The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT) was at the forefront as the legislature passed and the Governor signed a civil union law, the first such state action without a court order. Same-sex couples may now enter into civil unions allowing them all the rights Connecticut provides to opposite-sex married couples. The General Assembly also debated abolition of the death penalty, but the proposed legislation failed in the House and Michael Ross was executed on May 13.
ACLU-CT was involved in a number of other issues this session, and greatly expanded our grassroots effort, with action alerts that generated 6,654 e-mails as well as letters and phone calls.
Such advocacy by members is key to expanding and protecting civil liberties. If you haven’t already, we hope you’ll join our action alert network by going to www.acluct.org to remain up-to-date. Our network provides a fast and easy way to let your legislators know how important specific civil liberties issues are to you. This kind of constituent advocacy is the most effective way to influence the Legislature.
To see how your legislators voted on civil liberties issues, consult the enclosed 2005 Legislative Report, which lists detailed committee and floor votes on a number of issues, or go www.acluct.org and click on How Your Legislators Voted.
ACLU-CT began the session advocating full marriage rights for same-sex couples. This continues to be the goal we will pursue at the legislature and in the courts. But once it was clear there weren’t enough votes to adopt a full marriage law, ACLU-CT took the lead in supporting a civil union bill. The bill was approved unamended by four committees; the Senate passed the bill on a bipartisan 27-9 vote after defeating amendments that would have defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman and would have required a referendum on civil unions.
As it became clear that the marriage definition would be the major battle in the House, we not only lobbied every House member several times but generated hundreds of constituent calls, letters and e-mails through our action alerts. Working with Sen. Andrew McDonald (D) Stamford and Rep. Michael Lawlor (D) East Haven, we organized 79 law school professors to send a memo saying such an amendment would have no impact, and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal produced a similar memo.
In the end, however, the House passed the marriage-definition amendment on by 80-67, and by 126-22 passed another amendment prohibiting anyone younger than 18 from entering into a civil union, even with parents’ permission or the consent of a probate judge. (Opposite sex-couples can get married with such permission at age 16). The bill as amended was adopted on a bi-partisan 85-63 vote. When it became apparent the Senate would not reject the House amendments, ACLU-CT chose not to press its legislative allies to a Pyrrhic vote, and the Senate accepted the House version.
Governor Jodi Rell signed the legislation within hours of its passage. She had come out early for a civil union law -- a key component in its passage – but unfortunately also opposed a full marriage law. She also supported the marriage-definition amendment, although she announced before the House vote – after seeing the law professors memo and the attorney general’s opinion -- that she would sign a bill without such a definition.
The civil-union bill was the work of hundreds of people, especially a great number of same-sex couples who told their stories to legislators and invited them into their homes to meet their friends and family. A number of legislators were helpful in this campaign but Sen. McDonald and Rep. Lawlor deserve recognition for their tireless and effective advocacy over a number of years on this legislation. This was the first victory for same-sex couples in any state since the 2004 election, and came against a background of the unfortunate adoption by a number of states of so-called defense of marriage acts.
This law will ensure, for example, that:
- A man will not find himself on the wrong side of an ICU door while his partner is dying.
- Two elderly women will not be denied the right to share a nursing home room in their final years.
- When a woman’s partner of 15 years dies suddenly without a will, she will not lose her home and savings as well as her life partner.
- A sick man will not be denied access to his partner’s health insurance when he has to leave his job because of illness.
- A woman will not be denied family leave to care for her ill partner or her partner’s child whom she has raised.
- Families that separate will have access to court mediation and procedures that provide fairness to both partners and protections for children.
The most difficult defeat this session was the failure to abolish the death penalty. We had hoped that with the Michael Ross execution scheduled, the General Assembly would adopt an abolition law, or as a fall-back position, a moratorium on executions. Working closely with the CT Network to Abolish the Death Penalty (CNADP), we set up a website and helped with grassroots mobilization and lobbying, while pursuing litigation to block the execution. It was clear at the beginning of the session that there were not enough legislators on record in favor of abolition, bill but we hoped we could change that.
