Make EC available for all victims of rape

As initially presented, House Bill 288 proposed sane much-needed guarantees to rape victims, offering assurances that they would be treated humanely when seeking medical help from any of Pennsylvania’s hospitals.

A measure pending in the state House would see to it that emergency contraception, commonly known as the morning-after pill, is available for a victim who wanted it, no matter what hospital she was in.

But an amendment may be offered as early as Tuesday that would permit faith-based hospitals to exempt themselves from the bill’s requirement – gutting the very guarantees the legislation would provide.

Rape and sexual assault victims come to the hospital for compassionate treatment. But essentially, the amendment makes it possible for medical providers to force their religious beliefs on women during what undoubtedly is one of the worst moments of their lives.

As Rabbi Carl Choper, chairman of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania, said Thursday:

“The core issue regarding religious liberty is whose ethical and moral system will govern the situation – the sexual assault victim’s or the healthcare provider’s,” Choper wrote in his statement. “We believe that the position of the government must be that the victim’s moral system prevails.”

Emergency contraception is not abortion. It prevents pregnancy before it occurs.

This incredibly mean-spirited amendment needs to be rejected. Women seeking treatment must grapple with the emotional turmoil and feelings of guilt that rape inevitably brings. They don’t need the callous judgment heaped on them by the people they turn to for help.

Hopefully, a majority of our state lawmakers grasp this.

Lauri in York

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The death penalty: How far we’ve come…

In a debate during the 1988 presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis was asked a question about his opposition to the death penalty in a hypothetical situation in which his wife was murdered. He answered the question in a way that many felt was cold and some have attributed his answer as one reason why his campaign collapsed.

My how times have changed.

At last night’s Republican debate sponsored by PBS and hosted by Tavis Smiley, two Republican candidates said or all but said that they oppose the death penalty.

Ray Suarez: Congressman Paul, support has gradually been slipping for the death penalty among all Americans. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports a large minority of whites still support capital punishment, while Blacks and Latinos do not.

Now, I know this is mostly a state function, but the president does appoint appellate judges, and of course, the highest appellate judges in the land, the Supreme Court justices, who often review death penalty cases.

Do you think the death penalty is carried out justly in the United States? And do you want to see it continued during your presidency?

Tavis: Thirty seconds, Congressman.

Rep. Ron Paul: You know, over the years, I’ve held pretty rigid all my beliefs, but I’ve changed my opinion about the death penalty. For federal purposes, I no longer believe in the death penalty. I believe it has been issued unjustly. If you’re rich, you get away with it; if you’re poor and you’re from the inner city, you’re more likely to be prosecuted and convicted.

Today, with the DNA evidence, there have been too many mistakes. So I am now opposed to the federal death penalty.

Tavis: Thank you, Congressman. Senator Brownback?

Senator Sam Brownback: We need a culture of life in the United States, a culture that recognizes every life at every stage. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, it’s a child of a loving God, period.

I have difficulty with the death penalty. This is an individual, though, in that case, that has committed a heinous crime. I think we should limit the death penalty to cases only where we cannot protect the society from the individual, such as when Osama bin Laden is caught.

We need to be able to use it then.

But we should use this very limited and only in that circumstance, in order to talk and to teach a culture of life in America.

Granted, Paul and Brownback are not considered top tier candidates for the presidency. Regardless of the outcome of this campaign, though, chances are they will run for elected office again in the future, unless I’ve missed their retirement announcements.

As has been noted before, politicians no longer have to run scared from opposing the death penalty.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Another PATRIOT Act victory!

The USA PATRIOT Act continues to crumble. September started with one victory, and as the month winds down, a federal judge yesterday struck down two provisions of the law because they violate the 4th Amendment’s “probable cause” requirement.

The ruling by Judge Anne L. Aiken of Federal District Court in Portland was in the case of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer in Portland who was arrested and jailed after the Federal Bureau of Investigation mistakenly linked him to the Madrid train bombings in March 2004.

“For over 200 years, this nation has adhered to the rule of law — with unparalleled success,” Judge Aiken’s opinion said in finding violations of the Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure. “A shift to a nation based on extraconstitutional authority is prohibited, as well as ill advised.”

Under powers granted by the PATRIOT Act, the FBI searched Brandon Mayfield’s home and office and took things without ever informing him they had been there. It’s hard to believe that Congress approved such a thing in the first place, but it’s even harder to believe that it didn’t correct its error four years later when the sunset provisions of the law were renewed.

The courts appear to be the last bastion of respect for the Constitution.

