Wed, 26 Apr 2017 10:15 -0400Some testing labs are rebuffing patient attempts to get all their genetic data. In 1951, doctors harvested cells from Henrietta Lacks while she was receiving treatment for cervical cancer and discovered that her cells had an amazing capacity to reproduce. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which aired last weekend on HBO and is based on the book of the same name, tells the dramatic story of how scientists used the “HeLa” cells in research for decades without the knowledge of her family.Because of the book and film, the story of the Lacks family’s fight to understand and influence how Henrietta’s cells are used is finally getting the attention it deserves. But echoes of what she went through exist to this day, as I learned when navigating my own family history of cancer.I have lost many family members to breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. Three years ago, when I was 52 years old, I was diagnosed with advanced bladder cancer. After some family members obtained genetic testing, I decided to do the same, and some of us tested positive for an uncommon mutation of the BRCA1 gene. The gene is most known for its connection to hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, but it also has been linked to prostate and pancreatic cancers. Scientists have not yet determined whether it may be linked to increased risk for bladder cancer. Most Americans likely don’t know that when an individual gets genetic testing, he or she is often unknowingly contributing to a specific laboratory’s database of genetic information. Most patients would likely be happy to provide their data, with consent, for important scientific research. But, in most cases, the lab handling the test controls the data they obtain from individuals. They can refuse to share it with the scientific community, and they can choose to protect their own market position at the expense of scientific progress — and the very patients who paid them to conduct genetic testing. I ordered my genetic testing from Myriad Genetics, which had patents on the BRCA1 gene that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. But while the gene patents were in effect, Myriad monopolized BRCA genetic testing in the U.S. The company built an exclusive mega-database containing enormous amounts of information from patients who had their DNA tested. To make matters worse, Myriad also refuses to share this information with the larger scientific community, thereby stymieing important research that could lead to medical advancement.Just last week, Myriad promoted a study that claimed its database is superior to government databases for BRCA genetic testing. But the study only underscores how Myriad is holding the data hostage rather than collaborating with others, more interested in cornering the market and increasing its profits than helping patients. It should be noted that virtually every other lab doing this type of testing shares data with public databases — thereby providing the raw materials for medical breakthroughs. Many patients want to be able to contribute their genetic information to research. And current federal law and regulations guarantee patients’ rights to access their genetic data from testing labs. In practice, however, patient requests are often rebuffed. Patients requesting genetic testing may receive, for example, an overview of the findings, but often they do not receive the full data set in a format useful for researchers. That’s what happened to me when I first requested my genetic information from Myriad. With the support of the ACLU, I have joined with others to make sure that patients can get the full results of their genetic tests in a format we can share with researchers. Patients should have the same rights to our genetic information as we do to other types of health information, so that we can make decisions about our own care as well as contribute our data to research if we so choose. The struggle of Henrietta Lacks and her family needs to be remembered for the lessons it imparts about the need to safeguard patients’ privacy and [...]
Tue, 25 Apr 2017 17:15 -0400And if he takes their advice, we’ll see him in court.
Several dozen Republican members of the House of Representatives are urging President Trump to issue an unconstitutional executive order that would authorize wide-ranging, taxpayer-funded discrimination against LGBT people, women, and religious minorities.
A draft of the EO that leaked earlier this year would allow federal employees, contractors, and grantees a “reasonable accommodation” to act pursuant to their beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman; that gender identity is fixed at or before birth; and that human life begins at conception while on the job and interacting with the public or providing taxpayer-funded services. This means, for example, a doctor working for the Department of Veterans Affairs could refuse to prescribe hormones to a transitioning transgender veteran based on the doctor’s belief that a person’s gender identity cannot differ from the sex they were assigned at birth.
It’s telling that out of nearly 240 Republicans in the House, a mere 51 signed this letter. (Eighteen Republicans out of 52 joined a similar letter in the Senate). As we have repeatedly made clear, the ACLU will not hesitate to challenge this discriminatory EO should it be signed.
