Archive | July, 2009

Madison ACLU Event: Pancake Breakfast, Aug. 9

30 Jul

Madison Hours Monthly Pancake Breakfast

Co-hosted by the ACLU of Wisconsin

Enjoy all-you-can-eat pancakes, roasted potatoes,
fair trade coffee and OJ—$8.50 for adults, kids eat free

Time: 8:30—11:00 am
Date: 08/09/09
WilMar Center, Madison WI
Ever been to a Madison Hours pancake breakfast? If you have, you know that the alternative currency cooperative serves up delicious vegan pancakes and roasted potatoes with a co-hosting charity once a month. The whole Wil-Mar area neighborhood and organization supporters come out to enjoy community and contributing to a good cause.

In August, the ACLU of Wisconsin will be co-hosting and sharing the proceeds of the event. ACLU supporters are encouraged to bring friends and enjoy a community breakfast with lively conversation and an update on the legal and educational work of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Interested in volunteering? Set-up, potato-choppers, and clean-up help needed. Contact Stacy in the Madison ACLU office to take a shift.

Location Details:
Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center
953 Jenifer St
Madison, WI 53703-3521

*** parking in the neighborhood is limited on Sunday mornings. Guests are encouraged to bike, walk or bus.

Contact: (608) 469-5540;

Our legislators in both DC and Wisconsin are leading on voting rights

29 Jul

On Friday, July 24, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and Congressman John Conyers introduced federal legislation to restore the right to vote to ex-offenders immediately upon release into their communities nationwide. This legislation called the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA) is similar to the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act (WDRA) introduced last week by State Senator Lena Taylor, State Assembly Rep Tamara Grigsby and 16 other state senators and assembly representatives across the state.

The Restore the Vote Wisconsin NOW! Coalition supports this important voting rights legislation along with over 70 labor, voting rights, corrections, law enforcement, faith and community organizations in Wisconsin and nationally. We are working to restore the right to vote to people who have been deemed safe to return to our communities to work, go to school, raise families and pay taxes while they reintegrate into society.

In Wisconsin, people with felony convictions are not allowed to vote after they are released from incarceration. Once “off paper,” or when they are finished with all probation and parole, these citizens can then register. It is estimated that over 62,000 citizens in Wisconsin cannot vote: only 39% of them are still behind bars while 40% are on probation and 21% are on parole. See how Wisconsin compares to other states’ policies.

Nationally, each state sets its own voting restrictions and thus each state has a spectrum of rules on how people with past felony convictions can vote. Virginia and Kentucky take voting rights away permanently, while Maine and Vermont allow people with felony convictions to vote even while they are still incarcerated. With a lack of consistency in eliminating discrimination based on conviction record, the Democracy Restoration Act is needed to eliminate the confusion and misinformation that often happens around Election Day. An estimated 5.3 million citizens cannot vote as a result of felony convictions, and nearly 4 million of those individuals are living and working in their communities.

“The Democracy Restoration Act is necessary to restore the voting rights of millions of American citizens who have had their right to vote revoked because of a past felony conviction,” said Deborah Vagins, national ACLU Legislative Council. “These citizens work, pay taxes, live in our communities and bring up families, yet they are without a voice.

“Worse still, felony disfranchisement laws are rooted in the Jim Crow era and were intended to bar minorities from voting. To this day, they continue to have a disproportionate impact on minority communities. Moreover, revoking the right to vote for millions of citizens is not only undemocratic, it is counterproductive to the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of those released from prison.”

Get a copy of the ACLU’s factsheet on the Democracy Restoration Act. You can also find more information on felon disfranchisement in the co-authored ACLU and Brennan Center report.

For more information on the Democracy Restoration Act or the Wisconsin DRA or the Restore the Vote WI NOW! Coalition, please contact Renee Crawford, or (414) 331-8907

ACLU of WI Stands Up to WI Family Action’s Legal Attack on Domestic Partnerships

23 Jul

On the morning of Thursday, July 23, the anti-gay organization called Wisconsin Family Action filed a complaint about the domestic partner provisions in the state budget. The complaint was sent to the state Supreme Court asking for an original action, a move to skip right to the top of challenging the law through the court system and demand an injunction to stop the registry and benefits from being recognized. (Legal geek? Read the full complaint here.)

We’ve written before about how the domestic partnership registry and benefits for state workers is nowhere close to marriage. While the registry and benefits will help to make daily life feel more fair for real Wisconsin families, the limits to protections can hardly be considered “substantially similar” to marriage the way that state-recognized civil unions might.

