Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? 

Any country that claims to be a democracy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic should be taking steps to encourage maximum voter participation while protecting voters from risking their health. Such steps would include facilitating voter registration and maximizing the use of voting by mail. That seems self-evident. Yet it is not happening throughout the U.S., and, as is usual in our complex federal system, the rules governing this November’s U.S. election are complicated.[1]

Introduction

While every presidential election year brings an increase in voting rights litigation, the current pandemic has multiplied the number of lawsuits filed in the past 3½ months. Democrats and voting rights advocates are pursuing cases to make it easier to vote by mail, filing more than 60 lawsuits in 25 states.

These lawsuits “are now poised to shape the details of how roughly 130 million registered voters are able to cast ballots in upcoming contests.” However, “conflicting court decisions could exacerbate the differences in voters’ experiences at the ballot box in November. And as the fights play out, the uncertainty is further complicating election officials’ ability to prepare for the vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Dale Ho, who supervises its voting litigation, says, “I think it’s clear we have a potential disaster on our hands on Election Day if we can’t process as many votes as possible beforehand. The alarm bells are going off. It’s not just some sort of hypothetical as a problem — we’ve seen it as a problem multiple times. It will repeat in November. The question is how much and in how many places and how badly.”

A Democratic elections attorney, Marc Elias, agrees. “When the political branches fail to protect voting rights, it is left to the courts to do that. If the political branches were functioning the way they’re supposed to, you would have Republicans and Democrats agreeing to increase access to absentee voting. You’d be putting in place safeguards to make sure every eligible voter who casts a ballot has that ballot counted. . . . Unfortunately, the Republican Party is taking its cues from Donald Trump.”

Common Cause’s director of voting and elections, Sylvia Albert, said decisions about how to handle voting during a pandemic are not easy but “have to be made.” She added,“There is no waiting it out,” noting that as more time passes, the shorter the window for educating voters about any changes becomes. “As a state legislator, as a secretary of state, as a governor, you are responsible for ensuring that voters can access the ballot. By not moving ahead, they’re really abdicating their responsibility to the voters.”

President Trump’s Opposition to Mail Voting

The principal cause of the problem of this election is President Trump, who has made it clear that he is determined to curtail access to mail ballots, claiming without evidence that their use leads to widespread fraud. “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” the president said in June in an interview with Politico. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits . . . I think it puts the election at risk.” As a result, the GOP is pushing to limit the expansion of voting by mail, backed by a $20 million Republican National Committee effort and help from conservative groups.

However, there is no evidence that mail voting leads to the kind of massive fraud Trump has described. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that cases of potential fraud have been exceedingly rare in states that conduct voting exclusively by mail.

Nevertheless, with “Republican governors under pressure from President Trump not to expand voting by mail and many legislatures adjourned for the year or deadlocked along party lines, changes in the coming months are likely to come through court decisions.” As a result, this blogger fears that the Trump Administration will do anything and everything to try to steal this year’s presidential election.

Fortunately former Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, has come out against Trump on this (and other) issues. He says,“absentee voting has been around since the Civil War and . . ., increasingly, states both red and blue are not just allowing but also encouraging citizens to vote by mail.”[2]

Indeed, Weld says, “Public support for voting-by-mail was in place long before the novel coronavirus came along. In the past week, Colorado and Utah conducted successful, smooth primary elections almost entirely by mail, with strong turnouts and no need for voters to stand in unhealthy lines. For a highly contested June 23 primary, Kentucky’s Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state worked together to make absentee voting less cumbersome. It worked, and turnout was at near-record levels. . . . The only problems Kentucky encountered resulted from the covid-19-driven consolidation of in-person, Election Day polling places.”

Weld also notes that public opinion polls show nearly 80 percent of voters support giving all voters the option of voting in person or voting absentee. That includes a majority of Republicans — the president’s paranoia notwithstanding.”[3]

Therefore, Weld concludes, “To my fellow Republicans, I plead with you to not follow Trump off this cliff. A political party that brands itself as the party of exclusion, disregard for citizens’ safety and thinly veiled vote suppression is not a party with a future.”

 State Developments on Mail Voting

Here is an attempted analysis of where at least some of the states stand on rules for the November 3, 2020 election.