Andy in Harrisburg

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SCOTUS takes two mega cases

The 2007-08 session of the U.S. Supreme Court is shaping up to be huge. Yesterday SCOTUS announced that it will hear arguments in cases involving voting rights and the death penalty.

Voter suppression has a long and sad history in this country. For 220 years, there have been attempts, often successful, to withhold the franchise from certain types of citizens. As brilliant as the Framers were, voting rights is one of two areas where they really dropped the ball when only white male landowners were given the right to vote. (Slavery is the other, although one could make a strong academic argument that the young country would be DOA if abolition was in the mix.)

Poll taxes. Literacy tests. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you know the history. We finally started getting it right in the 20th century with the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, which backed up the 15th Amendment 95 years after the fact.

Today we find a much more insidious form of disenfranchisement. SCOTUS will hear arguments in a case from Indiana regarding a voter identification law. Now, to the average person who isn’t mired in poverty, presenting photo ID might seem like a non-issue. And the argument that it will prevent voter fraud also sounds legit on the surface.

But there is something much more devious below the surface. An estimated 13-22 million Americans of voting age do not have government-issued photo identification. These folks are typically poor, disabled, the elderly, and minorities. Sound familiar? These are the very same folks who were disenfranchised by poll taxes, literacy tests, etc.

Plus, there’s no evidence that the kind of voter fraud that photo ID would prevent is actually happening. Photo ID for voting is a solution in search of a problem.

Meanwhile, the death penalty is not a solution to the violent crime problem. The Court also announced that it will hear the case of two condemned Kentucky men who argue that the form of lethal injection in Kentucky is cruel and unusual punishment.

Nine states currently have suspended executions due to the lethal injection question. Unfortunately, the Court is not considering whether or not lethal injection as a method is cruel and unusual but is looking at the possibility for error with the cocktail of drugs used to kill the inmate. The NY Times explains it better than I can:

The issue in the case, Baze v. Rees, No. 07-5439, is not whether lethal injection, in the abstract, is constitutional or unconstitutional; the question is more specific and less conclusive than that. It is, rather, the standard by which courts are to evaluate the evidence that lethal injection, predictably and with some regularity, goes wrong: that a paralyzing drug can leave an inadequately anesthetized inmate with the ability to feel severe pain as another drug stops the heart, but without the ability to move or call for help.

Although this case will not be as sweeping as some might like, it further illustrates the mess that is capital punishment. This is just one more knot in a twisted and confounding process. We’d all be better off without the death penalty.

The hunch here is that we can expect more 5-4 decisions from the Court.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Cutting off your economic nose to spite your "illegal aliens" face

Riverside, New Jersey.

Business quickly dried up after the law against illegal immigrants. Last week, on what would usually be a busy Thursday afternoon, Ms. Guedes ate a salad and gave a friend a manicure, while the five black stylist chairs sat empty.

“Now I only have myself,” said Ms. Guedes, 41, speaking a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. “They all left. I also want to leave but it’s not possible because no one wants to buy my business.”

Numerous storefronts on Scott Street are boarded up or are empty, with For Sale by Owner signs in the windows. Business is down by half at Luis Ordonez’s River Dance Music Store, which sells Western Union wire transfers, cellphones and perfume. Next door, his restaurant, the Scott Street Family Cafe, which has a multiethnic menu in English, Spanish and Portuguese, was empty at lunchtime.

“I came here looking for an opportunity to open a business and I found it, and the people also needed the service,” said Mr. Ordonez, who is from Ecuador. “It was crowded and everybody was trying to do their best to support their families.”

Within a year or so, we’ll probably be saying “Hazleton” and “Lewistown” in the same breath.

Andy in Harrisburg

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NJ town comes to its senses, repeals anti-immigrant ordinance

Escondido, CA. Valley Park, MO. Farmers Branch, TX. Hazleton, PA. All towns that passed anti-immigrant ordinances, all towns that have lost in court either temporarily or permanently. Riverside, New Jersey, saw the writing on the wall. And after Hazleton was invoiced a legal bill of $2.4 million, the deterrent effect of that portion of the Civil Rights Act kicked in. There is a price for violating people’s rights.

So Riverside repealed its anti-immigrant ordinance.

“I think the people realize it’s the right thing to do at this time,” (Mayor George) Conard said of repealing the law that put Riverside in the national spotlight last summer.

Riverside’s decision drew praise from the ACLU.