The ACLU of Wisconsin today issued a statement on why the Supreme Court should deny the Wisconsin Family Action and Alliance Defense Fund petition. These groups not only believe that the domestic partnership provisions violate the 2006 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they also say that it “redefines marriage” in a “sneaky assault.”

The petitioners’ reasons for seeking to skip the lower courts and go straight to the Wisconsin Supreme Court meet none of the tests required by the Court to take jurisdiction of this matter as an original action.

They think the facts are simple (i.e. domestic partnership registries and benefits are just like marriage and actually threaten heterosexual married couples). But they are actually asking the Supreme Court to have to decide whether the few protections that the legislature has provided to same-sex couples are ‘substantially similar’ to marriage. It will also have to decide whether the newly created status of domestic partner is ‘substantially similar’ to marriage. Both arguments require factual development which is what lower trial courts are for.

Wisconsin Family Action doesn’t just want to erase fairness for same-sex couples: they want to erase history. Three years ago, leading proponents of the anti-gay marriage amendment repeatedly admitted that domestic partnership benefits and protections are not the same as marriage. In February 2006, Wisconsin Family Action Executive Director Julaine Appling said in the Capital Times that “domestic partner benefits were not threatened” by the amendment. Earlier, in November of 2005, legislators received a memo from state Senator Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Mark Gundrum saying that “no particular privileges or benefits would be prohibited” under the marriage ban. The memo put into writing that legal constructs by governments would be allowed: exactly what was signed into law by Governor Doyle this year.

Clearly this challenge will have an impact statewide, but it is not about maintaining existing marriages except in the minds of the petitioners. The domestic partnership registry and the benefits and protections associated with it, whether taken singly or as a whole, are nothing close to marriage. In fact, married Wisconsinites should ask themselves, would you trade your marriage and its hundreds of legal protections for the newly created domestic partnership? Of course not, because they aren’t the same.

The ACLU of Wisconsin anticipates that the State of Wisconsin will argue vigorously against acceptance of this petition and in defense of the domestic partnership registry. The ACLU of Wisconsin in April went on record offering to assist in any necessary defense of the domestic partnership registry.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a membership organization devoted to the defense of the civil liberties and rights of all Wisconsin residents. Read the full statement from the ACLU of Wisconsin and from Fair Wisconsin.

State Supreme Court says "no" to remedy for victims of jail overcrowding

21 Jul

On Tuesday, July 21 2009, the state Supreme Court made a ruling on a case in which the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation legal department along with Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee sued the Milwaukee County Jail for poor conditions. The Supreme Court held that a circuit court did not have the authority to provide a remedy to individuals who were held for more than 30 hours in the booking area of the Milwaukee County Jail in violation of a 2001 court order. While the decision is disappointing, conditions in the jail have improved since the class action lawsuit began years ago.

When the Milwaukee County Jail opened its doors in 1993, the design was only supposed to hold 798 people. Three years later, when an inmate named Milton J. Christensen filed a complaint about poor conditions, the jail held 1304 people. While no one thinks that being in jail should be like staying at the Hilton, the high overcrowding was a core part of pretty inhumane living conditions. According to the complaint:

“As a result of the high population of inmates, two inmates are confined to cells built for one. The second inmate is routinely forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor because each cell is equipped with only one bed. Because the mattress on the floor is so close to the toilet, the toilet “sweats” and water spills or urine splashes from the toilet onto the floor and gets the mattresses and bedding wet. For most inmates, there are no pillows for persons sleeping on the floor and there is only one blanket even when it is cold in the jail.”

Discoveries by lawyers researching the case found that the jail would have been closer to the original design if people with convictions could be sent to state prisons, those with probation violations could have alternative sentencing options and still others who were simply awaiting sentencing could have their final time in court.

Agreement to change jail conditions
After Christensen’s complaint was filed, some progress was made: in 2001, Milwaukee County Circuit Court settled on an agreement for the County to correct overcrowding and other unconstitutional conditions (including dealing with inmates with communicable diseases and a lack of mental or physical medical treatment) at the jail. Among other provisions, the consent decree imposed a limit of 30 hours on how long inmates could be held in the booking area of the jail, an area designed for very short-term detention until inmates could be assigned to longer-term quarters with beds and showers.

Unfortunately, between 2001 and 2004, the County violated this provision of the decree more than 16,000 times. According to affidavits filed in the case, inmates were held for days at a time in conditions that the Circuit Court later described as

“unacceptable, if not appalling,” including “overly crowded conditions, inmates who were forced to sit or sleep on the floor next to urinals, inmates who had to sit up for hours and hours, lack of hygiene, unsanitary conditions, inmates who were not given pillows or blankets to sleep on, cells that were infested with bugs, cold temperatures, bodily fluids on the floor and bad odors.”

