Guest Blogger: Tommy Fitzgerald

Editor’s note: When Tommy sent me this submission, I had to think about how this relates to ACLU issues. Eventually, the conclusion was reached that it’s good for the public to see the day-to-day function of the criminal justice system. It’s important for people to know what their government does in their names in order to reach a judgment on whether or not this is how we want government agencies spending their time. In a functioning democracy, it’s probably best to err on the side of too much information rather than too little. –Andy in Harrisburg

Twas the Wednesday before Christmas!

Not all was quiet in my apartment! I was vigorously attacking the pile of unwrapped Christmas presents armed with rolls of wrapping paper and defiant scotch tape dispensers. The 48 day stint in County Jail, coupled with the 90 day house arrest, had propelled me into a frenzy of internet purchases. There I sat on the living room floor (cursing the defiant dispenser) when there was a loud insistent knock at my door. Much to my surprise, there stood (in all their finest) six members of the local Law Enforcement community. I was graced (?) with the presence of 2 Probation Officers, 1 County Detective, 1 Springettsbury Police Officer, and last but not least, 2 County Sheriffs.

The first emphatic comment (from the Police guy) was, that they couldn’t read my apartment number because of the red Christmas Bow on the door. I pointed out that since apartments C2 and C3 were on the same floor, it would be obvious that C1 would be the door with the bow. Well, that started every thing off on a positive note! With badges dangling from around their necks on chains (looked like NYPD Blue on TV), they filed into the doorway like you would imagine Santa’s helpers did on their way to work. The lady Probation Officer then questioned if there was any alcohol in the house and that she wanted to look into the refrigerator. I acquiesced politely, and turned my attention to the other men standing in the doorway like Easter Island statues. Unable to contain my derision, I simply stated, “could you close the door, and if you’re not going to search the apartment, start wrapping gifts” (that helped a lot). The Probation lady then announced that she must administer a breath test, which I passed, considering I haven’t drank alcohol for almost a year. Then, with a flurry of inane comments, they turned and marched out of the building on their merry way. They were off to protect society from the masses on house arrest for DUI.

To put this in perspective – I understand that Probation/Parole “sweeps” have become a common phenomenon in this country. But let’s look at this particular incident – it was 8:00 pm on Wednesday night, and someone felt it was my turn to be checked. I have no problem with the check thing, but I do have a problem with the utilizing of 6 individuals (most likely on overtime) to check on an individual on a DUI related house arrest. Did they think that a show of overwhelming force would be necessary? Had they “pumped” themselves up prior to “storming” the apartment building nestled in a quiet York County suburb? Or, was this just another example of perpetrating the mystic of spending tax funds in order to protect the public?

House arrest individuals sign away all their Constitutional Rights pertaining to Probable Cause, Illegal Search and Seizure and any other right the Probation Department wishes to ignore. In a headlong rush to escape incarceration, we agree to pay a fee of $8.00 a day for this “privilege”, and then further, find ourselves contributing to the statistics that become the basis for increasing the budgets of the various “criminal related” industries. This, my friends, is a perfect example of your tax dollars at work!

Thomas J. Fitzgerald, Jr. is a private citizen residing in York, Pa. His claim to infamy is that in 1991 he went to State Prison for five to ten years and became a Paralegal. As a byproduct of that incarceration, he metamorphosed into an active Jailhouse Lawyer.

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Immigration: A New Hope

The groundwork is being laid for comprehensive immigration reform.

Counting on the support of the new Democratic majority in Congress, Democratic lawmakers and their Republican allies are working on measures that could place millions of illegal immigrants on a more direct path to citizenship than would a bill that the Senate passed in the spring.

The lawmakers are considering abandoning a requirement in the Senate bill that would compel several million illegal immigrants to leave the United States before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship.

The lawmakers are also considering denying financing for 700 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico(.)

For those of us who believe in public policy driven by the desire to lift people up and not driven by nativism, xenophobia, and racism, this is great news. Of course, we know that what finally comes out won’t look quite like us, but setting the bar high now makes it possible for something reasonable to come out in the end. To his credit, President Bush supports comprehensive reform.

The lack of reform is supposedly what drove cities like Hazleton and Escondido, CA, to impose their own regressive immigration ordinances. If Congress can get this done, it takes that excuse away. (As an aside, it is worth noting that Escondido- which was like the West Coast version of Hazleton- decided not to enforce its ordinance.)