“We commend Riverside for repealing this wrong-headed law,” said Ed Barocas, Legal Director at the ACLU of New Jersey. “In addition to being illegal, the passage of this ordinance promoted distrust of immigrants – including those here legally – and fueled xenophobia and discrimination.”
….
“Riverside properly recognized that trying to enforce this ordinance would be a waste of taxpayer money and a violation of the law,” said Omar Jadwat, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Other cities considering similar ordinances should take note of this vote and the fact that these discriminatory and unlawful laws do not hold up in court. Rather than blow city resources on unlawful and mean-spirited ordinances, responsible officials should seek to combat discrimination and ensure that their municipalities are fair for all of their residents.”

And The Philadelphia Inquirer chimed in on Friday.

The township cited a potentially costly court battle as a reason for ditching the law. But the bigger picture is that municipalities such as Riverside and Hazleton, Pa., which passed a similar ordinance, can’t do the job that the federal government ought to be doing.

Congress is still shirking its responsibility to come up with an answer for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Lawmakers need to come up with a way to sanction the illegal immigrants already here but allow them an avenue to ultimate citizenship.

Gridlock on the problem in Washington has the practical effect of creating a national policy that pretends these undocumented people simply aren’t here.

Andy in Harrisburg

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The one where a bunch of people died, lost their homes, and were abandoned

In the days of “fair and balanced” newspaper coverage, shrinking news holes, and a seemingly round-the-clock obsession with Britney’s oh-so-slight tummy bulge, journalism these days often seems to have abdicated its vital role in the workings of democracy.

But the work of The Times-Picayune‘s journalists and the sacrifices they made to record Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans serves as a reminder of the importance that newspapers play in documenting injustice.

In a short documentary, Eyes of the Storm, made for the two-year anniversary of the storm, the editors and staff photographers of The Times-Picayune recalled the events of Katrina through their photos. The video is 25 minutes long, but well worth the time. One of the most poignant moments is when one photographer describes how a stranded woman desperately led him to the body of an old man – so that the world might see, and know, what happened there.

Doug Parker, the paper’s photo editor said in the film’s introduction, “People who work for newspapers…think that they can change the world.”

New Orleans remains a long way from recovery, but the video serves as a moving reminder that journalism still matters when practiced by people who uphold a solemn responsibility to the First Amendment.

And while we’re watching videos on the subject…

Another video documents the terrible conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison. Ashley, a 13-year-old runaway held at a youth detention center, was transferred to the adult prison for the approaching storm. In the video, she describes being abandoned by guards and left in waist-high water for days without food and water.

The clip is part of the ACLU’s comprehensive report Broken Promises. Since the waters have receded, the ACLU continues to be inundated with reports of racial injustice and human rights violations in Louisiana and Mississippi. Broken Promises highlights stories of ongoing police abuse, racial profiling, housing discrimination, along with other civil liberties violations and the ACLU’s continuing response.

Lauri in York

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C-Day shout-outs to defending the Constitution!

How appropriate that on Constitution Day both The New York Times and Huffington Post feature opinion pieces on key Constitutional principles.

First, The Times with an editorial on restoring habeas corpus:

There are many other things deeply wrong with the Military Commissions Act, which established military tribunals to try any foreigner that Mr. Bush labels an illegal combatant. It also allowed the introduction of evidence tainted by coercion and endorsed “combatant status review tribunals,” kangaroo courts in Guantánamo Bay that declare prisoners enemy combatants without a real hearing or reliable evidence.

All of those issues must be addressed, speedily, by Congress, but restoring habeas corpus would be a good first step. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, must ensure a vote on the habeas corpus restoration measure sponsored by Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Arlen Specter, its ranking Republican.

It is good to see the effort led by Mr. Specter, who as chairman of the committee before the 2006 election shepherded the military tribunal law through Congress at the behest of the White House. We hope similar principle will be on display by the other Republican and Democratic senators and representatives who betrayed the Constitution and the democracy they were sworn to defend by voting for that law.

Meanwhile, Philip Giraldi of antiwar.com and The American Conservative contributes the piece Bipartisan war against the Constitution today at HuffPo:

Many Americans accept that there has to be some abridgement of fundamental liberties while fighting a multi-faceted and unconventional war against terrorism, but few are actually aware just how much the constitutional rights that all citizens take for granted have been eroded. History also teaches us that once a right is suspended in all likelihood it is gone forever, particularly given the unwillingness of Congress to confront the White House over the Constitution, which President George W. Bush has described as “just a goddamned piece of paper.” The virtual pillaging of the Bill of Rights by the White House and Congress is particularly regrettable in that the government cannot cite a single case where the use of the draconian new legislation has led to the arrest of anyone who was ready, willing, and able to carry out a terrorist act.