Back to court. The County agreed to stop violating the agreement, but for those 16,000+ people who shouldn’t have been subject to the poor conditions, their harm needed a remedy. An attempt to get compensatory damages awarded was what failed in the Supreme Court’s decision today.

Legislative solution needed to demand humane jail conditions
Patrick Patterson, one of the lawyers for the plaintiff class, stated, “We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision. While it is significant that Milwaukee County was found to be in contempt of court for intentionally and systematically warehousing and mistreating thousands of people in direct violation of a valid court order, those people are now left without a remedy. We hope that future legislative action or judicial decisions will restore the courts’ authority to provide a remedy to the victims of parties who willfully violate court orders.”

For those who want to geek out on the full court decision, you can read it on the Wisconsin Courts website. Don’t let the legaleese scare you – it’s a good story. For the press release from the ACLU and Legal Aid, download the PDF on Wispolitics.

Action alert: don’t let Defense bill undermine effort to close Guantanamo, end torture and detention

20 Jul

This week, the mammoth Defense Department Authorization bill is on the Senate floor.

This must-pass legislation could easily become a vehicle for amendments to stop the closing of Guantánamo Bay, undermine efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the Bush torture program, and — most troubling of all — promote a new system of indefinite detention without charge or trial. In fact, the bill already has language that would allow the Guantánamo military commissions to continue to convict people based on coerced confessions.

Email your senators and tell them not to let the Defense Department Authorization bill become a vehicle for undermining civil liberties.

Your voice and that of hundreds of thousands of other ACLU activists are being heard in Washington. After months and months of pressure and newer, more disturbing revelations, Attorney General Holder is close to appointing a special prosecutor to investigate torture. And we have allies in the White House and in Congress who are committed to cleaning up the mess left by the Bush administration.

There are also some dangerous proposals being considered — including indefinite detention without charge or trial. That is why it is so critical for you to contact to your senators today and ask them to:

– Support the President’s commitment to shutdown Guantánamo by January 2010.

– End Guantánamo military commissions, and charge and try any alleged terrorists in federal criminal courts.

– Totally reject indefinite detention without charge and without trial. Nothing could be more un-American than giving the federal government the power to imprison people indefinitely without charge or trial.

Please help the ACLU create a drumbeat letting Congress and the White House know that Americans want them to move forward. Congress should not codify and expand Bush Administration policies.

Email your senators and tell them not to let the Defense Department Authorization bill become a vehicle for undermining civil liberties.

With critical civil liberties issues about to hit the Senate floor, we have to be as vocal as possible. Please take a moment right now to contact your senators. And please stay alert to fast-moving events in the days ahead.

Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union

P.S. The news last weekend that Attorney General Eric Holder is actively considering launching a torture investigation is encouraging. It is because of the hard work of ACLU attorneys and advocates and the voices of activists like you that we are at this point. We’ll be counting on you to make sure he follows through — and to insist that an investigation is as thorough and far-reaching as it needs to be. Please donate or become a member today.

Sotomayor nomination, ACLU report on her civil liberties record and other SCOTUS resources

10 Jul

With the hearings of Chief Justice Nominee Sonia Sotomayor quickly approaching, we wanted to share some resources and information on this historic candidate.

She was nominated by President Barack Obama on May 26, 2009 to replace Justice David Souter, and if elected, would be the first Hispanic justice to serve the Supreme Court. Hearings begin on Monday, July 13. For articles, speeches and information on Sotomayor we’ve compiled a list of links found below. The ACLU does not endorse or oppose candidates for elective or appointive office, but we encourage everyone to learn more about how the nominee, if confirmed, would impact the highest level of the judicial branch of government.

Where to find the facts on Sotomayor’s record and history:
The national ACLU office issued a lengthy report on the civil liberties and rights record for Sotomayor, including the dozen or so cases in which ACLU participated. Generally the report says that Sotomayor’s history shows a thorough and deep exploration of case law, but not a lot of philosophical musings on hot-button issues. The release of the report was also announced on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights which has an interesting discussion in the comments section.

Sotomayor’s questionnaire compiled by the Senate Judiciary Committee is available for the public. This link has all of the source documents of her background and offers a comprehensive list of her education, experience, and decisions on past court cases as well as the text of speeches and interviews of her experience as a female judge.