For President Trump to stand any chance at following through on his campaign promise to be a “real friend” to the LGBT community, he cannot follow fringe, anti-LGBT extremists down this ill-advised path of licensing discrimination under the guise of religious liberty. Those representatives advocating for this EO in Congress are urging a return to a discriminatory past, and they are a minority even among very conservative House Republicans.
Just last year, 43 House Republicans voted in favor of an amendment that reaffirmed a 2014 executive order from President Obama that prohibited businesses that contract with the federal government from discriminating against LGBT people. Upon taking office, the Trump administration made clear that it would keep these nondiscrimination requirements on federal contractors in place. And yet these protections could be completely undermined through this proposed EO.
Among the many prominent voices who have urged President Trump to reject this discriminatory EO is former Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental national values — and something the ACLU fights for every day. But it does not give anyone the right to impose their beliefs on others, to harm others, or to discriminate. President Trump would be well served by listening to the advice of Sen. Simpson and other conservatives who recognize that discrimination against people based on who they are or whom they love must be rejected.
Tue, 25 Apr 2017 09:00 -0400Controversial, critical, confrontational, and challenging speech is an essential part of any successful college education. This piece originally appeared at Inside Sources. Controversial, critical, confrontational, and challenging speech is an essential part of any successful college education. Without it, institutions of higher education cannot truly be said to be preparing students for the world outside of the ivory tower. For many, a college campus is the last stop on the train to true adulthood. Part of being an adult in America means living our constitutional values — foremost among them, our First Amendment rights to make our opinions heard — and to listen to others speak. The Supreme Court has spilled barrels of ink defining the First Amendment rights of students, from kindergarten to post-graduate studies. And there’s no question that the law has resolved into an age-based sliding scale: For young ones, the core goals are safety and discipline. But as students age, the shadows of the Constitution start to spread across the school day. By the time students graduate from high school, courts expect freedom of speech to be not just in the students’ best interests, but the schools’ interest as well. And that’s not just because free speech is a formalistic constitutional principle; it’s an indispensable part of our civic education. Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Supreme Court in 1943, wrote something truly beautiful about the purpose of an education: “That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Remarkably, Jackson was referring to grade school students, and the court rightly held that forcing patriotism on little ones was both unconstitutional and foolish. If we think inculcating constitutional values is important when kids are in K-12, it should be nothing less than a core part of the curriculum at any college or university. Soon, your students will graduate. And when they do, they’ll step into the maelstrom of civic life, which can be, frankly, horrific. By constitutional design, ours is a world where homophobic street preachers have a right to accost you at a funeral for a loved one, where avowed racists can bring a Nazi rally to your town, where Congress has no right to criminalize appalling images of animal violence. I suspect that many students would like to be able to effectively counter-protest the Westboro Baptist Church. Or effortlessly dismantle the racist garbage spewed by today’s alt-right. Or publicize and advocate against animal cruelty. I sure hope they do! Because we need them to tackle public policy issues with the confidence of a generation determined to better us all. That means being an advocate: speaking out and convincing others. Confronting, hearing, and countering offensive speech we disagree with is a skill. And one that should be considered a core requirement at any school worth its salt. But as students age, the shadows of the Constitution start to spread across the school day. To be clear, I am not suggesting that free speech is without grave costs. I cannot imagine the pain that Holocaust survivors felt knowing that the KKK would march through their towns or the anguish a grieving father felt when his son’s funeral was surrounded by the petty signage of hate. On campus, if and when speech crosses the line into targeted harassment or threats or creates a pervasively hostile environment for vulnerable students, it isn’t protected. We fortunately have federal laws to ensure safe learning environments and equal access for all students. But being offended does not rise to that level. We live in an odd country, where the very First Amendment in our Bill of Rights protects hateful speech until it crosses that line. But that same First Amendment also protects the most h[...]
