December 30, 2015
Washington, DC – Anyone who doubts that the U.S. criminal justice system is in crisis need look no further than Waller County, Texas, where a grand jury has declined to issue any indictments in connection with the death of Sandra Bland.
Ms. Bland, a vibrant 28-year-old graduate of Prairie View University, who had returned to Texas to accept a job at her alma mater, was verbally and physically abused by white trooper Brian Encinia in the course of a routine traffic stop. She was arrested and held in the Waller County jail, where she was found hanging in her cell after three days. The local authorities say it was suicide, but her family and friends believe there was foul play.
Six months ago, NOW called for a federal investigation into the circumstances of Sandra Bland’s death, and we renew that call today. The public deserves an honest and transparent accounting. What was said and done to Sandra Bland during those three days at that county jail? What help did she request? Were her requests denied or delayed? Who made those decisions?
To gain a full understanding of Sandra Bland’s death, it is also imperative to take Waller County’s ugly history of racism into account. The Ku Klux Klan burrowed into the area in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and lynchings of Black people took place there from the late 1800s to the early 1950s. White officials’ targeting of Black residents continues right into the present, exemplified in the repeated recent efforts to suppress the vote of Prairie View University students through unlawful intimidation, restriction and regulation.
Officials in Texas failed Sandra Bland, from the moment Trooper Encinia began verbally and physically abusing her to her death in custody three days later. Their apparent unwillingness to hold anyone accountable for her needless suffering and death is not acceptable. With the whole country now watching this case, it is time for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in.
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As the nation heads into a presidential election year, the Supreme Court is set to decide half a dozen politically charged cases in 2016 on such topics as abortion, affirmative action, contraceptives and immigration.
In several cases, conservatives are hoping the high court will shift current law to the right or block President Obama’s policies, while liberals are defending the status quo.
But with justices closely split along ideological lines, the cases are likely to yield a series of 5-4 decisions and make clear the next president’s appointees could tip the law sharply to the right or left.
Here are the major cases scheduled for decision by June.
Abortion: The court will decide whether Texas can enforce two regulations that would force about three-fourths of the state’s abortion clinics to close.
One measure requires clinics to use only doctors with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. A second requires abortion facilities to match the standards of an outpatient surgical center.
The first question before the court is whether these regulations will protect the health of women — as state lawmakers assert — or hinder reproductive care “by drastically reducing access to safe and legal abortion” in large parts of Texas, as abortion rights advocates contend.
In the background is a larger question about the nature of abortion rights set out in the Roe vs. Wade decision: Is it a constitutional right that trumps state regulations that may interfere with a woman’s choice, or is it a limited right subject to restriction? The case of Whole Woman’s Health vs. Cole will be argued March 2.
Affirmative action: The court’s conservatives think the Constitution and the civil rights laws forbid schools and colleges from admitting students based on their race, and they would like to strike down affirmative action policies that favor some applicants over others based on their race or ethnicity.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, seen as the swing vote, has agreed with conservatives in the past and condemned admissions policies that set “numerical goals indistinguishable from quotas.” But he has also refused to end all affirmative action.
In December, the court heard Fisher vs. University of Texas for a second time to decide whether the school’s admissions policy is constitutional.
Union fees: The court could deal a severe blow to the union movement in a case from California. The justices will hear a free-speech challenge to pro-union laws in more than 20 states that require all public employees to pay a “fair share fee” to their union, even if they are opposed to the union and refuse to join.
Rebecca Friedrichs, an Orange County teacher, sued the California Teachers Assn., saying the forced fees violate her rights under the 1st Amendment. Friedrichs vs. CTA will be argued Jan. 11.
Voting districts: Voters elect representatives to Congress, state legislatures and city councils in districts that are drawn to represent equal numbers of people. But that could change.
The court is considering an appeal from Texas that argues these districts should represent roughly equal numbers of eligible voters, rather than using the current system, which counts all people, including children, immigrants and prisoners.
The appeal relies on the “one person, one vote” rule established in the 1960s. If the justices agree in the case of Evenwel vs. Abbott, the ruling could have a major effect in states such as California, Florida, New York and Illinois because they have large populations of immigrants.
Contraceptives: The court will decide its fourth case on Obama’s healthcare law, and the second involving a religious freedom challenge to a regulation that requires employers to include no-cost coverage for contraceptives in their health insurance policies.
Churches are exempt from this requirement. Under a separate accommodation, religious nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities or the University of Notre Dame, need not provide nor pay for the coverage, but they must notify the government of their religious objection.
In a series of lawsuits, Catholic bishops and Protestant colleges contend the accommodation did not go far enough. The Catholic leaders said they would be “complicit in sin” if they made the required notification because doing so would “trigger” a process for providing the disputed contraceptives.
