Guest Post

  • April 15, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel-Washington Office, The Brennan Center for Justice

    The right to vote is at the heart of our American Democracy. Political participation by citizens is the great equalizer – it is the one thing that allows all Americans, no matter how powerful or weak, to make decisions about who will lead and who will help to advance their interests and protect their families. On April 10, Congress took an important step towards ensuring that this crucial right becomes available to even more Americans. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the bi-cameral Democracy Restoration Act (DRA). This important legislation would restore the right to vote in federal elections to the previously incarcerated immediately after their incarceration period is complete. Doing so would enable these individuals to resume the right and responsibility inherent in our role as Americans – asserting our voice through the ballot box.

    The DRA was first introduced in 2009 by former Sen. Russell Feingold. Previously, the bill received strong support, but never quite enough to become a reality. This time, however, is different. There is an enthusiastic and bi-partisan movement underway to reform those parts of our criminal justice system that do not work.  We can see this at the national as well as the state level:  Congress is considering reforming the federal sentencing structure to make sentences fairer in an effort to help eliminate mass incarceration; the Department of Justice has instituted a "Smart on Crime" initiative that would result in better decision-making by prosecutors; and several states, most notably Kentucky, are considering legislation that would restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in its state prisons. Other states have also made significant changes to their laws to open up the franchise to the formerly incarcerated, most notably in Delaware, and Virginia – a state that had previously been cited as having one of the most draconian felon disfranchisement laws on the books. So the moment to finally restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, who have paid their debts for their crimes, is now.

    Unlike other attempts to restore voting rights, the DRA is the most comprehensive effort. Under the legislation, once an individual has completed his or her incarceration period, their right to vote in federal elections will be automatically restored.  Individuals will not be limited because of any ancillary issues related to their incarceration such as outstanding fees and fines or the fact that they have been released from prison but remain on probation. This is a significant feature of the DRA.

  • April 15, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Nora Gay, President-elect, Vice President of Membership, ACS University of Texas at Austin School of Law, Student Chapter
     
    “But it was a proclamation, it was not a fact.”
     
    The words of President Lyndon Baines Johnson echoed at the beginning of each program of the Civil Rights Summit in the LBJ Auditorium last week in Austin, Texas. A montage of historic photographs followed onscreen to a soundtrack of songs about change or progress mixed with other recordings of LBJ’s iconic words. I had the privilege of attending the panels on Wednesday and Thursday as well as the address by former President Bill Clinton and the keynote address by President Barack Obama.
     
    I have started to realize that when commemorating the anniversary of certain laws or court decisions like the Civil Rights Act, or last year, with Gideon v. Wainwright, it becomes more than simply a celebration; it is an evaluation of how far we have come and how far we must go, and it is a call to action. As President Clinton said in his speech, saying “thank you” to the politicians and activists who made the signing of the Civil Rights Act possible is not enough.
     
    University of Texas’ President Bill Powers introduced the Summit’s panels by talking about UT’s involvement with civil rights. Powers acknowledged that UT has not always been on the right side of history, and in fact the university played a role in stalling “separate but equal” in Sweatt v. Painter in 1950. Today, the university awaits the a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Fisher v. University of Texas that was vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court last year. “We stand ready to defend diversity.”
  • April 14, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Peter M. Shane, Jacob E. Davis and Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University
     
    * Author's Note: I had the privilege on April 4 of delivering the following remarks as part of a panel on "Creating the Politics of Privacy," a session of the capstone conference for Ohio State's 2013-14 series of campus-wide programs on the distinction between public and private.
     
    ** This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.
     
    America's cultural turn in recent decades toward a glorification of the private and a denigration of the public has coexisted with what quite obviously is a deterioration in privacy. As individuals, we have dramatically less capacity than in earlier decades to control information about even the most personal aspects of our lives. This is not just historical coincidence. The cultural turn to the "private" has actually hurt privacy.
     
    What I mean by a cultural turn is that, for the last 35-ish years, U.S. law and politics have moved away from the public-regarding orientation of the New Deal and its programmatic outgrowths and toward the individualist orientation of Reaganite small-government conservatism. We can see these moves in a variety of ways that implicate the private/public distinction. For example, we know that public institutions, such as schools, simultaneously create both public value and private value. They help both to benefit society through an educated citizenry and to prepare individuals for economic self-sufficiency. Yet our public policy toward schools has increasingly emphasized only their private value as providing persuasive reasons for their support.
     
    Likewise, private action simultaneously has both private and public impacts. What I do as an individual both serves my personal needs and gratifications and imposes externalities on others. Not all externalities are positive. Yet courts and politicians have increasingly resisted treating negative externalities as a sufficient justification for regulation. Supreme Court decisions limiting Congress' powers to keep guns away from schools or to provide federal remedies for domestic violence are perfect examples. The court's 2012 decision that Congress lacked power under the Commerce Clause to compel the private purchase of health insurance was based on legal arguments that earlier courts would have rejected out of hand.
     
  • April 11, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Sandra Fulton, Legislative Assistant, American Civil Liberties Union

    During the long, hard fight to bring the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) into the 21st century, advocates have run into the most unlikely of opponents: the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Yes, the SEC—the agency charged with regulating the securities industry—has brought the ECPA update to a screeching halt. Yesterday the ACLU, along with the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for Democracy and Technology, sent the agency a letter calling them out on their opposition.

    ECPA, enacted in 1986, is the main statute protecting our online communications from unauthorized government access. Unfortunately, as our lives have moved online the law has remained stagnant, leaving dangerous loopholes in our privacy protections. A broad coalition including privacy and consumer advocates, civil rights organizations, tech companies, and members of Congress from both parties has been pushing for an update. Strong bipartisan legislation to update the law has over 200 sponsors and is making serious headway in Congress. Even the Department of Justice—the law enforcement agency with arguably the most to lose in such an update—testified that some ECPA loopholes need to be closed.

    But the SEC is pushing back – essentially arguing that they should get to keep one of the loopholes that have developed as the law has aged. When ECPA was passed in 1986, Congress developed an elaborate framework aimed at mirroring existing constitutional protections. Newer email, less than 180 days old, was accessible only with a warrant. Based on the technology of the time, older email was assumed to be “abandoned” and was made accessible with a mere subpoena. Similarly, another category of digital records, “remote computing services,” was created for information you outsourced to another company for data processing. Seen as similar to business records, it could also be collected with a subpoena under the law.

    Fast forward to the 21st Century. Now we keep a decade of email in our inboxes and "remote computing services” has morphed into Facebook keeping all our photos or Microsoft storing our Word documents in their cloud. Suddenly the SEC can access content in way it never could before.

  • April 10, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Christopher Wolf, Director, Privacy and Information Management Practice Group, Hogan Lovells LLP; Founder and Co-Chair, Future of Privacy Forum
     
    The Snowden revelations about NSA activities have brought government access to online data into the public eye over the past year. Allegations that surveillance programs may have impacted American citizens have led to public outrage. In response, the president has promised to reform the U.S. government surveillance apparatus to “provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.”  
     
    Long before the Snowden revelations, enhancing the privacy of U.S. persons was the focus of less-visible efforts to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a law enacted well before the Internet era that allows law enforcement access to a panoply of electronic information held by third-party information service providers without first obtaining a warrant.
     
    In December 2013, more than 100,000 Americans signed an online petition calling on the Obama administration to support ECPA reform. Although a warm spring finally is emerging in Washington, D.C., the White House has remained silent as reform bills (e.g., S. 607 and H.R. 1847) remain frozen in Congress.