Mon, 24 Apr 2017 13:30 -0400The entire criminal justice system in Arkansas failed Ledell Lee, whose execution was part of the state's execution spree. Ledell Lee’s first hard-knock moment came even before he was born. His mom, 16 and on her third pregnancy by a man years older than she was, drank and smoked through his pregnancy. Because of her substance abuse, Ledell was born with a fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, a medical condition that left him with brain dysfunction and intellectual disability. Twenty-eight years later in 1993, Ledell Lee was arrested for the murder of Debra Reese. And on Thursday night, just before midnight, the state of Arkansas killed Ledell in a gross miscarriage of justice. From the beginning, Ledell proclaimed his innocence and wrote to everyone he could think of, beseeching lawyers to fight for him. His journey through the legal system consisted of an unbroken chain of drunk, conflicted, and grossly incompetent attorneys. No one who represented Ledell ever looked at the chasm between the state’s theory of guilt and the proof presented at trial. For instance, the crime scene was drenched in blood, but the state witnesses who put Ledell at the scene said he didn’t have any blood on him. None of the limited forensic evidence tested, like fingerprint analysis, at the time matched him. Ledell has been asking for DNA testing for decades.Until last week, when our team joined his defense and began to frantically investigate the case, no defense lawyer had ever hired a psychologist to test Ledell’s intellectual disability. And no court had ever been troubled by the one pertinent claim his former counsel had raised: that a member of the prosecution team was having an affair with the trial judge at the time of Ledell’s trial. As a death penalty lawyer who handles death penalty cases exclusively, I am all too familiar with the story of poor lawyering and court failures. That said, the facts of Ledell’s case stand out and are an indictment of the system that put him to death. Serious questions of guilt, conflicts of interest by defense counsel, a deeply biased judge, and never presented evidence of intellectual disability: Any one of these bases should be enough to pause an execution. It is profoundly disturbing that even taken together, they weren’t enough to move the courts or the governor to spare his life. Gov. Hutchinson bears heavy blame for the wrongful killing of Ledell Lee. Hutchinson arbitrarily set eight dates for execution — originally as four double executions — based on the amount of midazolam, a lethal injection drug, Arkansas had on hand. Worse still, he scheduled them within an incredibly short period, so he could beat the drug’s expiration date of April 30. The facts of Ledell’s case stand out and are an indictment of the system that put him to death. The practical consequences of this pace are profound. Every institution that touches these capital cases is overtaxed and beleaguered. For example, when we requested (but never received) Ledell’s medical and mental records from the prison, the lawyer for the prison told us the prison staff simply couldn’t respond in time because of the pressures of the fast-tracked multiple executions. The medical records could well have contained previous IQ testing — records that may well may have helped us save his life. State and federal court staff are overwhelmed by the number of important and serious legal filings arriving at a furious pace and are forced to work at a breakneck pace. This pace jeopardizes the kind of careful consideration necessary for any capital case, but especially one with a pending execution date. In the case of these eight executions, the parole board actually had to curtail their internal clemency policies and procedures to try to process so many applications in such a short time. I got involved in the case two weeks before Ledell’s execution after reading that he was about to die without any lawyer ever having investigated the fac[...]
Fri, 21 Apr 2017 11:00 -0400Congress can rein in warrantless spying by enacting significant reforms to an important surveillance law. The ACLU today released more than a dozen new documents concerning the government’s warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans. They were obtained from several intelligence agencies in an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and relate to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that the government relies on to conduct its PRISM and Upstream spying programs. Section 702 is a deeply controversial law that recently made headlines around the world again thanks to President Trump’s wiretapping claims. Under Section 702, the government examines the contents of Americans’ international emails, web-browsing activities, internet chats, and phone calls — all without ever getting a warrant. The documents released today shed some light on two particularly problematic aspects of Section 702: the scope of “incidental” collection and what is known as the “backdoor search” loophole. The new documents underscore many of our concerns with surveillance conducted under this law, which violates our core constitutional rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. Section 702 is set to expire at the end of this year, and Congress has the opportunity to rein in warrantless spying by enacting significant reforms to the law. Incidental Collection of Americans’ Communications One of the documents released by the Justice Department is an amicus brief filed with the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. While the court typically hears only from the government, surveillance reforms in 2015 gave the FISC the discretion to appoint independent, security-cleared experts to file amicus briefs in proceedings concerning novel or important legal issues. The amicus brief, filed by former government prosecutor Amy Jeffress, highlights two critical points