Friday, May 27, 2011

Open Meetings Law Violation Court Decision is About Checking the Abuse of Power

On May 26, Dane County Circuit Judge Mariann Sumi invalidated a billpassed by the legislature in March, taking away most public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Judge Sumi based her decision on evidence thatlawmakers violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law when it voted on the bill with less than two hours public notice. 

But the Judge's decision has been criticized by political leaders including Senator Glenn Grothman who said legislators were being told what to do by an "ideologue judge" and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald questioned the separation of powers of a judge trumping "two democratically elected branches of government."  (Sumi was originally appointed by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson in 1998 and has since been reelected by voters.)

“Criticisms by legislators, attorneys and others that it was wrong for Judge Sumi to invalidate a state law – some going so far as to claim that judges have no business reviewing legislative enactments – show a shocking disregard of our system of checks and balances, and are dangerous to a society built upon the rule of law,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty.

As Judge Sumi wrote in her decision, in 1803 the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that it is “emphatically the province and the duty of the courts to say what the law is.” That bedrock principle has governed our nation for centuries.

“The checks and balances built into our constitution make sure that no one branch of government – not the executive, or the legislature, or the judiciary – usurps power,” said Ahmuty. “In this system, it is the role of the courts to ensure that the actions of the legislature and the governor comport with the constitution and the laws. While there may be limited areas where separation-of-powers principles clearly prevent the courts from interfering with exclusively legislative or executive functions, this is not one of those areas.

“Judge Sumi did not ask that anyone challenge the collective bargaining bill or that the challenge end up in her court. But judges have to decide the cases brought before them. Doing so is not “judicial activism” – it is doing the job of a judge. Even those who disagree with her decision should thank Judge Sumi for fulfilling her constitutional duty, rather than fulminating about the bogeyman of so-called activist judges.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Abortion Coverage Ban in State Insurance Exchange Would Mean Fewer Options for Wisconsin Women, Private Companies

The Wisconsin Senate Committee on Public Health, Human Resources and Revenue held a hearing today on Senate Bill 92, a bill that would ban private insurance companies that provide abortion coverage from participating in future heath care exchanges promised by the Affordable Care Act (recent federal health care reform). The ACLU of Wisconsin was there to testify against the bill because we feel it interferes in women's private medical decisions by taking away insurance coverage for consumers who need comprehensive reproductive care. 

Currently, most insurance plans provide coverage of abortion along with other pregnancy related services, such as prenatal care, labor and delivery, and miscarriage care. This makes sense. Many things can happen in a pregnancy; insurance coverage for abortion allows every woman to get the health care she needs. 

But SB 92 would prohibit insurance companies in the exchange from providing comprehensive coverage. It would ban an insurance company from selling, and prevent an individual from buying, policies that cover abortion. 

Preventing insurance companies in the exchange from covering a legal medical procedure, just because some people are opposed to it, means a woman may be forced to continue a pregnancy because she cannot afford the high out-of-pocket costs to pay for an abortion. Or she may be forced to postpone abortion care while attempting to raise the necessary funds – a delay that can exacerbate both the costs and the health risks of the procedure. In other words, this bill just makes a difficult situation worse. At the very least, we should make sure that when a woman’s health and future is at stake, her insurance plan is able to cover what is often an expensive hospital procedure.

The bottom line for liberty and freedom is that medical decisions should be made by a woman, her family, and her doctor: not politicians. It is wrong for the government to take away insurance coverage for a legal medical procedure. This bill won’t do anything to reduce the demand for abortion. It will only increase the demand for private companies that do provide coverage. 

Particularly in these difficult times, while family planning programs face reduced funding for prevention of unplanned pregnancies, the legislature should focus on supporting women and families and not playing politics with women’s health. Politicians should get back to the issues that really matter to Wisconsinites and get out of the way of insurance companies that want to continue covering comprehensive health care for women.

If you oppose SB 92 as an ideologically driven, anti-abortion bill, please contact your state legislators and express your concerns. Find out more about how to contact your legislators on our Take Action page.

Friday, May 6, 2011

PETA Protest in Milwaukee OK'd by City Attorney, ACLU of WI Responds

Yesterday Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley recognized the right of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to demonstrate outside of a Menomonee Valley slaughterhouse, despite the objections of city alderman Bob Donovan. A permit has been issued to the group for this afternoon's demonstration.

