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We’re Grateful for the Constitution

Saying thanks for recent wins from ACLU lawyers
David Cole,
ACLU Legal Director
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November 26, 2019

Thanksgiving is here: that time of year when we pause to take stock of all we’re grateful for. At the ACLU, we’re saying thanks for all the crucial wins from our legal teams — and for the Constitution.

In just the last few months, we’ve racked up many essential victories in the ongoing battle to protect civil liberties and civil rights. The scope of these victories is breathtaking: they span criminal justice, privacy, religious freedom, reproductive rights, due process for immigrants, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and the right to protest the Keystone pipeline, among others. We’ve won crucial victories over those who would, absent our resistance, sacrifice liberty, and rights to some other ends. For all of these wins, we are deeply grateful.   

Immigrants’ Rights

Preserving due process for immigrants. We obtained a court order blocking President Trump’s vast expansion of “expedited removal,” a summary deportation process that denies immigrants core procedural protections and eliminates virtually all appeals. We also won a temporary injunction requiring the government to afford access to lawyers for immigrants facing forcible return to Mexico who fear persecution there. 

Reproductive Freedom

Beating back state abortion bans. Our team won a preliminary injunction against Georgia’s law banning abortion, and another injunction against Alabama’s near-total ban on abortions. After seven states moved to introduce abortion bans earlier this year, we blocked five of the seven bans in court as unconstitutional, while our ally in this fight, the Center for Reproductive Rights, blocked the other two. In addition, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld our injunction against an Ohio law prohibiting abortions based on the patient’s reason.

Protecting your health care. A federal judge in New York blocked President Trump’s so-called “conscience rule,” which would have allowed doctors, nurses, and other health care providers nationwide to place their own views over the needs of their patients and refuse to provide health care to which they object on moral or religious grounds. The court held that the rule was arbitrary and rested on demonstrably false assertions by the administration.

Racial Justice

Tackling racial profiling in Mississippi. In Brown v. Madison County, we reached a groundbreaking settlement with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department to end racially-biased police practices. In 2017, we sued the department over its systemic targeting of black people for illegal — and often violent — searches and seizures. According to the settlement, the sheriff’s department must train deputies on proper practices and collect data on checkpoints and pedestrian stops that will be verified by a Community Oversight Board and plaintiffs’ attorneys. This is one of the first consent decrees in Mississippi to address racialized policing.

Transgender Justice

Challenging the refusal to amend birth certificates to accurately report gender. Ohio is one of three states that refuse to update the gender marker on birth certificates for people who have transitioned to live their true gender. A federal district court ruling affirmed our equal protection and free speech claims.

Voting Rights

Fighting the 21st-century poll tax. In Florida, a state court blocked the requirement that returning citizens in Florida repay all fines, restitution, and fees associated with their sentences before regaining their voting rights. The court ruled that Florida must establish a process where people who cannot afford to pay their legal financial obligations can still regain their voting rights. This victory helps keep our Amendment 4 ballot referendum victory in place. 

Safeguarding voter access. In Tennessee, a court blocked restrictions on voter registration drives, including draconian fines and criminal sanctions. In Missouri, we successfully challenged the state’s failure to provide voter registration services to people who update their driver’s license address online — an omission that denied approximately 20,000 people annually a voter registration opportunity. And in Pennsylvania, our lawsuit prompted the legislature to amend its absentee voter rules to ensure the counting of any ballots received by 8 p.m. on election night

Purging voter purges. In Indiana, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a block on Indiana’s voter purge statute, which required removing voters from voting rolls without any notice based on the Interstate Crosscheck system, which originated in Kansas.  

The First Amendment …

Protecting the right to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. In Dakota Rural Action v. Noem, a federal district court blocked enforcement of the unconstitutional provisions of several South Dakota laws, including the recently-enacted Riot Boosting Act. The provisions threaten activists who encourage or organize protests, particularly protests of the Keystone XL pipeline, with fines, civil liabilities, and/or criminal penalties of up to 25 years in prison.