that bear on the “incidental” collection of Americans’ communications under Section 702. First, despite what the government often implies, the brief explains that “not all Section 702 targets are international terrorists.” To the contrary, Section 702 allows the government to “target” any foreigner located abroad for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence information. And the government uses that authority to target more than 90,000 different individuals and groups. Those targets need not have any connection to terrorism or criminal activity — under the law, targets could include journalists, human rights workers, and virtually anyone else discussing foreign affairs. Second, although the government is not permitted to target Americans under Section 702, it nonetheless sweeps up large amounts of Americans’ communications with and about these tens of thousands of targets. As the filing emphasizes: This collection of Americans’ communications is often called “incidental” because it occurs in the course of surveillance directed at foreign targets. But the “incidental” label is something of a misnomer, because incidental collection is in no way accidental or inadvertent. The government knows in advance that it will acquire Americans’ information in the course of its warrantless surveillance. In fact, intelligence officials advocating for the passage of Section 702 made clear that this was one of the principal purposes of the law. The “Backdoor Search” Loophole If the government seeks to spy on Americans’ private phone calls or emails, the Fourth Amendment generally requires it to first obtain a warrant. But under Section 702, the government — without any kind of warrant — collects and stores hundreds of millions of communications in NSA, CIA, and FBI databases each year, on the theory that its spying is directed at foreigners. After these communications are collected, agency analysts compound the constitutional problem by relying on what’s known as the “backdoo[...]
Thu, 20 Apr 2017 14:15 -0400Demagoguery, fury, and assault in a crowded theater… is this incitement? Few organizations have been more engaged in fighting President Donald Trump’s attacks on civil liberties and civil rights than the ACLU. But it’s important to remember that political candidates — including Donald Trump — have constitutional rights, too. A judge recently held that Donald Trump may have committed incitement when, at a campaign rally in Kentucky last year, he called on his audience to eject protesters who were subsequently manhandled by the crowd. While it’s a closer case than most, I don’t think those words can clear the high bar for what constitutes incitement. The case arises from a March 2016 campaign rally in Louisville. A video from the event shows a Black woman surrounded by a sea of shouting white faces contorted by fury. Trump yells, “Get ‘em outta here! Get out!” He adds, with notably less enthusiasm, “Don’t hurt ‘em.” The woman is shoved, screamed at, and spun like a top by a multitude of Trump loyalists. It’s a truly scary sight. The woman, Kashiya Nwanguma, and two other attendees who were similarly ejected from the Louisville rally have filed a lawsuit over the incident. They assert claims of assault and battery against several of the rally’s attendees, and anyone who physically abused them should absolutely be held liable. But the plaintiffs also sued Trump, alleging that his speech incited the other defendants to act violently. They pointed to a history of violence at Trump’s rallies and his prior assurances that he’d cover the legal fees of his supporters who roughed up protesters. There is no question that Trump’s decision to use his bully pulpit to actually bully protesters and to rile up his crowds against them is morally despicable. But legally, deciding whether what happened in that crowded theater rises to the level of incitement is a trickier task. This month, a federal judge in Kentucky allowed the case to proceed on the grounds that Trump may have engaged in “incitement to riot” at that rally. (Notably, he allowed the case on two theories — both intentional and negligent incitement — more on that below.) The decision is troubling from a civil liberties perspective, no matter what you think of Trump or of his policies. Many of our strongest First Amendment protections come from cases in which the government tried to punish individuals for advocating illegal activity. Incitement charges have been used to jail anti-war protestors, labor picketers, Communists, and civil rights activists. Over time, the Supreme Court learned from these mistakes and adopted a very speech-protective test to determine when incitement has taken place. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the court ruled that the First Amendment permits liability for incitement only when speech is intended and likely to cause imminent and serious lawlessness. It’s a high bar for a reason, and Trump’s conduct at the rally didn’t meet it. A brief tour through the history of Supreme Court incitement cases shows how the very same First Amendment rules that protect racist speech also protect civil rights advocates. The Brandenburg test is named after Clarence Brandenburg, an avowed racist convicted for holding an Ohio KKK rally in the late 1960s. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, despite the rally’s talk of “revengeance” against Jews and Black people, and held that “abstract advocacy of force” was protected speech that did not amount to incitement. A few years later, in a short opinion relying entirely on Brandenburg, the court struck down another state conviction — this time of an anti-war protester who a cop overheard yelling, “We’ll take the fucking streets later.” The court again held that advocacy of generic illegal action was not incitement. And perhaps the high water mark for incitement law is NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, in which t[...]