I gave a talk to a small group of young people a few months ago, and someone asked me what one issue we’re working on really drives me. I said immigration because I’m troubled by the shape of the debate. Afterwards, one of the adult volunteers asked how I could reconcile our position on immigration with the fact that undocumented immigrants have broken the law. I told her that the Constitution does not exclusively protect citizens but also protects “persons.”

I can’t remember what else we said, but there was one thing I left out. This is not a debate on letting people get away with breaking the law but is instead a debate on just how severe a violation of law this is. I could have said to this woman, “Millions of people break the law every day in their cars when they speed. How can we reconcile allowing them to continue to drive when they are putting millions of other drivers at risk?”

Good people who come here for a better life, who have strong family values and a good work ethic and whose only crime is the way they entered the country, deserve the opportunity to enjoy the full benefits of our country. It’s what has made this country great.

On a side note, I found this to be hilarious:

After the dismal showing (at the polls), House Republicans denied F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the departing chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an architect of the House immigration approach, a senior position on any major committee in the new Congress.

It’s a little shameful to take pleasure in another person’s misery, but if there is anyone who deserves it, it’s Sensenbrenner. He has been a thorn in the side of civil rights and freedom on immigration, Real ID, and the PATRIOT Act. The only positive thing that can be said about the guy is that he was a strong supporter of the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, but otherwise, he deserves a demotion.

Andy in H-burg

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Santa comes early at the Harrisburg office

Here are a few gifts to hand out as we head out the door for the long weekend:

Bill O’Reilly: A copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Donald Rumsfeld: A one-way plane ticket to somewhere. Europe? Asia? It’s a secret, but Rummy will find out once he lands.

Senator Arlen Specter: Courage

Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta: A copy of The Words of Cesar Chavez

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County): 2 free tickets to Central PA Pridefest

Governor Rendell: A paper shredder (for death warrants)

There are surely more I’m not thinking of at the moment, but in the words of our legal assistant, I’m peacin’. Have a great holiday! We’ll chat next week. And to all a good night…

Andy in the HBG

More on Ellison

Yesterday it was off to Philly for a few meetings, and the trip on the train always provides an opportunity to contemplate while staring out the window at the farmlands of Lancaster County and the industrial lands of Chester County. During yesterday’s trip, I thought a little more about this controversy surrounding U.S. Rep.-elect Keith Ellison.

The opponents of religious liberty are really showing their true colors with this one. Often when we deal with Establishment Clause issues, opponents are able to cloak their hostility using the argument that their freedom is being encroached, and to the non-discriminating listener, this might sound sensible.

But Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) is quite clear: He hates Muslims and immigrants and doesn’t think they should be a part of the political process. That’s wrong and it’s un-American. Clearly, the Rep is hostile to the basic principles of religious freedom and citizen participation in the government. There is a word for that. Tyranny.

Andy in H-burg

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Congressmen Against Religious Freedom

Or CARF, as its known in the halls of Congress.

It seems this controversy over Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first ever Muslim in Congress, and his desire to take the oath of office (not the actual oath, by the way, more on this in a minute) by placing his hand on the Koran won’t die. This is one of those controversies where you just want to say, “Oh, people, please, grow up.”

The latest to spin the Wheel of Nonsense is Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), who has a form letter going out to constituents who supposedly have been contacting him with “a flood of e-mails” about this issue. You can read the entire letter at Glenn Greenwald’s blog, but here is a snip. Try to follow this winding trail, if you can:

The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.

We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country.

Did you follow that? The Rep. went from the wishes of the people of Ellison’s district to immigration to Muslims being elected to office back to illegal immigration to President Clinton to the Middle East.

And the best part is that Ellison is African-American, or so I gather by watching him on television.

Greenwald had this to say:

I was particularly moved by the way Rep. Goode stood up to the inquiring, treasonous “Muslim student.” That was very brave, powerful and resolute of Rep. Goode to stand his ground. Maybe he is the Churchill we’ve all been hungrily craving.

Meanwhile, over at the Lede at the New York Times, it is pointed out that the ceremony in question is not official. It is merely a photo-op, and the actual oath is taken without holy books, which prompted a Lutheran pastor from New Jersey to ask this:

The reality is that pictures of Congressional representatives where they are placing their hand on the Bible while raising their other hands is just for publicity. It is a photo-op… The Bible is a prop in the pictures.