Governor Rell had originally indicated she would allow the legislature to address the issue before deciding whether to postpone the execution until the next legislative session, an action within her powers. Before the legislature convened, however, she announced that she would not postpone the execution and would veto an abolition bill.
Emanuel Margolis, ACLU-CT’s legal adviser and a noted expert on the death penalty, testified for an abolition bill that passed the Judiciary Committee on a 24-15 vote. Stepping up efforts as the bill went to the House, CNADP held daily vigils at the Capitol; we activated phone banks and action alerts and lobbied individual members, talking to every House member several times. Despite the support of a record number of legislators, the abolition bill finally died in the House on a 60-89 vote. The Judiciary Committee sent a vehicle for an abolition amendment to the Senate, but there were not enough votes and Senators chose not to bring the bill to a vote. Michael Ross was executed on May 13, 2005.
DISPARITY BETWEEN CRACK AND POWDER COCAINE
ACLU-CT worked with other groups to end the sentencing disparities between crack and power cocaine (a five year minimum for possession of .5 grams of crack cocaine and the same sentence for 56 times as much -- 1oz, 28 grams -- of powder cocaine. Such laws have helped make Connecticut one of the states with the highest incarceration rates for minorities. A bill equalizing the weight penalty passed the Judiciary Committee on a 24-13 vote. With a great deal of lobbying and grassroots advocacy the bill passed the House on a bi-partisan 93-52 vote, but in the Senate only on a 21-15 party-line vote, less than a “veto-proof” majority in either chamber.
Governor Rell vetoed the bill, but said she would sign a bill eliminating the disparity by making the weight 14 grams for both. We helped organize a press conference and several meetings with the Governor’s staff, notably by the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, and got numerous calls into her office. As a consequence of this advocacy, she asked the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to develop residential treatment options for people addicted to cocaine, and asked the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity and the Prison Overcrowding Commission to prepare for the 2006 session a package of legislation addressing racial disparity in our prisons.
We found a vehicle for a 14-ounce bill, and persuaded leadership to move it even though it was close to the end of the session. The bill passed the House on a 123–25 vote the night before adjournment and the Senate passed it on consent on the last day of the session.
OTHER CIVIL LIBERTIES LEGISLATION
Other ACLU-CT priorities during the 2005 session included bills on criminal justice, free speech, privacy and voting rights.
- We defeated legislation that would have given state attorneys investigatory subpoena power without a finding of probable cause or empanelment of a grand jury – a recurring effort by the office of Chief State’s Attorney. The bill died in the Judiciary Committee on a 15-22 vote.
- As part of our privacy advocacy, we were among leading proponents of legislation to require businesses to inform consumers if there has been a security breach involving their personal information. The bill, which passed both houses on unanimous votes, was signed into law by the governor.
- ACLU-CT successfully opposed a bill that would have allowed municipalities to authorize use of automated traffic enforcement devices (cameras) to enforce any traffic law. The bill was approved in two committees but we were able to prevent it from coming to the House floor for a vote.
- ACLU-CT supports full public financing of campaigns, but expressed concern about the constitutionality of a proposed ban on lobbyists’ making political contributions or soliciting contributions for constitutional officers or legislators. Despite our efforts to defend free speech, the House adopted a bill including such a ban, but the Senate adopted a very different bill, and both versions died on adjournment, the issue turned over to an interim task force.
- ACLU-CT worked with a coalition to allow Election Day voter registration. The House adopted a bill including that provision, but the Senate balked and a compromise was reach to allow registration up to seven days before, and the Governor signed that bill into law.
The threat to civil liberties continues. As Thomas Jefferson (among many others) said, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” We hope you will join us in our advocacy work by going to www.acluct.org and signing up for the action alert network.