Wed, 19 Apr 2017 14:00 -0400To suggest that a juvenile who sends a sexually explicit selfie is a victim of his own act of child pornography is absurd. In an early episode of the television series “Girls,” Adam sends Hannah a photo of his penis and then a text message: “SRY that wasn’t for you.” Hannah and her friends debate the intention of Adam’s actions, but one thing is clear: The explicit photo he sent isn’t unusual, and it certainly isn’t criminal. Had he lived in the state of Washington, been under 18 — and, of course, been a real person — Adam might have been branded a sex offender. In Washington, minors who engage in the common teen behavior known as sexting can be prosecuted under the state’s child pornography law. To suggest that a juvenile who sends a sexually explicit selfie is a victim of his own act of child pornography is absurd, but that’s exactly what a trial court in Spokane County has done. This much should be obvious: Selfies taken by minors are not child pornography. When he was 17, E.G. sent a text message with a photograph of his erect penis to a young adult woman he knew through his mother. The woman reported the incident to police, and the prosecutor chose to charge E.G. with the felony sex offense of dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct — a law typically used to prosecute child pornographers. That’s right: E.G. was named as both the perpetrator and the victim of the crime of child pornography. He was convicted and required to register as a sex offender after the trial court rejected a motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. The ACLU of Washington has filed a friend of the court brief in State of Washington v. E.G. asking the state court of appeals to reverse the trial court decision and dismiss E.G.’s conviction. The purpose of Washington’s child pornography law is to prevent minors from being sexually exploited or abused for someone else’s personal gratification or commercial gain, not to criminalize young people for experimenting with their sexuality. This much should be obvious: Selfies taken by minors are not child pornography. No crime is being committed when a teen photographs himself of his own volition. Nudity alone is not criminalized, even among minors. What E.G. did is actually fairly common behavior among young people today. The average teen now sends approximately 60 text messages every day. Among teens who have sent nude or semi-nude text messages, 66 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys say they did so to be “fun or flirtatious,” and 40 percent of girls say they sent sexually suggestive texts as a “joke,” much like Hannah does, later in the episode. Criminal justice officials are beginning to recognize that child pornography laws are not meant to address teen sexting. The president of the National District Attorneys Association has publicly urged prosecutors to use their discretion to avoid criminal charges in many such cases. Courts are also finding that sexting should not be handled through child pornography prosecutions. And 20 states — but not Washington — have enacted new laws that provide a range of charging and sentencing alternatives to prosecutors that avoid the sledgehammer impact of a felony child pornography charge and conviction in sexting cases.It’s time for Washington’s courts to appreciate what a five-year-old scene from “Girls” implies: Sending a sexually explicit selfie may be immature or unwise, but it’s only human to behave that way sometimes.[...]