The New York Times Topics page on Sotomayor offers current news regarding the nomination as well as an overview on her nomination, opinion articles and links to past speeches she has given.

Where to get interesting opinions on Sotomayor’s nomination:
SCOTUS bloggers discuss Sotomayor. The blog links to resources on news, endorsements and non-partisan reports on her record.

DemocracyNow! offered a roundtable discussion of Sotomayor’s nomination with Marjorie Cohn of the National Lawyers Guild; attorney and SCOTUS Blog founder Tom Goldstein; Cesar Perales, general counsel of Latino Justice; and Juan Manuel Garcia-Passalacqua, an independent political analyst who knows Sotomayor personally. The discussion includes reactions to having a Puerto Rican American nominee, trends in her decisions and reactions to critical debates about the nomination in the media.

And this short opinion piece from the New Yorker looks at Sotomayor’s nomination within a broader historical context of overall election trends within the Supreme Court. It discusses how diversity on the court used to be about geographic interests but has evolved into representing the demographic changes of the country’s citizens.

There are lots of other sources of debate in the media about the Sotomayor nomination. The ACLU of Wisconsin encourages members and the public to tune into the hearings and watch our two state Senators’ questions of the nominee.

Restore the Vote Now – Wisconsin "Democracy Restoration Act" would end taxation without representation

8 Jul

The Restore the Vote Wisconsin NOW! Coalition announced on July 3 the circulation of an important voting rights bill in our state legislature and encourages legislators from both sides to the aisle to co-sponsor it. The Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act will enfranchise more than 42,000 Wisconsin citizens who live, work, go to school, raise families and pay taxes in our communities.
“Without a vote, citizens have no voice,” said Sheila Cochran, President of the Milwaukee County Labor Council/AFL-CIO. “Encouraging active participation in our democratic society is an essential part of the reentry process for ex-offenders returning to their home communities. The exercise of that responsibility to society can foster safer communities for all of us.”

The Restore the Vote Now coalition is a group of over 70 organizations who have committed to public education and direct action to restore the right to vote in Wisconsin. Nationally, voting rights for people with felony convictions are being restored on a bi-partisan basis as state legislatures and governors increasingly recognize the discriminatory implications of denying any US citizen voting rights. In Wisconsin, the Restore the Vote Wisconsin NOW! (RTV-WIN!) coalition has brought together citizens, civil rights, law enforcement, labor, faith and community organizations groups committed to working for fairness and the fundamentally American right and responsibility to cast a ballot.

“The Restore the Vote Wisconsin NOW! coalition will be encouraging legislators to sign onto and quickly pass this important and timely bill,” said Renee Crawford, Associate Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin and coalition organizer. “On the day we celebrate our independence, we also thank the State Senator Lena Taylor and State Assembly Representative Tamara Grigsby for their patriotic legislation to end taxation without representation for 42,000 Wisconsin citizens.”

For more info on the RTV-WIN Coalition including a list of the more than 70 organizations who have signed onto the coalition, go to For more information about the work of the ACLU to restore voting rights to ex-offenders, please visit the national ACLU voting rights page.

Youth Scholarship Winner Reports Back From NYC ACLU Adventure

1 Jul

A report back from NYC and the Madison-area ACLU youth scholarship winner, Natalia Thompson:

“Last March, I was thrilled to be named one of sixteen recipients of the ACLU Youth Activist Scholarship. After spending much of my time in high school engaged in social justice activism, receiving recognition (and crucial financial support for college) from the nation’s foremost civil liberties and civil rights organization was a very humbling honor, to say the least.

“In addition to this scholarship, the ACLU also invited me to attend their Youth Activist Institute, held in New York City at the ACLU’s national office. I just returned to Madison from four exciting days spent learning about the ACLU and exploring New York.

“The Youth Activist Institute was a wonderful experience — I loved the opportunity to meet other student activists from across the country; participate in a training on grassroots organizing and student activism in the model of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone; meet ACLU lawyers and advocates who have led campaigns on human rights, racial justice, women’s rights, LGBT equality, and more; participate in a conversation with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero; and enjoy summer in New York (including a Broadway production of Avenue Q)!

“I left New York energized and inspired by the phenomenal efforts of the ACLU to promote and protect social justice and human rights, even during an age when our president blasts torture one day and champions indefinite detention without charge or trial the next.

“Next month, I’ll be leaving Madison to attend college at Yale University, where I hope to major in women’s studies and political science. Although I’ll miss Madison’s wonderful community of activists, I’m excited about getting involved in the ACLU’s work at Yale and beyond.”

Thanks Natalia! Good luck in college!