Obama’s lawyers say the mere signing of a notification does not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” quoting the 1993 federal law on religious liberty. Nearly all of the U.S. appeals courts rejected the challenges, but the high court agreed to hear seven appeals from religious entities. They were consolidated into a single case, Zubik vs. Burwell, scheduled to be heard in late March.
Immigration: The fate of Obama’s broadest effort to shield immigrants from deportation rests with the justices. His lawyers are appealing rulings by a judge in Texas and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that blocked Obama’s latest immigration action from taking effect.
It would have shielded as many as 5 million immigrants who have lived in the country illegally for at least five years and have a child who is a citizen or legal resident. Those who come forward and qualify would be offered work permits.
If the justices agree in the next few weeks to hear the case of United States vs. Texas, it will be a major test of the president’s power to change immigration policy without seeking approval from Congress. But if the justices turn down the appeal, Obama’s action will probably remain on hold until he leaves office.
The Sacramento Bee, DECEMBER 29, 2015 5:27 PM
In its ongoing dispute with Catholic hospital officials in Redding, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Dignity Health, contending the hospital system is unlawfully denying women’s rights to contraception.
The suit is filed on behalf of Physicians for Reproductive Health and a Redding woman, Rebecca Chamorro, who requested a tubal ligation at Mercy Medical Center in Redding during her scheduled cesarean section in late January. Chamorro and her husband, who have two other children, want the procedure as a permanent form of contraception.
“The overarching issue is about women’s ability to access basic health care. It’s an incredibly common procedure used by a significant number of married women, but it’s being denied based on religious doctrine. It’s a real problem,” said Elizabeth Gill, a San Francisco-based attorney representing ACLU Northern California.
Chamorro, 33, did not respond to a request for an interview. She is one of three Redding women who contacted the ACLU after their doctor denied a request for a post-partum tubal ligation at Mercy Medical Center. In all three cases, the nearest hospital providing maternity services and covered by their insurance is out of town, from 70 to 160 miles away.
The three women are patients of Dr. Samuel Van Kirk, an obstetrician-gynecologist who practices in Redding and delivers babies at Mercy Medical Center. He was not available for interviews.
Van Kirk is a member of Physicians for Reproductive Health, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit and a nationwide nonprofit that advocates for access to maternal care, including contraception. It has about 1,200 physician members in California.
In the lawsuit, Van Kirk states that 50 of his patients in the last eight years have been denied permission for post-partum tubal ligations at Mercy because of the hospital’s allegiance to Catholic doctrine.
In an emailed response, San Francisco-based Dignity Health officials declined to discuss the pending litigation, but issued a statement: “In general, it is our practice not to provide sterilization services at Dignity Health’s Catholic facilities,” in accordance with guidelines issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which state that Catholic health care organizations are not permitted to engage in actions that are “intrinsically immoral,” including sterilization for men (vasectomies) or women (tubal ligations).
However, the statement noted that Dignity’s non-Catholic hospitals, including Methodist Hospital of Sacramento, Sierra Nevada Memorial in Grass Valley and Woodland Healthcare in Woodland, abide by more general guidelines, which do not specifically cover tubal ligations but oppose abortions and in-vitro fertilizations.
Sterilizations, however, are permitted when “their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.”
Dr. Pratima Gupta, a Bay Area obstetrician and a spokeswoman for Physicians for Reproductive Health, said she was “both surprised and disappointed that (Dignity Health) would deny a woman pregnancy-related care. It demonstrates sex discrimination and provides poor quality of care.”
Gupta, who said she’s performed thousands of baby deliveries and hundreds of tubal ligations, said the procedure is safe and should not be denied to women who choose it.
“Health decisions should be made between a woman and her family and her doctor,” Gupta said.
In an earlier case, Redding resident Rachel Miller also was denied permission to have a tubal ligation at Mercy Medical. After the ACLU threatened a lawsuit on her behalf in August, Mercy officials re-reviewed her case and allowed her tubal ligation to proceed. The procedure took place in September, when Smith gave birth to her second daughter.
In Miller’s case, the hospital said it changed its mind after her doctor provided additional clinical information that fit with its criteria to allow tubal ligations to protect patients from future risk of pregnancies.
In a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee, Miller said having her “tubes tied” was “100 percent” the right choice for her family.
Like Miller, Chamorro wants her tubal ligation done in the hospital during her scheduled C-section to save the time, cost and potential trauma of a second surgery. In a tubal ligation, a woman’s fallopian tubes are closed off, preventing her eggs from reaching the uterus. It’s considered more cost-effective to do the procedure after a C-section, when a woman’s abdomen is open and she’s under anesthesia. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecology, tubal ligations are used by roughly a third of U.S. women using contraception.
A hearing is scheduled Jan. 5 in San Francisco Superior Court on the ACLU’s request for an emergency order allowing Chamorro to have her tubes tied. The Redding mother’s C-section is scheduled about three weeks later, on Jan. 28.
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