"From the execution of innocent inmates, to en masse arrest and deportation of immigrant workers, to torture victims denied their day in court, the ACLU's new report details how U.S. victims of human rights abuses are systematically denied access to justice because of recent laws and court decisions."
Today is Human Rights Day, and to mark the occasion the ACLU released a report showing how recent laws and court decisions have severely curbed access to the U.S. justice system for victims of human rights violations. We found that poor defendants on death row, prisoners suffering abuses in prison, immigrants in unfair removal proceedings, torture victims, domestic violence survivors and victims of racial discrimination, among others, are continually denied their day in court while those responsible for the abuses are protected.
Equal justice for all is a core American value and everyone deserves access to the courts to right wrongs done against them. The U.S. should amend restrictive laws and swiftly enact policies to restore access to justice for the most vulnerable among us.
The report, "Slamming the Courthouse Doors," details the many ways in which victims of human rights abuses are denied access to justice, including:
- individuals convicted of capital crimes who seek to present newly found evidence of their innocence or claims of serious constitutional violations who are denied recourse in the courts because of federal legislation and recent court decisions;
- victims of rape, assault, religious rights violations and other serious abuses in prison who have had their claims thrown out of court because of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a restrictive federal law;
- immigrants who may have legitimate claims to remain in the United States who unknowingly waive their opportunity to pursue these claims and are swiftly deported because of unfair procedures;
- torture victims, including survivors of the CIA "extraordinary rendition" program, who have been denied their day in court because the government has misused the "state secrets" privilege to shield their torturers from liability;
- victims of domestic violence who can no longer seek civil remedy when police fail to protect women from their abusers because of Supreme Court cases ruling the government has no duty to protect its citizens from privately inflicted violence; and
- victims of racial or national origin discrimination, including victims of racial profiling, who are shut out of court because of court decisions that created often insurmountable procedural requirements for bringing cases.
The report profiles the cases of many victims of human rights violations who have been shut out the courthouse when they have sought justice from the courts, including:
- Jessica Gonzales, a Colorado woman shut out of court after police failed to protect her children from her abuse husband, who kills them.
- Cameron Todd Willingham and Claude Jones, two almost certainly innocent men put to death in Texas
- 300+ immigrant meatpacking workers in Iowa arrested and convicted en masse in one week without adequate legal representation, then deported from their families without any court review of their valid claims for immigration relief
- Binyam Mohamed, Abou Elkassim Britel, Ahmed Agiza, Mohamed Bashmilah, and Bisher al-Rawi, victims of the U.S. torture program denied any day in U.S. court because the government claims that their torture is a "state secret"
- Prisoners whose lawsuit alleging an officer had forcibly sodomized them was thrown out of court because of a restrictive federal law requiring them to show physical injury for their case to proceed.
Sadly, these cases represent the growing gap between the promise of equal justice for all and the grim reality on the ground. Their cumulative effect threatens to undermine the fundamental values of this nation. History tells us that in this society, attacks on individual access to justice quickly become attacks on the justice system as a whole. To the extent that they are successful, they weaken not only the courts but the nation as a whole, granting undue influence to the wealthy and powerful, and stripping disadvantaged individuals and groups of fundamental rights. If the doors to the courts are not kept open to victims of human rights violations, it will inevitably lead to a less just and less free society for all of us.