Why aren’t people upset that God’s Word is being used as a prop – how many of those taking those photo-op pictures with their hands on the Bible actually live their public lives according to it?

Love those Lutherans! Martin Luther said something that is appropriate here. As a Christian, Luther said, “I’d rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian.”

The sudden re-emergence of this controversy is a reminder of last month’s dust-up when Glenn Beck of CNN asked Ellison to convince him that he’s not working with our enemies, which prompted a classic response from Jon Stewart (Warning: TV-M):

Andy in the HBG

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Merry Kitzmas!

Do you know where you were this time last year? It’s the one year anniversary of the release of Judge Jones’s wonderful opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (a.k.a. the intelligent design challenge). In honor of the occasion, the York Dispatch has an article about the writer working on adapting the trial into a screenplay for Paramount Pictures. (Be warned – it’s actually a movie “inspired” by the events in Dover.)

In a nice bit of timing, the Cobb County (Georgia) School Board announced yesterday that it will not be placing anti-evolution stickers in high school biology textbooks. The case began in 2002, when the school board decided to place stickers inside the biology textbooks that questioned the validity of evolution. “School officials also agreed not to take other actions that would undermine the teaching of evolution in biology classes,” according to the Americans United for Separation of Church and State press release. Several of the same attorneys from the Dover case were involved in the Cobb County effort, including Richard Katskee, assistant legal director of Americans United, and Eric Rothschild of Pepper Hamilton. (No word yet if there will be a movie on of this one.)

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Holiday reading

Last month, my housemate handed me a book she said I must read. One of those books you wished had been around when you were in high school so you’d know other people have emotionally unavailable fathers, sexual identity issues, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, too. But later, they can turn them into highly imaginative and entertaining reading material and make a lot of money.

It was comforting to me even at the age of 30 as I curled up with Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, consuming the pages of cartoon-like illustrations and sophisticated literary references that frame an extremely personal autobiography of Bechdel’s relationship with her father.

Bechdel’s “tragicomic” also deals with her coming out as a lesbian while in college, and – as a graphic novel – contains some graphic illustrations (just a few images on its 240 pages) that made my housemate and I a little uncomfortable when we arrived at that page while riding the rush hour subway.

Now the Washington Post reports that a Missouri library is the target of complaints and a challenge to its acquisition of two graphic novels – Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Blankets, by Craig Thompson. Marshall Public Library has responded by removing the books from circulation until it develops a library policy about collecting such materials.

“My concern does not lie with the content of the novels. Rather my concern is with the illustrations and their availability to children and the community,” said resident Louise Mills, during a recent public hearing. “Does this community want our public library to continue to use tax dollars to purchase pornography?”

The Post reports that the American Library Association has heard of at least 14 challenges to graphic novels in libraries over the past 2-3 years. The organization has joined with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to issues guidelines for librarians that want to collect these books but also avoid controversy.

In the same spirit, I’ve developed a guideline for the literate public (admittedly a limited pool at this point): Open your wallet, flip past that plastic money, and get out your (hopefully) well-worn library card. You don’t have to pay to play. Kick back and enjoy a graphic novel; and thank your local librarian for keeping the shelves well-stocked with exciting and provocative new narrative forms.

Jess in Philly

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An Overdue Visit

From our clever colleagues in the national ACLU office (you can send your own e-card from their website here.)

An Overdue Visit

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the nation
Friends of Freedom knew it was a special occasion.
Lady Liberty stood taller just off the shore
Her torch shining brighter than a few weeks before

But it wasn’t the flame turning her cheeks all rosy
It was thoughts of Snowe, Feingold and Nancy Pelosi
And leaders from every side of the aisle
Who would soon bring the Bill of Rights back into style.

The Amendments had all hurried out of their beds –
Which was no easy task, they were nearly in shreds –
And they rushed to the window on papery feet
As a jolly old man flew right over their street.

“Could it be!?” they inquired as the roof shook and trembled
And they crept toward the mantle, peaceably assembled,
Just as someone emerged from the chimney with flair
In a shiny red suit, with a shock of white hair

And a top hat, and pants all in red, white and blue –
“Wait a minute,” the Amendments exclaimed, “Who are you?”
“Don’t be frightened my children,” he said, “it’s no scam.
“You can’t have forgotten your old Uncle Sam!”

