a driver’s license or a gun permit, which are among the state-issued IDs the state recognizes as valid. (Texas does not recognize Veterans Identification Cards or state university student IDs, among official photo IDs that fail to pass muster.)

In a letter released March 12 that rejected the changes, Assistant US Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote that Texas failed to prove that the law “will not have a retrogressive effect.” Federal officials estimated that 795,000 registered Texas voters lack a driver’s license (some estimates run as high as 2.5 million potential Texas voters), and Hispanic citizens were much more likely than non-Hispanics to lack a state-issued ID card.

The Justice Department blocked a similar bill in South Carolina in December. A state judge in Madison, Wis., blocked a similar law there March 12 based on that state’s constitution. Democrats complain that the laws are designed to make it harder for students, low-income people, minorities and the elderly to vote.

The Brennan Center for Justice (BrennanCenter.org) estimates that as many as 7% of US adult citizens — 13 million individuals — do not have ready access to citizenship documents, such as US passports, naturalization papers or birth certificates. Citizens earning less than $25,000 per year are twice as likely to lack documentation as people who earn more than $25,000. And only 66% of voting-age women have ready access to proof of citizenship with their current legal name. That means as many as 32 million women may not have proof of citizenship.

Perez also noted that Texas does not have driver’s license offices in 81 of the state’s 254 counties and the disparity in the rates between Hispanics and non-Hispanics having ID cards is particularly stark in counties without driver’s license offices.

Burke noted that license office hours were cut in the last legislative session, purportedly for budgetary reasons, at the same time the voter ID bill increased demand. Voter ID cards are supposed to be free, but applicants need a birth certificate, which costs $22 or more, and married women need their marriage certificate, which costs $71 or more, to verify their name change.

Residents in rural Texas counties may be hours away from cities — a senator testified that some voters in his district could have to travel 176 miles roundtrip to reach a license office — so potential voters not only would have to take time off from work, but they probably would need to get somebody else to take time off from work and drive them to the nearest office and back, just to exercise the right to vote.

And after all this, Burke noted, the new law did not address the relatively few demonstrated problems with voting fraud, most of which involve misuse of mail-in ballots or manipulation of electronic voting machines.

Burke believes the attack on voting rights is a ruse to get the Voting Rights Act reconsidered by the Supreme Court. In the last ruling in 2006, the “pre-clearance” provision narrowly survived, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott plans to challenge the federal rejection of the voter ID law in federal court, with the hope of getting it back to the Supremes.

If for no other reason than concern over the future direction of the Supreme Court and other federal courts, she said (speaking for herself), it is worth voting to re-elect Obama and Democratic Senate candidates. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, at 79, is the oldest justice and has had health issues that make her a likely retirement in the next administration, which could shift the balance sharply to the right. And Burke noted that every one of the circuit courts of appeal is expected to have three or more vacancies in the next four years.

The ACLU has drawn some flak from progressive allies for the “friend of the court” brief it filed in support of Citizens United before the Supreme Court’s notorious decision in 2010 to overturn more than a century of precdent to allow corporations to get involved in political campaigns. She said the brief was meant to address a “narrow point,” and she suggested the organization might take a different course if it had a chance to do the brief again, but the ACLU takes a dim view of constitutional amendments to address the excesses related to the Citizens United decision. It believes in full disclosure of donors to super PACs and how much they contribute — but the ACLU opposed the DISCLOSE Act because it would have required disclosure of membership lists of the ACLU and other activist organizations.

If you follow the ACLU you will find it can be infuriating, but consistent: It supports all the Bill of Rights, even if it occasionally supports the right of neo-Nazis to march through Jewish neighborhoods or the rights of muckraking bloggers to the same First Amendment protections as corporate publishers.

Don’t wait for the police or the process server to show up at your door to figure out that you support the ACLU. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2012


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