Monday, February 6, 2006

silenced voices, liberties, and change

as anticipated, i learned much at the minnversity's silenced voices conference on felon disenfranchisement last saturday. in particular, i got a little insight into processes of legal change -- in the courts, the legislature, and executives' offices.

in the courts, catherine weiss of the brennan center and art eisenberg of the nyclu gave tight presentations of the constitutional issues involved in felon disenfranchisement -- mainly 14th/15th amendment and voting rights act stuff. ms. weiss gave a thoughtful reply to a question about the supreme court's refusal to hear johnson v. bush. she speculated that this florida case would have (a) reopened fresh wounds surrounding bush v. gore; and, (b) dumped the court into some turbulent civil liberties waters in these uncertain times.

in the legislature, we heard from minnesota representative keith ellison, who introduced legislation to reenfranchise probationers and parolees. ellison discussed his patriotism as rooted in the slow but inexorable extension of the franchise beyond the propertied white male framers. he also noted that a Republican briefing sheet portrayed his bill as "good policy, but bad politics," pointing to its likely partisan impact.

the executive branch story came from gary dickey, counsel and advisor to iowa governor tom vilsack. mr. dickey related an all-american/after-school-special story of legal change. a high school class in cedar rapids iowa sunk their teeth into felon voting rights as a class project. they bombarded mr. dickey and state legislators with daily emails -- sometimes, i'll immodestly add, citing my research with jeff manza -- and phone calls lobbying for personal meetings and legal change. though not much happened in the legislature, mr. dickey and the governor began thinking about an executive order issuing a blanket pardon and voting rights restoration. at least a portion of this plan was hatched in a pickup basketball game with various staffpersons. so that's how it works...

somebody's gotta make a movie about this. dickey named his dogs liberty and justice, yet even he was astounded by the kids' commitment to full democratic participation. the conference also featured characteristically clear and authoritative overviews from marc mauer and carl warren, who organized the conference with minnversity law students. nevertheless, i'm still thinking about cedar rapids, iowa and those high school true believers. as mr. jefferson smith himself once speechified,

Just get up off the ground, that's all I ask. Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won't just see scenery; you'll see the whole parade of what man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That's what you'd see. There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that's what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we'd better get those boys' camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!

i understand that a webcast is planned for the entire conference, including longer presentations by me, marc mauer, and catherine weiss. locals in minnesota can see video replays at the law school on february 10, february 24, and march 31.

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