“Holy crap!” said Free Speech. “Stop right there!” yelled Bear Arms
And Privacy cried “Who shut off the alarms?!”
The Fifth remained silent, but Uncle Sam said
“We’ve been having some trouble, but Freedom’s not dead.”

The Amendments were cautious. “It’s just been so long
“We’ve seen Liberty lost, we’ve seen so much go wrong.
“The President’s trying to mangle and warp us,
“The Fourth is in tatters, so’s Habeas Corpus!”

The old man sat down – he had had quite a ride –
But he told them “Don’t worry, the Law’s on our side,
“‘Cause the nation’s fed up and more people are crying
“For Justice and an end to illegal spying,

“And secret abductions by the CIA,
“And laws that would take women’s choices away,
“And Gitmo tribunals and secret detention,
“And other intrusions too numerous to mention – “

“Not so fast,” said a grinchity voice from above
And Don Rumsfeld pushed past the Fourteenth with a shove.
He was covered in soot and he looked kind of scary.
It seemed like his Christmas had not been so merry.

The Amendments said they weren’t happy to see him:
“You tried to throw all of us in the museum!
“You’ve done so much the Constitution forbids!”
“And I would have gone on, but for you meddling kids!”
Uncle Sam told him “Rummy, your plans just won’t do,
“So we’ve got a brand new timetable for you!”
And as Rumsfeld retired and crept into the night
The Amendments cried out “Have a good secret flight!”

From the distance they heard him reply with a snort.
“Bye-bye, Rummy!” they answered, “we’ll see you in court!”
Uncle Sam rode the chimney up out of the room
And, like Frosty, he said “I’ll be back again soon.”

But they heard him exclaim “Oh, and just one more thing!
“This year, when the holiday bells start to ring,
“Try to honor religion. Honest faith can’t be wrong.
“It’s America, can’t we all just get along?

“So, on Christian,” he cried, “Muslim, Hindu, and Jew!
“On Quaker! On Shaker! And Atheist too!
“On Buddhist! On Taoist! And to show we’re not chickens
“We’ll file a few lawsuits defending the Wiccans!

“Your belief is your right, so get out there and savor it.
“Uncle Sam’s not a preacher, and he doesn’t play favorites!”
So this holiday season, whatever you do,
Warmest wishes for Freedom, from the ACLU.

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War on Christmas 2007, more like a Skirmish on Christmas

Or maybe it’s more like shadow boxing. Nevertheless, it does seem a bit quieter this year on this front. It probably helps that no Fox News anchor has a book to push on the topic, and certain television personalities realized that squawking over the alleged War on Christmas led certain media outlets to do some actual investigating reporting on the issue. Some people whither when exposed to the light.

This article was on the cover of The Patriot News on Sunday: “Greetings” issue cools but only a little bit

How fascinating that a Republican president, who was a retired general, changed the White House Christmas card to say “Season’s Greetings,” and in the midst of McCarthyism, no less.

This particularly caught my eye:

“But at work, we had a big, big discussion, all the supervisors, about what to put on our Christmas, er, holiday cards. And I was very persistent in ‘happy holidays’ because we have a lot of international clients,” she said.

As has been discussed here before in reference to same sex partnerships, the business community tends to be out in front of the politicos and the squawking heads on these issues of embracing diversity.

Andy in H-burg

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The slow death of capital punishment

Abolishing the death penalty is not something that is going to help in one fell swoop. It will happen slowly, incrementally, over the course of years. In fact, we may be in that process right now.

According to The Death Penalty Information Center’s end of year report, all indications are that capital punishment is whithering on the vine in the United States.

For the first time in two decades, the Gallup Poll this year revealed that more Americans support the alternative sentence of life without parole over the death penalty as the proper punishment for murder. This result is in-step with the Death Penalty Information Center’s (DPIC) 2006 Year End Report detailing a continuing trend away from capital punishment in the United States. In its report, DPIC notes that U.S. death sentences are now at an historic 30-year low, executions have sharply declined, and the size of death row has been dropping since 2000. (my bold)

You can read the full press release at the blog of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Andy in the HBG

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