Archive | June, 2012

Insurance Reform Decision from Supreme Court Welcome News to Women, Minorities

28 Jun

The U.S. Supreme Court decision today upheld the linchpin of the Affordable Care Act by ruling 5-4 that the government can tax individuals who choose not to buy health insurance.

The principal opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

  • Five members of the Court agreed that the requirement that individuals either purchase health insurance or make an additional payment on their federal income taxes – the so-called individual mandate – was a constitutionally permissible tax imposed on those who did not purchase health insurance.
  • The individual mandate was thus upheld even though five members of the Court, including Chief Justice Roberts, rejected the government’s principal argument that the individual mandate was a proper exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause.
  • Five members of the Court also agreed that Congress could withhold new Medicaid funds from states that did not expand their Medicaid coverage as required by the new health care law, but could not withhold funds for pre-existing Medicaid programs.

“The ACLU welcomes today’s decision, which recognizes that Congress has the constitutional authority to fix a health care system that does not work for millions of Americans,” said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU legal director. “The decision is especially welcome for disadvantaged minorities, who are more likely to be uninsured, and for women, who are more likely to suffer gaps and discrimination in their health care coverage. We trust that the states will recognize those needs and accept the additional funds that the federal government is offering under the new law to expand Medicaid coverage for needy individuals.”

The American Civil Liberties Union joined with the NAACP on a friend of the court brief which is available online.

In Wisconsin, Governor Walker restated his opposition to insurance exchanges and President Obama’s insurance reform plan. He also signed a bill into law that would ban abortion coverage in any potential health insurance exchanges in Wisconsin. We testified against the bill and continue to oppose discriminatory limits on women’s health care services or insurance coverage.

The text of this blog post can also be found on the national ACLU’s website.

Recognizing Youth Leadership in Civil Liberties and Human Rights: Rufus King Graduate Receives Award

27 Jun

Congrats to recent Rufus King High School graduate Zach Komes. During his high school career, Zach was a leader at his school and in the Milwaukee community in civil rights and human rights education and activism. To recognize his work, he received this year’s Jackie Yang Human Rights and Civil Liberties Award.

Zach Komes receives the Jackie Yang Human Rights and Civil Liberties Award

“Participating in the Amnesty International Chapter and the ACLU Student Alliance at Rufus King High School as Student Coordinator for two years has been one of the best times of my life,” said Komes. “From promoting important issues through workshops and movie screenings to direct action campaigns like letter writing, vigils, and marches, our ACLU student alliance has done great work.

“It was a great honor to receive the Jackie Yang Human Rights and Civil Liberties Award at our chapter’s annual banquet.  Jackie Yang, who founded our chapter in 2009 and who also worked in the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Madison Area Office last semester, is an example of true leadership and dedication to civil liberties. Receiving this award in her name is very humbling. I am very excited to what our chapter does in the future under the leadership of new co-coordinators James Elias and Mary Poppings! The Amnesty International/ACLU Chapter at Rufus King will continue to work for justice and progress in our community, nation, and world!”

The Amnesty International Chapter at Rufus King High School is committed to engaging students in international human rights issues. Human rights standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guide students’ research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination. The group partners with the ACLU Student Alliance to work on domestic civil rights and constitutional protection issues.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is looking forward to seeing Zach continue to be a leader in the work to defend individual rights. Want to find out if there is an ACLU Student Alliance at your school? Want to start one? Contact us at to find out more.

Wisconsin Impact: SCOTUS Decision on Arizona and Immigration

25 Jun

Today the Supreme Court of the United States struck down three parts of Arizona’s anti-immigration law as unconstitutional. But the court did not strike down the discriminatory “show me your papers” provision which condones racial profiling and allows law enforcement to ask for immigration documents from lawfully stopped people. The decision is mixed, but ultimately sends a strong rebuke to the state of Arizona for overstepping its legal authority in the realm of federal immigration enforcement.