Wed, 19 Apr 2017 10:00 -0400The Smart Justice Campaign’s 50-state plan will be a driving force in ending mass incarceration in the U.S. In January 2000, I was released from a Pennsylvania state prison after serving six-and-a-half years. In 1994, I had pled guilty to criminal charges of robbery, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, and violation of the Uniformed Firearms Act. In January 2017, I accepted an offer to serve as the ACLU’s deputy director for the Smart Justice Campaign.Did you just do a double take? I know. It’s pretty unbelievable. My story, like so many others in this nation, is proof that not only can people change, but that they deserve the chance to change. Since my release from prison in 2000, I have worked tirelessly to restore the lives of people who have served time in America’s prisons. But my initial advocacy efforts were more modest. They were about me. I wanted the life I was working towards prior to participating in the crime that led me to prison.My efforts to restore my life began while serving time in prison. It was while walking and talking in a prison yard with a man recently released who returned just a few months later. That day, I made the conscious decision never to return to prison. I am still in possession of the piece of paper I wrote (the first of many notes to myself): “I will not engage in behavior that is detrimental to myself, or anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.”At the time, I had no clue that a declaration made in a prison cell would serve as a compass for the balance of my life. The decision to become a professional advocate came later, in contrast with many of my colleagues, who decided to become full time criminal justice reform advocates while serving time in our nation’s jails and prisons. My journey to a leadership position at the ACLU came out of having to develop skills and abilities needed to survive in a nation where a perpetual culture of discrimination exists to permanently punish Americans who have paid their debts to society. My desire to stay free and live the American dream propelled me into the ring as a fighter for my personal civil liberties, and eventually for others, as I discovered that I had the capacity to take a licking and keep on ticking.For over 17 years, I have sought out ways to use my time and skills to improve the quality of life for people living in communities adversely impacted by issues related to mass incarceration. I have served in a broad and diverse range of positions, from a volunteer at a nonviolence organization to the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization that aimed to eliminate systemic discrimination practices targeted at people living with arrest and convictions.Upon learning of the opportunity to join the Smart Justice team at the ACLU’s national office, I was unsure whether the organization would be interested in hiring a person living with a criminal history. Much to my surprise, under the experience and qualifications section of the job posting included the following: Personal experience being incarcerated or in other ways entangled with the criminal justice system, preferred. Preferred? At that moment, my desire to join the ACLU in my current capacity increased exponentially, and I hastily set out in pursuit of an interview. Today, as one of two deputy directors of the Smart Justice Campaign, I am working among our nation’s most brilliant and passionate defenders of human rights and civil liberties. Our campaign’s goal is to reduce the number of Americans serving time in our nation by a minimum of 50 percent. Our team — along with ACLU affiliates, criminal justice reform advocates, impacted communities, philanthropic partners, and ACLU volunteers — is collaboratively crafting and executing strategic campaigns for each of the 50 states, providing each with a unique plan of action to combat the primary drivers of[...]
Tue, 18 Apr 2017 13:30 -0400Texas legislators are seizing on the NCAA and NBA’s openness to doing business again in North Carolina to discriminate. Last month, North Carolina lawmakers passed what they called a “compromise repeal” of the state’s notoriously costly and discriminatory anti-LGBT law, House Bill 2. HB2 mandated statewide discrimination against trans people in schools and other government buildings and restricted the ability of localities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances protecting against sexual orientation and gender-identity-based discrimination. But the HB2 replacement, House Bill 142, is no repeal — it is just a slightly restructured version of the same discriminatory mandates of its predecessor and once again singles out trans people for discrimination in both rhetoric and law. Shortly after the passage of this fake repeal of HB2, both the NCAA and the NBA announced that they would again consider North Carolina to host events after they had pulled events from the state in 2016 — costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue — following the passage of HB2. Showing just how quickly the defense of civil rights collapsed in the name of profit, the NBA and the NCAA have now further opened the door to new waves of discrimination in North Carolina and across the country. Wasting no time, leading anti-trans lawmakers in Texas are now rushing to pass a clone of North Carolina’s HB142 — seizing on the tacit, if not explicit endorsement, of discrimination by the NCAA and NBA. The Texas bill, House Bill 2899, is expected to be heard on Wednesday, April 19. And like its clone in North Carolina, and the bill once again animated by the dangerous lie that it “provides clear direction to public schools and government institutions on how to protect privacy and safety by ensuring that men do not enter women's showers, locker rooms and restrooms.” But make no mistake — this bill protects no one. Texas’s HB2899 and SB6 — the HB2-like ban on trans people using restrooms that accord with their gender — and North Carolina’s HB142 are not about privacy or safety. These measures are about cultivating fear of trans people in public space, and they ultimately seek to expel us from participation in public life. The proposed laws and the support for them rely on and reinforce the idea that women who are trans are “really” men and that trans people, by living as our authentic selves, are deceiving others. And the subtext is always that our mere presence in single-sex spaces compromises the safety and privacy of others.But this is simply not true. Most of these lawmakers have already shared restrooms with trans people, and it went unnoticed because like all people, we (trans) people go to the restroom to do our business and get out. The only people who seem fixated on our presence there are the lawmakers seeking to bar us from the spaces we have been using for as long as we have existed. And whether North Carolina, Texas, or any other state uses overt or covert tactics to restrict us from using the restroom that accords with who we are, the effect is the same and the message is clear: “You are not welcome here.” In December of 2016, Roy Cooper, then governor-elect of North Carolina, rejected a proposed repeal of HB2 that was far less discriminatory than the fake repeal he signed last month. Nothing changed in the meaning of the law or the dignity of trans people. All that changed was that Cooper, the NCAA, the NBA grew tired of defending civil rights while profits waned. Well, you know what is far more exhausting than holding a principled line against discrimination? Living under relentless discrimination and the demonization of your existence. That is happening to trans people in North Carolina, in Texas, and across the country. And the costs are dire as trans women of colo[...]