Alabama. Because of the virus, Alabama officials are allowing any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot in the upcoming election without having to cite a valid reason. In  a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups citing coronavirus dangers, Birmingham-based U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon on June 15 struke down a requirement for absentee voters to submit a copy of a photo ID and to have their ballots signed off by two witnesses or a notary public as well as lifting a statewide ban on curbside voting at polling places. The judge said he would permit willing counties to allow drive-up voting, but he stopped short of requiring such an accommodation. This order was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but on July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4,  reversed that order for the July 14 primary runoff election for the U.S. Senate between Jeff Sesssions and Tommy Tuberville.[4]

California, Nebraska (counties < 10,000) and North Dakota provide counties the option to conduct all voting by mail. In addition, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (Dem.) ordered election officials to proactively send absentee ballots to all active registered voters in the state for the general election. This move drew fierce opposition from the right, including a lawsuit from the Republican National Committee, but the change subsequently was authorized by a new state law.[5]

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington authorize all voting by mail. “For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.”[6]

District of Columbia. It will send absentee ballots to all registered voters.

Georgia. The GOP Secretary of State mailed absentee ballot request forms to voters for the June 9 primaries. The Republican House Speaker, however, warned that expanded absentee voting could lead to fraud, and a state House committee approved a measure that would bar the mailing of absentee request forms for the fall, but the bill failed to pass before the legislature adjourned. The Georgia Secretary of State, however, already had said his office lacked funds to send ballot request applications for the general election, even though,

“By a wide margin, voters on both sides of the political spectrum agree that sending absentee applications to all active voters was the safest and best thing our office could do to protect our voters at the peak of COVID-19.”

Illinois and Michigan. This year these states will mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.

Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds (Rep.) signed a bill into law that will require the secretary of state to seek legislative approval to send absentee ballot request forms to voters before November. This was seen as a rebuke to Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State, who mailed the forms to voters for the primary last month, resulting in a new turnout record for a June primary in the state.

Massachusetts. For the rest of this year this commonwealth has chosen to abandon its requirement for an excuse for an absentee ballot.

Missouri. As a result of an ACLU lawsuit, the Missouri Legislature adopted a statute expanding voting by mail during the pandemic, while retaining the statutory requirement for a notarization of the ballot with the legitimacy of that requirement still being litigated under a ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court.[7]

Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign recently sued to stop voters from using drop boxes to return completed absentee ballots and block ballots from being counted if they do not arrive inside the provided secrecy envelope. The Complaint alleged that mail voting “provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.” The Democratic Party obviously is opposing this lawsuit

Tennessee. Last month a Nashville judge ruled that any eligible voter who is concerned about contracting covid-19 at a polling place may cast an absentee ballot this fall, even though state law would typically require that voter to qualify using an excuse. The state Supreme Court declined last week to stay that decision after a request from Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

Texas. The Texas Democratic Party and several voters sued in federal court to allow all eligible Texas voters to vote by mail, at least during the coronavirus pandemic, on the ground that the state’s over-65 age limitation for such voting allegedly was unconstitutional, which contention was upheld by a trial court’s injunction, but reversed by the appellate court with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th rejecting an emergency appeal by the plaintiffs and remanding the case to the appellate court. (Justice Sotomayor urged the appellate court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election”).[8]

Wisconsin. On June 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that after more than three years, Wisconsin must reinstate several Republican-backed voting restrictions, including limits on early voting. The original GOP policies were struck down in 2016 for discriminating against minority voters, a conclusion the appellate panel rejected this week.[9]

Guarding Legitimacy of this Year’s Presidential Election

Great concern over the integrity of this presidential election has been expressed by William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and a Wall Street Journal columnist.  He said, “After a quarter-century of toxic division, our democracy is imperiled. A contested election could tip the U.S. into a devastating crisis of legitimacy, a prospect that every patriot must regard with dismay.”[10]

Therefore, Galston suggested four ways to minimize the risks in this upcoming election.

First, “To reduce pressure on the mail-in option, localities must provide the fullest possible opportunity to vote in person, as New York University law professor Richard A. Pildes has argued. This means increasing the number of polling places while expanding opportunities for early voting. Many elderly poll workers will be reluctant to do the job this year; large numbers of younger Americans should be recruited and trained to replace them. Schools should continue to serve as polling places, as they have for decades, and Election Day should be a school holiday.”

Second, “states should do what they can to facilitate the fastest possible count of mail-in ballots. Mr. Pildes recommends processing the mail-in ballots that arrive before Election Day so that they can be tallied in time for the results to be included in the count soon after the polls close, a procedure that California now employs. Other states—including Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—would have to change their laws to permit this, and they should.”

Third, “As Nathaniel Persily, a co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project points out, the media have a crucial role to play as well. Reporters should educate themselves and the public about the all but certain delay in the vote count that the flood of mail-in ballots will entail. Above all, media organizations should resist the urge to call the election ahead of their competitors and instead wait until enough ballots have been tallied to know the result with confidence. In the past, ill-judged early calls of key states have sown confusion. This year, the consequences could be far worse.”

