New protocol dismisses civil rights cases before Education Department

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Photo Credit:

Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, hundreds of civil rights complaints before her department are being dismissed, based on a new protocol that seeks to unclog the system, the New York Times reports.

“The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has begun dismissing hundreds of civil rights complaints under a new protocol that allows investigators to disregard cases that are part of serial filings or that they consider burdensome to the office,” the New York Times reports.

“The changes worry civil rights groups, which point out that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has already rescinded guidances meant to protect students against sexual assaults on campuses and black and transgender students against bias.”

The department’s Office for Civil Rights responds that it wants to be more efficient and effective than it was under the Obama administration, “which was known for its aggressive enforcement and broad investigations but was also accused of being overzealous and leaving cases languishing for years,” the newspaper reports.

Supreme Court strikes down bond hearings for detainees

Supreme_Court2In a major immigration case, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Jennings v. Rodriguez, a class action lawsuit challenging the federal government’s practice of jailing immigrants while they litigate their deportation cases. It ruled that detainees held by the government for possible deportation are not entitled to a bond hearing even after months or years of detention. Civil rights advocates, such as the ACLU, question whether it is constitutional to “lock up immigrants indefinitely.”

The Washington Post reported on the Feb. 27 ruling, noting, “In a splintered 5 to 3 decision, the court’s conservatives said that the relevant statute does not even ‘hint,’ as Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote, at the broad reading of the right to bail hearings adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.”

The American Civil Liberties Union argued, “In the appeals court, we fought for and won on the principle that immigrants should be given the opportunity to present their case to a judge, allowing that judge to decide whether the detainee could be released without risk of flight or threat to public safety.”

Closure of Office for Access to Justice

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

The ability of the poor to access civil courts suffered a setback with the effective closure of the federal Office for Access to Justice, critics of the move say.

“The Justice Department has effectively shuttered an Obama-era office dedicated to making legal aid accessible to all citizens, according to two people familiar with the situation,” the New York Times reported.

The Office for Access to Justice began in 2010 under former Attorney General Eric Holder. “Its offices now sit dark on the third floor of the Justice Department building,” the New York Times reported. “The staff of a dozen or so has dwindled and left the department over the past few months, the people said. Maha Jweied, the acting director of the department, left this month to start a consulting business, according to her LinkedIn profile.”

On Feb. 1, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law condemned the move.

“Once again, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is turning his back on the most vulnerable Americans and abdicating his responsibility as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “In shuttering the doors of the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Office, Attorney General Sessions is making crystal clear that his Justice Department has no interest in establishing justice for the poor.”

The state of Virginia’s DMV is the latest agency under fire for tying drivers’ licenses to paying court costs and fines. The Washington Post reports that “… after a class-action lawsuit claimed Virginia suspends the driver’s licenses of those too poor to pay fines and court costs in an ‘unconstitutional scheme,’ the state replied Monday, saying the suit raised no legitimate complaint.”

Also from the WaPo: “Though Plaintiffs’ case could appear sympathetic from a policy perspective, it fails when viewed from a legal one,” said the state’s memorandum in support of a motion to dismiss.

The class action, filed in July in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, documents that more than 940,000 people in Virginia currently have their licenses suspended for nonpayment. Such suspensions have become a civil rights issue across the country because they are seen to criminalize civil courts action.

Read the WaPo piece here: ‘DMV is not responsible’: Va. denies claim it unfairly suspends driver’s licenses

GOP Convention Underscores Cleveland Police Problems

Cleveland mounted police officer Abraham Cortes leans on his horse Paco with fellow officer Michael Herrin (R) on Bas during a demonstration of police capabilities near the site of the Republican National Convention July 14, 2016. Police in Cleveland say they aim to avoid mass arrests at the protests planned for next week’s Republican National Convention, but the fact that the city’s courts are preparing to process up to a 1,000 people a day has some civil rights activists worried. Photo By Rick Wilking/Reuters

Cleveland mounted police officer Abraham Cortes leans on his horse Paco with fellow officer Michael Herrin (R) on Bas during a demonstration of police capabilities near the site of the Republican National Convention July 14, 2016. Police in Cleveland say they aim to avoid mass arrests at the protests planned for next week’s Republican National Convention, but the fact that the city’s courts are preparing to process up to a 1,000 people a day has some civil rights activists worried. Photo By Rick Wilking/Reuters

As tens of thousands of GOP faithful and some of their critics gather in Cleveland this week, it’s worth noting that they are in a city under a federal consent decree demanding changes in how police do their work. The PBS Newshour notes that “… the consent decree was formed in May 2015 between the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and Ohio’s second-largest city after decades of complaints lodged by residents over excessive use of force and civil rights violations by members of the Cleveland Police Department.”

The Newshour backgrounds that “… a DOJ investigation found a pattern of ‘unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force,’ retaliatory force with ‘Tasers and chemical spray and fists’ and the ’employment of poor and dangerous tactics,’ among a slew of other conclusions.
But many of the stipulations forged in the agreement will not be installed in time for the Republican National Convention (RNC), according to interviews with the DOJ, legal and civil rights organizations and a court-designated independent monitor of the Cleveland Police Department.”

