By Betty Gallo
This was an especially long and difficult session for the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (CCLU). The final budget was not adopted until August 7th; budget implementers were finally adopted on August 16th ; and, a special session has been scheduled for September to do the bond packages and make corrections to the implementers. In addition, there were an extremely large number of bills this session which had serious civil liberties implications. The report on the 2003 session before the addendum on the special budget sessions was 243 pages long.
The budget was important to the Civil Liberties Union because of its impact on the Sheff v. O'Neill settlement; protecting the funding for the Public Defenders' Office CCLU had guaranteed in the case, Rivera v. Rowland; issues around prison overcrowding and funding for watchdog agencies including the Freedom of Information Commission. The funding for Sheff and staffing for the Public Defenders' office were preserved in the final budget. Unfortunately, despite our lobbying and an aggressive push by friendly legislators including Rep. Bill Dyson, (D-New Haven) Chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Mike Lawlor (D- East Haven), Chair of the Judiciary Committee, the budget included a provision allowing for the sending of 2000 prisoners out of state and did not include the prison reform proposals we were supporting. There is still an effort to include reforms such as the diversion of non-violent drug offenders to treatment; the elimination of certain mandatory minimums for non-violent offences; and, reform of the parole and probation systems, in the September special session. Connecticut's watchdog agencies were cut significantly in the budget that passed - Ethics Commission sustained a cut of almost 30% while the other agencies' (FOI Commission and the Elections Commission) cuts were more in line with the cross-the-board cuts in other state agencies.
CCLU is often the leader in battles to preserve civil liberties and the coordinator of the lobbying campaign on such issues. The major issues that CCLU took the lead on this session were: subpoena power for Chief State's Attorney, public health emergency response powers including mandatory quarantine and vaccination; immigrants' access to driver's licenses, the death penalty and innocent project legislation, and pornography. CCLU has opposed subpoena power for the Chief State's Attorney's office for a number of years because of concerns about infringements on the rights of the accused, access to counsel, and other due process concerns. This year, leadership was actively supporting the proposal and the Hartford Courant editorialized in favor of the proposal numerous times, so we were afraid we were not going to be able to kill the bill. We were able to seriously limit the proposal, SB 969 AN ACT CONCERNING INVESTIGATIVE SUBPOENAS, in the Senate to only cover "white collar" crimes. Then when the bill got to the House, we worked with House members in opposition to get dozens of amendments filed on the legislation. These efforts combined with the clock winding down helped to kill the bill.
We also were able to kill a proposal that limited access to driver licenses for immigrants, SB 930 AN ACT CONCERNING THE DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES- language was originally contained IN SB 926 AN ACT CONCERNING THE LAWFUL RESIDENCE OF APPLICANTS FOR MOTOR VEHICLE OPERATOR'S LICENSES AND IDENTITY CARDS. It would have made licenses only valid for the duration of an immigrant's visa.
This bill would not only require the DMV clerks to interpret complicated INS rules and documents but it would have also denied licenses to immigrants who applied for extension of their visa, but because of INS backlog, had not received the extension. We were able to kill this bill in the House, in the final days of the session after it had passed the Senate. We did this by getting over 76 (a majority) House members to sign an amendment to make the bill a study. At this point, leadership decided they could not use precious time with the session deadline approaching to debate such a controversial bill that would just end up becoming a study.
CCLU played an important role in shaping the Public Health Emergency Response bill HB 6676 AN ACT CONCERNING PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY RESPONSE AUTHORITY. We were instrumental in killing the bill in the 2002 session because of concerns about the definition of what constitutes a public health emergency, exemption from mandatory vaccinations for conscientious objectors, the ability of parents to object to their children being vaccinated, the allowing of quarantine in the least restrictive environment and some guarantee that family members especially parents and their children would not be separated. The Public Health Committee Chairs worked with CCLU on the legislation this session and drafted legislation which addressed the major concerns CCLU had with the bill. The bill passed and has become law.
CCLU closely monitored the Death Penalty Commission's work over the last year. The Death Penalty Commission was established by legislation which we lobbied for. Their recommendations, while short of calling for abolition or a moratorium which CCLU supports, made some very good recommendations for reform. In the end, the only recommendation of the Commission that was adopted was the requirement that courts preserve biological evidence and that defendants have access to DNA evidence to prove their innocence (The language was contained in HB 5022 AN ACT REQUIRING THE COLLECTION OF DNA SAMPLES FROM PERSONS CONVICTED OF A FELONY). We hope that next session we can pass a moratorium or at least some of the death penalty reforms recommended by the Commission.
The Public Safety Committee worked with the Department of Public Safety to pass a pornography bill, HB 6531 AN ACT CONCERNING INTERNET CHILD EXPLOITATION AND CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS FOR VOLUNTEERS, which attempted to change the definition of pornography and make it a crime to possess pornographic images of children even though the creation of the material did not involve a child but instead was a digitally created image. There were clear US Supreme Court decisions that had found several of the provisions of this legislation unconstitutional. We were able to kill the legislation in the Judiciary Committee.
CCLU often works closely with coalitions on issues. Some of the major areas we worked with ongoing coalition partners this session included: the struggle for access to civil marriage for same sex couples; expansion of our hate crime statutes to cover people who are targeted for crimes because of their disability or their gender identity or expression; waiver by the State of its sovereign immunity as it pertains to federal civil rights laws; fighting an attempt to pass a feticide law; and, opposition to private school vouchers. We were able to kill a proposal by Governor Rowland to set up a voucher program. We were able to kill the feticide legislation and substitute an increased penalty for assault on a pregnant woman that results in the death of a fetus, SB355 AN ACT CONCERNING ASSAULT OF A PREGNANT WOMAN. But none of the proactive issues listed above passed this session. We did work with these coalitions to stage powerful public hearings on these issues; gain legislative and media attention and support; and, advance the struggle on these important civil rights issues.