“The ACLU is pleased that City Attorney Grant Langley did not cave in to pressure from Alderman Bob Donovan’s attempts to squelch the demonstration," said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. "As the City Attorney correctly observed, the government may impose reasonable limits on the time, place and manner of protests, but may not prohibit them because of their content. In this case, the protesters posed as cuts of meat on platters, with fake blood on their bodies."

More details on the protest's purpose and the controversy can be found in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article

“While people may disagree with PETA’s message and their sometimes controversial tactics, the First Amendment clearly protects just this sort of expressive activity," said Ahmuty. "As the Supreme Court said in United States v. Eichman, even words and expressive conduct that are ‘deeply offensive to many’ are nonetheless protected by the First Amendment."

The Supreme Court said more than 60 years ago in Terminiello v. Chicago that the "function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects... [T]he alternative would lead to standardization of ideas either by legislatures, courts, or dominant political or community groups."

“Alderman Donovan has a right to express his disagreement with PETA and their methods, and he certainly doesn’t have to watch their protest if he finds in unpleasant, but he doesn’t have a right to trample on the Constitution,” said Ahmuty.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Environmental Justice in Milwaukee: Coal-to-Gas Plant Conversion is a Big Step in the Right Direction

Today We Energies announced it would take the first steps to convert the Valley Power Plant from coal to natural gas. You can read more about it in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a member of the Cleaner Valley Coalition which applauded We Energies’ announcement today that it will take the first steps to convert the Menomonee Valley coal plant to natural gas. This action has the potential to significantly  improve the Milwaukee community's air quality and the health of its residents by reducing dangerous air pollution.

“We can all breathe a little easier knowing that We Energies is taking this first step to clean up the plant,” stated Karyn Rotker, Senior Staff Attorney with ACLU of Wisconsin, “This is one of the state’s dirtiest plants, in the midst of communities of color, and we are glad those communities will benefit from a transition to a cleaner fuel source.”

The Cleaner Valley Coalition is a broad and diverse coalition which asked We Energies to clean up the Valley coal plant in the Menomonee Valley and ensure it complies with the latest health standards as soon as possible. Today, during its annual shareholders’ meeting, We Energies announced that they would begin the process to develop the infrastructure for a natural gas pipeline to the plant.

“This is a huge step in the right direction that should be applauded,” stated Virginia Zerpa with the Milwaukee Latino Health Coalition, “However, we must ensure that future decisions made regarding upgrades and construction to the plant continue to have the least negative overall impact on the community and that residents of those communities also benefit from any opportunities – such as job opportunities – new construction provides.”

Milwaukee is consistently given failing grades for its air quality. More than 24,000 people live within a mile of the plant and suffer the worst consequences of the plant’s pollution. Furthermore, Valley lacks modern pollution controls and is a significant source of soot and smog, which are linked to serious health problems like asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes.

“The coalition encourages We Energies to move as quickly as possible,” says Reverend Brisco of MICAH, “People’s lives are impacted by Milwaukee’s dirty air each and every day.”

Find out more about the Cleaner Valley Campaign on their website. Or get the latest updates on the coalition's Facebook page. This blog post was originally posted on the Cleaner Valley Campaign's website.

Milwaukee's School Voucher Scheme Doesn't Work - Legislators Should Reject AB 92 and AB 94

Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin called upon the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to reject two bills that will waste tax dollars on the failed Milwaukee school voucher program. In a letter to JFC co-chairs Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Robin Vos, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty put the proposals in the context of forthcoming deep cuts in school aids from the state to local school districts, including Milwaukee. The letter is available online.

Regarding Assembly Bill 92 (PDF), which would lift the program enrollment cap and allow private schools anywhere in Milwaukee County to choose to participate, Ahmuty wrote “it is unconscionable for you to allow this failed program to waste even more taxpayer dollars.”

AssemblyBill 94 (PDF) makes several cosmetic changes to financial rules affecting the program. On a change in auditing standards, Ahmuty wrote, “It is unclear whether or not this proposal would be better than DPI’s current standards; much less satisfy the public’s legitimate interest in knowing that tax dollars are being used as the recipients claim.” 

The ACLU of Wisconsin maintains that ideology, not sound educational practice, is behind school vouchers in Wisconsin and other states. In the face of severe cuts in spending on education, it asks why are vouchers growing at the expense of public schools which do a better job of educating our children?