“The milestones and the benchmarks are not being met,” said Jacqueline Greene, a source for the PBS report identified as co-coordinator of the Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and a civil rights attorney. “Therefore it won’t apply during the RNC”

See the report here: As GOP convention nears, Cleveland police reform rules still not in place

California ACLU Sues Over Drivers License Suspension

Civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit against a Northern California superior court over its practice of suspending the driving licenses of people too poor to pay what advocates consider exorbitant fees for relatively minor offenses. The San Diego Union-Tribune explains that “… the complaint filed in Solano County Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and others claims the court’s actions violate both the state’s vehicle code and due process protections… the legal action comes as lawmakers across the country are recognizing the impact of escalating fines and fees on impoverished people who either go into debt trying to pay off the ticket, or face suspension of critical driving privileges needed to work.”

The report notes that “… last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced an amnesty program for certain drivers, calling the traffic court system a ‘hellhole of desperation’ for the poor.” The process of shifting relatively minor offenses, the sort that do not rise to criminal charges that would require legal representation, into jail-worthy offenses has come under fire nationwide. Car-related offenses are one of the biggest issues.

Read the story here: ACLU sues Northern California court over license suspensions

Thousands in St. Louis land in ‘debtor prisons’ for not paying a court fee

The Atlantic magazine has a new report out about “debtor prisons” in the St. Louis area, and it’s nothing short of alarming. The story by Whitney Benne and Blake Strode traces the problem all the way back to the pre-Civil War Dred Scott decision and includes details about how fairly routine municipal tickets – like for “saggy pants” – end up putting people in jail.
The report notes that “… as the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional, —there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.
The offer background: “… today, the ‘debts’ that lead to incarceration take the form of monetary penalties established and enforced by municipal courts. For many people throughout the St. Louis region, the nightmare of debtors’ prison is a recurring one: Each time a payment or court date is missed, the court issues another warrant, and the individual is subject to arrest, jail, and additional fines and court fees.
It is a case study in how the “gray area” of government activity, in this case charges that are serious enough to land you in jail but not “criminal” in the sense you have a right to an attorney, end up with significant jail time. Prepare your outrage meter and read the entire report: Debtors’ Prison in 21st-Century America.

Civil Rights Report Blasts Family Detention Centers For Asylum Seekers

A new report released last week by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, added to the complaints about the U.S. government’s family detention centers that house asylum seekers who entered the country illegally. Reuters is reporting that the group said it found evidence that the federal government “was interfering with the constitutional rights afforded to detained immigrants,” including their access to legal representation.
Reuters offers context: “… a year ago, President Barack Obama responded to a ‘humanitarian crisis’ unfolding on the U.S. southwestern border with Mexico, as tens of thousands of children – some traveling with parents and others alone – arrived from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Among steps he took were a rapid expansion of detention facilities for migrant women and children. It marked a departure from previous practices of largely tracking the immigrants with electronic ankle bracelets and telephone check-ins, which immigration rights groups argued were effective and far less costly.”
Meanwhile, a federal judge in California has ordered the government to close the facilities because they violate a longstanding agreement on how such asylum seekers will be treated. See that story in the L.A. Times here.

California Eyes Statewide Amnesty Plan For Paying Off Traffic Tickets

California Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing for an amnesty program for residents who can’t afford to pay off their traffic ticket debt, which often includes a range of court-funding fees. The costs are largely blamed for some 4.8 million driver’s license suspensions since 2006. Such reforms are being discussed at the municipal level, but this would be a landmark move by the nation’s most populated state.
The Associated Press is reporting that “… the push by the Democratic governor spotlights concern among lawmakers and court administrators that California’s justice system is profiting off minorities and low-income residents. It’s a civil rights issue that has prompted discussions between the Brown administration and the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the governor’s spokesman, Evan Westrup.”
The AP notes that “… advocates for the poor have likened California’s problem to the police and municipal court structure in Ferguson, Missouri, which was criticized by the Justice Department as a revenue-generating machine following last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer.”
The report also breaks down how the traffic fines have become a revenue machine: “Traffic fines have been skyrocketing in California and courts have grown reliant on fees as a result of budget cuts during the recession. Twenty years ago, the fine for running a red light was $103. Today, it costs as much as $490 as the state has established add-on fees to support everything from court construction to emergency medical air transportation. The cost can jump to over $800 once a person fails to pay or misses a traffic court appearance.”
Read the story here.

Newsweek Notes ‘Civil Gideon’ In Eviction Issue

If 2015 is going to be the “Tipping Point” year for civil Gideon in the United States, then stories like a recent Newsweek report are going to play an important role. Writer Victoria Bekiempis calls the right to council in eviction proceedings “another civil rights movement… quietly gaining momentum.”
Some key points in her report: In New York City, some 90 percent of tenants in housing court don’t have attorneys while about 90 percent of landlords do; about one-third of persons in NYC homeless shelters arrive immediately after an eviction; some 30,000 families were evicted last year; each bed in a New York City homeless shelter costs $36,000 annually, experts say, while it would cost $1,600 to $3,200 to represent a client in housing court.
Bekiempis’ story is the sort of year-starter that gets picked up (like, say, we’re doing now) and includes important resources for anyone interested in how justice gets rationed. For civil Gideon fans, it’s already required reading, and you can find it here: Housing: The Other Civil Rights Movement.