Fourth, “America’s elder statesmen must do all they can to ensure election integrity. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush should spearhead the formation of a bipartisan committee including respected figures such as former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, along with lawyers and election experts from both parties who have served in previous presidential campaigns. Committee staff should be ready to investigate charges of fraud as soon as they arise and observe the counting of mail-in ballots if asked. Committee leaders should announce their findings as quickly as accuracy permits and stand united in their defense.”

Such a committee’s “most important tasks would be meetings soon after Labor Day with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These leaders should be asked for a public pledge to stand together against unsubstantiated claims that the election has been stolen and to do their utmost to persuade elected officials in their respective parties to stand with them.”

Conclusion

In addition to all of the above litigation, the Supreme Court still has to resolve two cases about so-called “faithless” electors in the Electoral College that actually elects the President. Presumably decisions in those two cases will come down this coming week and will be discussed in a future post.[11]

Another future post will examine ways to create stronger voting rights from Richard L. Hasen, Professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”

Comments to this post for corrections and supplementation for new developments are earnestly solicited.

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[1] See generally Viebeck, Voting rules changed quickly for the primaries. But the battle over how Americans will cast ballots in the fall is just heating up, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020).

[2] Weld, Please, Republicans don’t join Trump’s crusade against voting-by-mail, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020). See also Strauss, ‘We’ve got to do something’: Republican rebels come together to take on Trump, Guardian (July 2, 2020).

[3] See also Brennan Center for Justice, Americans of All Stripes Want a Mail Ballot Option.

[4] Liptak, Splitting 5-4, Supreme Court Grants Alabama’s Request to Restore Voting Restrictions, N.Y. Times (July 2, 2020); Gerstein, Supreme Court blocks judge’s order loosening Alabama voting requirements due to virus, Politico (July 2, 2020).

[5] National Conf. State Legislatures, All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail).

[6] Ibid.

[7] ACLU, Press Release: Court Rules Lawsuit To Allow All Missourians to Vote By Mail Without a Notary During Covid-19 Can Proceed (June 23, 2020).

[8] Liptak, Supreme Court Turns down Request to Allow All Texans to Vote by Mail, N.Y.Times (June 26, 2020); Assoc. Press, Supreme Court doesn’t wade into mail-in voting battle, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020); Barnes, Supreme Court won’t force Texans to allow absentee ballots for all voters, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020).

[9] Earlier this year there was federal court litigation over the Wisconsin primary election that lead to counting of ballots that had been mailed no later than election day. (See these posts and comments to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin Primary Election (April 10, 2020); Comment: More Criticism of Republican Strategy of Limiting Voting (April 12, 2020; Comment: More Comments on Wisconsin Election (April 13, 2020); Comment: Surprising Results in Wisconsin Election (April 14, 2020); Commnet: George F. Will’s Opinion on Voting By Mail (VBM) (April 15, 2020); Comment: Emerging Battles Over Changing State Election Laws (April 15, 2020); Comment: New York Times Editorial on Wisconsin Election (April 20, 2020; Comment: Thousands of Wisconsin Absentee Ballots Counted After Election Day (May 3, 2020).

[10] Galston, How to Prevent an Electoral Crisis, W.S.J. (June 30, 2020).

[11] Liptak, Supreme Court Seems Ready to Curb ‘Faithless Electors,’ N.Y. Times (May 13, 2020); Wegman, The Electoral College Is a Confusing Mess, N.Y.Times (May 13, 2020).

 

 

 

Richard and Mildred Loving’s Legal Entanglement with Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Last Saturday I saw the beautiful new movie “Loving,” which tells the true story about the love between Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and Mildred Delores Jeter, a black woman, who were married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia. Soon thereafter they returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, where they established their marital abode and where they were criminally prosecuted and convicted for violating the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. They then were sentenced to one year in prison, but with suspension of the imposition of that sentence for 25 years on condition they live outside the state, which they did by returning to the District of Columbia.

Later the movie depicts  their challenge with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to the constitutionality of these Virginia statutes with the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruling in their favor.[1] Below is an actual photograph of the couple and one of the actors (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton) who played the couple in the movie.

lovings

loving-movie

 

 

 

 

 

This beautiful movie prompted the following report of the legal details of their entanglement with anti-miscegenation laws.