Stopping religious and anti-religious censorship. In Pennsylvania, we challenged the County of Lackawanna Transit System’s prohibition on all “religious” advertisements on mass transit, which was applied to reject an ad that used the word atheist. The Third Circuit held that the policy violated the First Amendment because it censored both religious and anti-religious viewpoints, under a scattershot censorship regime that offered unfettered discretion to government officials to approve or disapprove speech.

Ensuring the right to criticize government officials without going to jail. In New Hampshire, a federal judge ruled that a man twice arrested for criminal libel for criticizing the police could challenge the constitutionality of New Hampshire’s criminal libel law. 

Protecting the right to tell jurors the truth about their rights. In Colorado, we successfully supported the rights of criminal justice advocates to hand out pamphlets outside a courthouse advising jurors of their right to nullification by refusing to convict criminal defendants. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with us that under the First Amendment, the advocates could not be prosecuted under a jury tampering statute.

Ensuring free expression of religion. We represented Airman 1st Class Sunjit Singh Rathour and obtained a religious accommodation from the Air Force to wear his turban, beard, and unshorn hair in compliance with his Sikh religious beliefs. Rathour became the first Airman to complete both basic training and advanced technical training while wearing his Sikh articles of faith.

And the Fourth

Reminding police to get that warrant. The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously held that police must obtain a warrant in order to download data stored in a car’s computer systems during an investigation after a car crash and suppressed digital evidence obtained through a warrantless search. This is the first state supreme court to recognize the danger of warrantless access to the unprecedented types and quantities of digital data collected by modern cars.

Protecting your laptop at the border. A federal district court ruled that electronic device searches at the border must be done pursuant to reasonable suspicion of contraband on the device. This is the first time any court has ever held that border device searches must be based on reasonable suspicion. The government had argued that it was free to search anyone’s laptop for any reason, without having any basis for suspicion.    

Criminal Justice Reform

Justice for the indigent. In a case challenging the constitutionality of a forfeiture as “excessive” under the Eighth Amendment, the Indiana Supreme Court adopted the view we advocated in our amicus brief: that in assessing whether a fine is excessive, the courts must take into account the economic circumstances of the individual. As the court wrote, “To hold the opposite would generate a new fiction: that taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing else punishes each person equally.”

Enforcing the right to counsel. We settled a class-action lawsuit against two municipalities for denying lawyers to criminal defendants who can’t afford private attorneys. Under the settlement, both municipalities will contract with a public defender to provide meaningful representation and provide notice of the right to counsel to every person charged with an offense that carries the possibility of jail.

Fighting unfair pre-trial conditions. In Arizona, we successfully challenged pre-trial conditions that included setting unaffordable bond without due process and making defendants pay to monitor themselves via GPS. The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that people cannot be forced to pay for the cost of their own pretrial conditions.

Reining in bounty hunters. In Mitchell v. First Call Bail and Surety, Inc., the ACLU, the ACLU of Montana, and Terrell Marshall Law sued bounty hunters, a bail bonding company, and insurers for a violent break-in and attack on a Montana family. This is the first time that a court has extended the possibility of liability for bounty hunting abuses all the way up to the bail insurance companies in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations scheme.

Protecting Prisoners’ Rights

In Oklahoma, we got the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to move death row prisoners from the windowless underground bunker where they were confined to a unit that provides greater access to natural light, fresh air, and outdoor exercise. In Pennsylvania, we achieved a class action settlement that will end the automatic and permanent solitary confinement of prisoners on death row in that state. And in Arizona, a federal court rejected prison officials’ effort to terminate a consent decree requiring the provision of out-of-cell time to maximum security prisoners. 

This is truly remarkable work by a truly remarkable group of advocates across this country, state affiliates, national attorneys, and paralegals, and more. We are grateful for all the work these victories reflect, and for the courageous judges who have ruled in favor of the disadvantaged, dispossessed, and marginalized, and in favor of the Constitution. Together, we’re ensuring that the Bill of Rights remains a reality for all.

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