Lastly, at the risk of shameless self-promotion, yours truly spoke today at a Constitution Day rally at the state capitol sponsored by STOMP (Stop Taking Our Money and Property), which will air sometime this week on PCN. PCN updates their daily schedule once every 24 hours.

Andy in Harrisburg

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He’s done it again: Pete Shellem frees another innocent man

Extraordinary.

That single word best describes the work of reporter Pete Shellem of The Patriot News. For the fifth time, Pete’s investigative work has freed an innocent person from jail. This time it was Charles T. “Ted” Dubbs of Lancaster County, who served five years of a 12-to-40 year sentence for a sexual assault that someone else committed.

Dubbs went free on Wednesday. Today’s Patriot News features a commentary by Shellem that addresses this latest miscarriage of justice.

The case first came to my attention when Brown pleaded guilty last November and was sentenced in Dauphin County Court. It came out at that hearing that Brown had confessed to crimes for which Dubbs was wasting away in prison still proclaiming his innocence.

When I asked about it afterward ­- assuming they were going to free an innocent man – I got the exchanged glances, awkward smiles and the “no comments.”

It was after that I got the proverbial bug in the ear. The cops figured it was a no-brainer, but Totaro’s office didn’t want to hear it. Maybe it had something to do with the election year.

True, Totaro’s first assistant at the time, Heidi Eakin, pointed out the similarities between the cases. But when members of the task force investigating the serial rapes presented her with Browns’ 60-page confession, she got her back up.

When I interviewed her in May, she was adamant that Dubbs was guilty and called his alibi defense “a joke.” She speculated Brown was a copycat who committed 13 subsequent rapes after reading about Dubbs’s arrest and conviction.

Eakin said she specifically told the police not to reinterview the victims. When asked what she was doing to investigate the confession she told me “that’s not my job.”

You can read Shellem’s original piece from May by clicking here.

The Framers intended for the free press to be a watchdog of the government. It’s a relief to know that there is still at least one reporter- Pete Shellem- who takes that role seriously.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Remembering a champion for justice

So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after you how much fun it was.” – Molly Ivins

As most of us know, the ACLU lost one of its greatest supporters in January when Molly Ivins died of cancer at 62. On Tuesday, in a tribute hosted by the Society for Ethical Culture, writers and journalists gathered on the anniversary of 9/11 to remember the Texas firebrand and the causes for which she stood.

Ivins, who famously gave one speech each month on behalf of the ACLU until the cancer she was fighting made it impossible, was a true believer in defending the causes of justice and civil liberties.

As she once wrote: “There’s not a thing wrong with the ideals and mechanisms outlined and the liberties set forth in the Constitution of the U.S. The only problem is the founders left a lot of people out of the Constitution. They left out poor people and black people and female people. It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.”

Next month, her final book, co-written by long-time collaborator Louis Dubose, will be published by Random House.

The Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights, documents the struggles of little guys – always a favorite topic of Ivins – to defend their constitutional rights against government bullies.

Dubose, who attended the tribute, said he regrets his writing partner is no longer here to see the success of the people whose stories are told in the book.

The Bill of Wrongs includes a chapter on the Dover Area School District’s First Amendment battle over intelligent design. Thankfully, Ivins lived to see the concept ruled creationism and its teaching in science class struck down as unconstitutional. But Dubose wishes she had lived to see more recent successes. “I regretted Molly didn’t stick around long enough to see our subjects prevailing as plaintiffs,” he said.

One of those subjects is John Doe. In Doe vs. Gonzales, the anonymous internet provider’s free speech rights were silenced by the amended Patriot Act’s National Security Letter (NSL) provision. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero struck down the NSL provision, which the FBI uses to demand personal customer records from Internet service providers, libraries and others without prior court approval. Marrero ruled the gag order, which prevents those served from discussing the letters, violates the First Amendment.

Additionally Dubose said Ivins would have really enjoyed seeing a Texas couple cash their $80,000 check with the U.S. Treasury last month, restitution paid by the Bush Administration for illegally arresting them because of the messages – “Love America, Hate Bush” and “Regime Change Starts At Home” – they peacefully wore on their T-shirts.

“I really miss Molly,” Dubose said. “As a reader as much as a colleague.

“After she died, I got all these letters from people about her columns, saying things like, ‘They made me realize I wasn’t crazy.’ Or ‘They made me realize I wasn’t alone.'”

The Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights, published by Random House, comes out Oct. 23.

Lauri in York

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