Despite the mixed decision by the Supreme Court today, everyone in America still has basic rights when interacting with law enforcement. This video explains what rights we all have under the constitution:


The focus of the court’s decision was whether or not Arizona’s law was preempted by the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government – not the states – authority to regulate immigration. In three areas, the court said it was unconstitutional for states to criminalize working while undocumented, criminalize not being registered or carrying immigration documents, and for law enforcement to make warrantless arrests of people solely on the basis of a suspicion of their undocumented status. Other states that have written or passed similar laws must pay attention to the SCOTUS decision and repeal or stop attempts to pass anti-immigration laws.

In Wisconsin, Representative Don Pridemore (R-Hartford) drafted a bill that included a “show me your papers” provision, language allowing law enforcement to make warrantless arrests, and also criminalized the refusal or failure to show proof of legal status which could lead to detention. Today’s Supreme Court decision should show Wisconsin lawmakers that attempts to authorize state police to enforce federal immigration law run afoul of the constitution.

“The Wisconsin Legislature wisely did not hold hearings on a bill similar to Arizona’s,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “While the Supreme Court decision rules out much of the Wisconsin proposal, states that allow ‘show me your papers’ provisions will open the floodgates to further litigation and will hurt law-abiding citizens in Wisconsin. The ACLU of Wisconsin will collect stories and evidence of racial profiling and any effort by law enforcement to detain residents unlawfully. The discussion on Arizona’s law will not end today.”

The national ACLU has amassed an $8.6 million war chest to mount an aggressive response against Arizona’s SB 1070 and other states’ racial profiling laws. It will help underwrite continued litigation against these measures, lobbying efforts and public education programs. Any laws that encourage racial profiling, undermine local law enforcement’s priorities and sow a climate of fear that pits neighbor against neighbor will be stopped. Sign the petition online. 

The infographic below outlines what parts of the Arizona law are unconstitutional as well as what other states have passed similar legislation. You can share this by linking to:

Environmental Justice: Federal Certification of SEWRPC Review Tuesday

24 Jun

Every four years, the federal government has to certify that metropolitan planning organizations are following federal laws, including civil rights and environmental justice standards. In Southeastern Wisconsin, SEWRPC is responsible for making recommendations and setting priorities for funding transportation, land use and natural resource management for seven counties.

But SEWRPC is structured in a way that gives the more densely populated, urban areas less of a voice in decisions. As a result, minority and low-income residents’ concerns haven’t been adequately addressed.

On Tuesday, June 26, officials from the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration will be in Milwaukee to review the performance of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC). The public can give testimony and environmental justice, transit and housing advocates are encouraged to talk about the needs of the city of Milwaukee.

Support environmental justice by telling SEWRPC to work harder to make sure underserved communities get a fair share of the region’s transportation spending. The city needs more transit, more job access and more affordable housing.

SEWRPC needs to hear that:

–      More federal “highway” funds are needed to expand transit: federal rules on spending allow for the option to use funds for highway OR transit projects. SEWRPC should use flex funds to expand transit options to meet environmental justice needs in Southeastern Wisconsin.

–      Priorities should emphasize civil rights and environmental justice: a transportation improvement plan should look at how decisions impact minority neighborhoods and urban workers’ ability to access their jobs from affordable housing. SEWRPC doesn’t.

–      Milwaukee City needs a proportionate representation on the commission: No substantive progress has been made since SEWRPC was last asked to develop a greater presence in the city. Further, state law structures SEWRPC to have three representatives from each county which doesn’t reflect the density of cities or give an adequate voice to minority residents. For SEWRPC to truly represent the region, the makeup of the commission should reflect populations proportionately.

 The event runs from 5:00 – 7:30 p.m. at the Tommy Thompson Youth Center at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds.



Drone Use: Obama Administration Needs Rules, Transparency

22 Jun

The following op-ed was written by ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Chris Ahmuty and appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Another View, “Government Needs Rules, Transparency in Drone Use.”

