Civil Rights

The widening "justice gap" and why we must close it

A trusting widow, swindled by a smooth-talking loan shark, suddenly faces eviction from the home she’s owned for decades. An injured veteran caught in bureaucratic red tape is denied services he needs and has earned. A fearful mother stays in an abusive relationship because the alternatives seem worse.  These disturbing situations are all-too common in our great country. Without appropriate legal expertise, many of them have unjust endings.
 
The good news is, legal assistance is available to help with issues like these for many vulnerable, low-income Americans. Civil legal assistance programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) are located in every state and are great public-private partnerships, obtaining, on average, more than half of their support from non-federal sources together with significant donations of time from private attorneys.

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Protecting access to justice matters to us all

In Maryland, an elderly mother averts foreclosure despite being swindled by her signature-forging daughter who secretly refinances her mother's home.  A Washington mother and child escape an abusive spouse and a suspected child molester. Texas families get the disaster recovery help they need and the chance to rebuild their lives.

Facing these real-life circumstances, a victim of identity theft, a domestic violence survivor and families left with nothing turned to their local legal aid providers for free advice and representation. These cases are typical, but by no means exclusive of the type of work legal aid programs can offer.  Veterans receive their deserved benefits thanks to legal aid. The elderly are protected from exploitation. The dignity of the disabled is preserved.

The federal government supports local legal aid programs through the Legal Services Corporation. Established by President Richard Nixon, LSC helps to meet the needs of 63 million qualifying Americans-including 22 million children-who live below or near the poverty line. Those providers helped close nearly one million cases benefiting 2.3 million people last year. While that number is impressive, research has shown-and legal aid advocates will tell you-that about half of applicants are turned away for lack of funding. The need is simply too overwhelming.

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Religious profiling: An unwelcome guest

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on racial profiling since 9/11 took place today, in the shadow of teenager Trayvon Martin’s killing and allegations that race played a role in his death and in its investigation. The struggle to eliminate racial bias, not only from policing but also from how Americans view and treat one another, is a longstanding and familiar one. But at today’s hearing, there will be a new and unwelcome guest at the table: religious profiling. 
 
Racial profiling absorbed Americans’ attention in the late 1990s when empirical studies established what black and Hispanic Americans had long-known: cops often selected drivers or pedestrians to stop and question based on race or ethnicity. The studies also showed that this discrimination didn’t help the police. The odds of finding illegal substances were roughly the same for targeted minorities and for whites. 

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Equality at last? Not in our paychecks.

The wage gap issue has been front and center this month. On April 17, we marked another Equal Pay Day—the symbolic point at which a woman’s salary finally caught up to her male counterpart’s from the preceding year. Before that, we heard a Wisconsin state senator say it was “arguable” that money was more important for men than women, and we saw the repeal of that state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act.
 
Wisconsin’s old law was intended to discourage discrimination by allowing cases to be filed in state court where harsher penalties acted as stronger deterrents than those in federal courts that rely on anemic 50 year old laws. Before that 2009 state law was passed, Wisconsin ranked 36th in pay gap statistics. One year after its passage, the state moved up to 24th. Progress was being made!
 
No wonder they repealed it.

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The right and wrong way to fix the NDAA


On New Year’s Eve, the president signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2012 Fiscal Year (NDAA). Within it were some very troubling provisions that address how our armed forces handle detainees. Proponents of the bill declared that America was now the “battlefield” in the war on terror, and that there may be “enemy combatants” among us that should be picked up and detained by the military without an opportunity to face charge or trial.



Americans from across the political spectrum were rightly furious and dismayed.

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Today's Democratic value: The freedom to marry

I’m a life-long Democrat who is exceptionally proud of our party. I had the tremendous honor of serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee under President Bill Clinton. The values of the Democratic Party are central to who I am—treating every American the way we all want to be treated, looking out to ensure that the American Dream is available to all. 

From my vantage point, today’s most crucial civil and human rights battle is how we treat our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens. Doing the right thing here is at the core of what our Party should stand for. That’s why I am joining Freedom to Marry, 22 Democratic senators, Leader Nancy Pelosi, and more than 35,000 Americans in urging the Party to include a freedom to marry plank in the platform that will be ratified at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September. 

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Congress should get serious about immigration detention facilities

During the last decade, I’ve crisscrossed America visiting remote immigration detention centers in more than half a dozen states. From New Jersey to California, there are over 250 such facilities that house almost 400,000 immigrants and asylum seekers on an annual basis -- all waiting in limbo as their fate in the United States is determined. Some of the facilities are actual jails, others just look and feel like them. Time spent there is certainly no “holiday,” a notion that seems to escape some members of Congress.
 
On March 28, for example, the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), will host a hearing titled “Holiday on ICE: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Immigration Detention Standards.”   It’s these kinds of flip references that make you think the Chairman is out of touch with the gravity of what people face in immigration detention.

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Today’s MADD drives dangerous new policies

In the early 1980s, Americans came together to find common-sense solutions to the problem of drunken driving. Ronald Reagan created a Presidential Task Force to confront the challenge, the drinking age rose to 21 and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began its climb to the top of public awareness.

Unfortunately, our great strides against drunk driving have led MADD to push more and more radical anti-alcohol doctrines and policies. Today’s MADD pressures state and federal lawmakers into adopting draconian new measures with the ultimate goal of eliminating responsible social drinking. In fact, in 1985, MADD founder Candy Lightner left the organization because she disagreed with the organization’s shifting focus.

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The bishops’ contraceptive problem

The furor over contraception coverage is clearly making some people blind. Case in point, John Feehery in “Obama’s Irish Problem.” Sometimes a debate over contraception really is a debate over contraception.
 
The invocation of Ireland is timely, and not just because of the week that’s in it. Those of us who grew up in Ireland at a time when contraception was illegal know that any pain the US may be experiencing because of conflict over new policies for contraceptive coverage is not from an assault being inflicted by the Obama administration on the Catholic church. Rather, using an interpretation of religious freedom that only they recognize, the Catholic bishops in the United States are themselves engaged in a pitched battle in which the conscience rights of many Americans stand to be hurt.

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Revisiting WWII Latin American arrests

Seventy years ago this week, 425 men from California entered a detention camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the first time.  As prisoners of the United States Department of Justice, their hands were bound behind their backs, but by any legal measure they were innocent.

Their only crime was their heritage: Japanese. As leaders of Buddhist churches, teachers of Japanese language, or business owners with ties to Japan, the FBI had been spying on them months before the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. On the night of December 7, 1941, arrests began.

While Americans may generally know the U.S. government incarcerated Japanese Americans from the West Coast starting in February 1942, far less is known about the Department of Justice-run camps, and even less is known about the peculiar practice the U.S. government undertook to pad these prison populations with people living in South America.

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