Mon, 17 Apr 2017 14:00 -0400The drug lab scandals in Massachusetts are the inevitable result of a system that is dedicated to punishment, not healing. This blog originally appeared on the ACLU of Massachusetts website. What state saddled its residents with 23,000 wrongful drug convictions, then dedicated millions of taxpayer dollars and years of public labor opposing efforts to get justice for the wrongfully convicted? Surprise, it’s progressive Massachusetts. Massachusetts is seriously regressive on criminal justice issues. Despite massive scandals at the Hinton and Amherst drug labs and glaring racial inequities, our elected leaders too often fail to acknowledge what the criminal punishment system is actually doing — or to whom or how. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In the wake of two historic drug lab scandals, resulting in tens of thousands of tainted convictions and ruined lives, we in Massachusetts have an opportunity and obligation to fix the system. Thus far, the opposite has happened here in the Bay State. Despite widespread knowledge of the abuse by Annie Dookhan at the Hinton lab and Sonja Farak at the Amherst lab, too many of the state’s top movers and shakers have ignored the problem. It took repeated legal challenges by the ACLU, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and lawyers at Fick & Marx and Foley Hoag to focus official attention on the extent of injustice arising from the drug lab scandals. After years of foot-dragging by prosecutors, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in January ordered district attorneys to submit lists by April 18, 2017, of convictions they will slate for dismissal as a result of tainted evidence in the Dookhan scandal. The prosecutors reportedly will seek to vacate the vast majority of these cases. If you think that is shocking, consider this: Over an 8-year period, roughly one in three drug cases prosecuted by Boston’s Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley may have involved tainted evidence. An ACLU data scientist analyzed the records and discovered that 62 percent of Dookhan-tainted convictions were for drug possession, and over 90 percent were prosecuted in low-level, district courts. These facts contradict assertions by the state’s district attorneys that public safety required the preservation of the tainted convictions. As we get closer to that April 18 day of reckoning, the people of Massachusetts should know that while the corrupt chemist from the Hinton lab has already been convicted, incarcerated, and released, the rest of the justice system has done very little to address the fundamental failures that allowed the so-called “rogue” chemist to violate so many people’s rights for so long. Most media attention has focused on Dookhan, while the role of the system around her has barely been discussed. It was that system that enabled her abuse, covered it up, and then fought to preserve the convictions that stemmed from it. So as you read media coverage and listen to elected officials talk about the drug lab crises in the coming weeks, remember the following context. First, the soon-coming dismissal of most of the tainted Hinton lab convictions would not have happened without nearly five years of litigation by ACLU, CPCS, and pro bono attorneys. The district attorneys and the rest of the system were prepared to let these tainted convictions stand, even though that would have meant that thousands of victims of the crisis — people who have to live with the collateral consequences of these convictions on their records — would continue to be victimized by the state’s egregious misconduct for the rest of their lives. Worse yet, prosecutors repeatedly suggested that the Dookhan scandal had been solved, when in truth there were always over 20,000 convictions that had never been challenged in court. Fortunately, [...]