The United States military and Central Intelligence Agency are using armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists, including American citizens.  While President Obama’s top security adviser, John Brennan, finally acknowledged this practice in April, these extrajudicial killings are still shrouded in secrecy.   It is only possible to say with confidence that in recent months drones have been used to kill individuals who have been “nominated” for and placed on a secret “kill list” often with the personal involvement of President Obama.  The United States has used drones for this purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan, where our country has been at war, and in Pakistan and Yemen, where we are not officially at war.  American citizens have been among those targeted and among those who are among the collateral damage of such operations.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for greater transparency from the Obama administration.  A good start would be for the Obama administration to release the Justice Department memos related to this secret process, including any that purport to explain the legal authority for the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects.

Drones already come in many sizes and appear to be a technological fix for some difficult operational and political issues in the war on terrorism.   Drones can be controlled from great distances, thereby protecting the lives of their operators, if not Afghan or Yemeni noncombatants; a fact Al Qaeda recruiters point out.   Drones may be more precise than conventional fighter attacks, thereby offering the opportunity to reduce the loss of innocent lives, but apparently sometimes President Obama makes exceptions to this goal.  Chillingly, drones kill and maim but don’t take prisoners, thereby reducing the pressure to examine our government’s policy of indefinite detention of some prisoners in the everlasting war on terrorism.

There are undoubtedly legitimate and legal uses for this technology.  But like other technologies, such as “enhanced interrogation methods”, use of global positioning systems to track an individual’s whereabouts 24/7, data mining of financial and other personal records and online activity, or even new full body scanning devices at the airport, drone technology does not absolve leaders in the federal executive branch, from their responsibility of using it in lawful ways that are consistent with our values.

When one examines this issue it is clear that drones have allowed targeted killings to become an important tactic in the war on terrorism without the public’s knowledge of basic information or the checks and balances our constitution requires.  Drones may have severely impacted Al Qaeda in the short term, but they may have also made more difficult a long term counterterrorism strategy utilizing America’s great strength – our belief that the rule of law and civil liberties will protect our families’ freedoms from government abuse.

Polls show that Americans as a whole, if not most ACLU members, support the use of drones for targeted killings by a wide margin.   The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to allow drones for law enforcement and perhaps military purposes in our country.  Hopefully the buzz you hear above your head at a cookout within the next few years will be a mosquito and not a drone.

Voting With a Criminal Conviction in Wisconsin: “Off Paper” = Ex-Felons May Vote

1 Jun

Every election cycle we hear misinformation about who is allowed to vote. Some people think any criminal conviction, even misdemeanors, make people lose their voting rights. But under Wisconsin law, only those who have been convicted of felonies who are still in prison or who haven’t completed their entire sentence cannot vote. Once felons are “off paper” (or has completed all probation, parole and extended supervision), they can register and vote again.

The ACLU of Wisconsin worked to change the state law under the Doyle administration. Back around 2009, a statewide effort brought together faith groups, prisoner reentry organizations, racial justice groups and voters who were passionate about democracy and human rights to work to change the law and allow those with felony convictions to get their voting rights back upon release from prison. Some supporters said the change would decrease costs and confusion associated with the restriction. Others said participation in democracy, particularly for those who are living and working in our communities, is an important aspect of having former prisoners reintegrate into society. And with Wisconsin’s disproportionate minority incarceration rate, disfranchising felons perpetuates Jim Crow style suppression of minority communities. The law should still be changed, but for now voters need to know that felons have to wait until they are off paper to vote.

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation is distributing non-partisan “Know Your Voting Rights: Wisconsin” guides to clarify some of Wisconsin’s new voting rules. These one-page fact sheets are available in Spanish and English on the website (factsheets are also available for student voters and voters with criminal convictions). As part of the national ACLU’s “Let Me Vote” campaign, the ACLU is working in Wisconsin and across the country to educate citizens about their voting rights and help them overcome the unfair barriers recently passed in many states to suppress the right to vote.

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