Sunday, November 06, 2005

Patriot Act Progress, Growing Death Penalty Concerns

from the American Civil Liberties Union:
With all the big news coming out of Washington, it’s crucial that we not forget about one of the most important political stories of this decade: the fight to restore the fundamental liberties lost over Patriot Act reauthorization. We, and you, have been in a fierce struggle to bring much needed reform to this controversial legislation.

As you know, the House of Representatives and Senate have passed competing bills for renewal and these versions are set to be resolved in conference committee soon. This moment is our best chance to effect real reform. And our efforts are paying off.

The Bush administration thought they would be able to renew and expand the Patriot Act easily. We — the ACLU and our activists and bipartisan allies — have made the measure controversial enough that opponents of reform can’t just steamroll a bill through. Everyone expected a quick reauthorization this fall, but it is now November and we still cannot say for sure when the bill will reach the floor for a vote.

This is tremendous news and shows that we are winning the public debate. This week, the nation’s attention turned to the alarming Patriot Act proposals for expanding the federal death penalty. These new provisions would, among other things, allow prosecutors to dismiss a jury that deadlocks on a death sentence and replace it with successive “sentencing juries” until they get one to vote for the execution. It would also triple the number of federal crimes that can be punished by death.

The ACLU is aggressively fighting these expansions. Already, Mary Jo White, the former federal prosecutor who tried several al Qaeda suspects in the African embassy bombings, publicly opposed the measure. And we expect more prosecutors and law enforcement officials to come out against the proposal.

As public outcry over Patriot Act powers grows, both The New York Times and the Washington Post have weighed in unequivocally (something that doesn’t happen that often) against the House death penalty expansions. To “get the right answer on the Patriot Act, it is critical that controversial, unrelated legislation be considered separately,” said the Post. While The Times said “The House's simplistic vote for another ‘crackdown’ gesture can only further sully the notion of patriotism in a renewed Patriot Act.”

There is mounting pressure from an increasingly broad group of individuals and institutions to keep the Patriot Act free of divisive and unnecessary measures like the frightening changes to federal death penalty law.

Last month, for instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders reached out to Congress and called for reforms to the Patriot Act. In a recent press conference we stood with key conservative and libertarian allies in a bipartisan call for reform. More than 160 representatives and 25 senators who have signed a “dear colleague” letter pressing their fellow lawmakers to support much-needed Patriot Act fixes.

Our fight is also making steady progress in the courts. This week we presented oral arguments in our two cases challenging the constitutionality of “National Security Letters,” FBI demands for personal records issued without any review by a judge.

Our work on behalf of an Internet service provider reached the Second Circuit after a judge struck down one NSL power in the Patriot Act as entirely unconstitutional. The newer case involves an organization with library and Internet records whose identity cannot even be disclosed because of a government gag order. A lower court has already ruled that the gag violates the First Amendment. The government has appealed the decision, and we continue to fight for our client’s voice to be heard now, in the timely and critical debate over the Patriot Act.

Again, I thank you personally for your support. Without it, we would not be able to bring these suits, nor would we be able to corral such a large and amazingly diverse group of voices in favor of reform.

Because we have helped foment true debate in the halls of the Capitol, we cannot say for sure when the final votes on Patriot Act renewal will occur.

But we will have another update for you soon on the current controversy over the Patriot death penalty provisions, the "John Doe" litigation and the prospects for a vote.

Until then, know that we are winning.


Anthony Romero
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union

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