ACLU Names Inside-the-Beltway 'Best and Worst' for Civil Liberties in 2007

January 3, 2008 12:00 am

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For the New Year, ACLU Demands Lost Constitutional Rights Restored in 2008

Washington, DC – Forget the New Year’s “in and out” lists. In the ACLU’s list, the Constitution is always in.

For the New Year, The American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office looked back on 2007 with its list released today, “2007: The Year We Didn’t Get Our Freedom Back.” It documents the top 10 worst threats to our civil liberties as well as the top 10 reasons not to lose complete faith in our government in 2007.

Topping the “worst” list was allowing illegal NSA spying to continue and allowing Guantanamo Bay to remain open. Topping the “best” list were the recent strides to reduce the disparities in sentencing for crack offenses and cocaine offenses. This year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed its guidelines to make sentencing for crack offenses fairer and applied them retroactively, and the Supreme Court decided just weeks ago in Kimbrough v. U.S. that judges could depart from the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s guidelines to give shorter sentences.

The following can be attributed to Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office:

“For the past six years, our rights have been on the chopping block. If 2007 was the year we didn’t get our freedom back, 2008 will be the year we demand it. Our holiday wish list is simple: We want our Constitution back. It doesn’t even need a ribbon. This New Year, we resolve to hold our leaders accountable. We hope they will resolve to follow the law.”

2007: The Year We Didn’t Get Our Freedoms Back

Top 10 ways our government failed us:

1. Not putting an end to warrantless NSA spying. Congress instead has continued to let the NSA spy without warrants and is considering letting the telephone companies off the hook for spying on Americans illegally. The Senate debated FISA last month before the holiday recess, and in a gift to the American people, legislation that would have forgiven telecom companies for spying on their customers and given the NSA more freedom to spy on Americans was not voted on. Congress is expected to take up the legislation when members return later in January.

2. Not repealing the Military Commissions Act or restoring habeas corpus. Despite a valiant effort and near success, an amendment to restore habeas corpus received 56 votes when it needed 60 votes. The support in the Senate indicates that legislation to fix the Military Commissions Act could pass. The Supreme Court will also issue a decision in 2008 regarding habeas corpus.

3. Not closing the Guantanamo Bay Prison. January 11 marks the sixth anniversary of the arrival of prisoners to Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners have been held without habeas corpus rights for six years. The ACLU is organizing people across America to wear orange that day in recognition of the shame the prison has caused for all of us.

The number of inmates shrank this year to 355, having started at over 700; officials expect the prison to close one way or another in 2008. But Guantanamo’s closing will not necessarily mean the end of holding prisoners without due process, especially if the Military Commissions Act is still in place.

4. Not giving due process to immigrants and denying life-saving health care in immigration detention facilities. Although the comprehensive immigration reform bill ultimately failed, even that legislation would not have given immigrants badly needed basic due process rights. Congress failed to pass legislation this year securing those basic human rights for immigrants.

5. Allowing the CIA to destroy interrogation tapes. The executive branch claims it can investigate its own wrongdoings, but the ACLU demands an independent investigation that the law calls for and that the scandal warrants. The attorney general’s announcement that the Department of Justice will investigate the tapes’ destruction is a good start, but it does not go far enough. We want real independence, coming from outside the executive branch.

6. Not repealing the Real ID Act. Several states rejected Real ID this year, but the federal government still believes its invasive, costly, doomed program can be a success.

7. Not fixing the terrorist watch list, which is filled with errors. Hearings have been held, reports have been written and the public has spoken: The list – approaching one million – is too large to ever be effective as a security tool.

8. Letting Judge Michael Mukasey off the hook after he would not admit that waterboarding is illegal under six different laws. It’s simple: Waterboarding is torture, and torture is not acceptable. Mukasey’s denial did not mark a restoration of dignity to the Justice Department.

9. Foot-dragging by the White House in getting to the bottom of a disgraced Gonzales Justice Department. Alberto Gonzales ran a politically motivated Justice Department that did more to stunt justice than promote it.

10. Stripping the hate crimes amendment from the Department of Defense authorization bill. The House, in a stand-alone bill, and the Senate, in an amendment to the DOD bill, voted for the first time to allow certain crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans to be designated as hate crimes without compromising free speech. But the amendment was stripped from the DOD bill in a conference committee.

Top 10 reasons not to lose complete faith in our government:

1. Real changes were made to start fixing the unfair sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine that disproportionately affect minorities. The U.S. Sentencing Commission changed its recommendations to be more just in sentencing for crack offenses, and it applied those changes retroactively.

2. Perhaps the biggest victory was the case Kimbrough v. U.S., in which the Supreme Court said judges were free to issue shorter prison sentences for crack cocaine offenses, bringing them closer to the sentences for powder cocaine. The ACLU wrote an amicus brief supporting departure from the guidelines.

3. Senators stood up to the Bush Administration’s push for permanent warrantless wiretapping authority and immunity for the telecoms. It was a historic moment. A group of senators stood up to warrantless wiretapping and immunity for telecommunications companies, shutting down the Senate Intelligence Committee’s power grab of a FISA reauthorization bill – for now.

4. A federal judge struck down the national security letter provision of the Patriot Act that allowed the FBI to collect personal data secretly without a judge’s authorization.

5. Senators voted against a $300 million Real ID funding bill. Although $50 million was eventually appropriated to Real ID in December, an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security authorization bill this summer that would have given millions more money to the program failed.

6. The House passed a bill to offer more protections for reporters and their sources. The bill wasn’t perfect, but it was a victory for the First Amendment. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted the Senate’s version of a reporters’ shield bill out of committee.

7. Legislation was enacted to reauthorize and reinvigorate FOIA. The House and Senate passed a bill to enforce the Freedom of Information Act and ensure that government agencies are accountable to it – and President Bush just signed it.

8. Religious discrimination wasn’t written into the Head Start program. Members of Congress voted not to remove civil rights protections prohibiting the hiring of teachers, staff and volunteers based on religion in Head Start programs.

9. A majority of senators fought valiantly to save habeas corpus. A bill passed the House and won a majority of votes in the Senate – 56 – 43 – but it needed 60 votes. However, the vote shows Members of Congress are making a strong attempt to restore basic rights.

10. The American people wanted a change in Congress, and they went out to the polls and voted. We have faith in the American people to fight to restore their rights. We hope the next president and members of Congress elected will take civil liberties as seriously as we do.

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