Legal Proceedings in State Court

Their legal problems started with an October 1958 grand jury indictment charging the couple with violating the following provisions of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages:

  • “Punishment for marriage. — If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.” (Va. Code § 2-59)
  • “Leaving State to evade law.—If any white person and colored person shall go out of this State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return to and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in § 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this State. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.” (Va. Code § 2-58)

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to those charges and, as previously mentioned were sentenced to one year in jail, but with suspension of the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the couple leave the State and not return to Virginia together. The trial judge stated in his opinion that:

  • “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The Lovings then returned to the District of Columbia, where they established their home for at least the next eight and a half years.

In the meantime, nearly five years after their convictions, on November 6, 1963, with the aid of attorneys from the ACLU, they filed a motion in the Virginia state trial court to vacate the judgment of conviction and set aside the sentence on the ground that the statutes which they had violated were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Nearly 15 months later, on January 22, 1965, the state trial judge denied the motion to vacate the sentences, and the Lovings perfected an appeal to the state’s Supreme Court of Appeals.[2]

On March 7, 1966, the seven justices of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the anti-miscegenation statutes and, after modifying the sentence, affirmed the convictions.[3]  The entire opinion was based upon that court’s having upheld the constitutional validity of these statutes in a 1955 case (Naim v. Naim) and concluding that there had not been any change in the law on this issue in the subsequent 11 years. As the Virginia court stated:

  • “Our one and only function in this instance is to determine whether, for sound judicial considerations, the Naim case should be reversed. Today, more than ten years since that decision was handed down by this court, a number of states still have miscegenation statutes and yet there has been no new decision reflecting adversely upon the validity of such statutes. We find no sound judicial reason, therefore, to depart from our holding in the Naim According that decision all of the weight to which it is entitled under the doctrine of stare decisis, we hold it to be binding upon us here and rule that Code, §§ 20-58 and 20-59, under which the defendants were convicted and sentenced, are not violative of the Constitution of Virginia or the Constitution of the United States.”

Proceedings in U.S. Supreme Court

The Lovings appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which noted probable jurisdiction on December 12, 1966.[4]

After the attorneys’ briefing and oral arguments, The Supreme Court on June 12, 1967, issued its unanimous decision holding that the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes were unconstitutional.[5]

In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that the two Virginia statutes in question were “part of a comprehensive statutory scheme aimed at prohibiting and punishing interracial marriages,”[6] that they were part of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which was adopted in the “period of extreme nativism” of 1924 and that “[p]enalties for miscegenation arose as an incident of slavery, and have been common in Virginia since the colonial period.” Moreover, the opinion recognized that Virginia then was “one of 16 States which prohibit and punish marriages on the basis of racial classifications.”[7]

After rejecting various arguments advanced by the State of Virginia, the Chief Justice said, “There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

The Court’s opinion also concluded that the Virginia “statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

“Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. . . . To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Conclusion

 From a 2016 perspective, it is difficult for this blogger to believe that only 50 years ago 16 states in the U.S. still had anti-miscegenation laws and were trying to defend their constitutionality. As the movie clearly points out, the Lovings did not have the financial means to mount a challenge to these laws, and the legal assistance of organizations like the ACLU is absolutely necessary for such litigation to be conducted. [8]

While the various phases of the litigation were proceeding over nearly nine years, Mr. and Mrs. Loving had to live with this legal cloud hanging over them that prevented them from living in their native Virginia.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, the number of interracial marriages in the U.S. has increased from 0.4% in 1960 to 0.7% in 1970, 1.9% in 1980, 2.8% in 1990, 7.0% in 2000 and 10.0% in 2010. The date of the Supreme Court decision (June 12) is now remembered in the U.S. as “Loving Day” and the decision itself was cited as precedent in federal court decisions invalidating restrictions on same-sex marriage.

This case also reminded me of the personal story of Lawrence Hill, the noted Canadian author of “The Book of Negroes” about a young African woman who is kidnapped from her native village and taken by a slave ship to the U.S., where she becomes literate and is hired by the British forces at the end of the American Revolutionary War to create the actual Book of Negroes to register those Negroes who helped the British and who thereby were eligible to evacuate Manhattan with their forces. As discussed in a prior post, Hill’s parents— a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated to Canada the day after they were married in 1953 in the District of Columbia in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

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[1] Dargis, Review: In ‘Loving,’ They Loved. A Segregated Virginia Did Not Love Them Back, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2016)  The movie is directed by Jeff Nicols and stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.

[2] The Virginia trial court presumably was pressed finally to issue its decision on the motion to vacate by the Lovings commencing on October 28, 1964, a class action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia requesting that a three-judge court be convened to declare the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes unconstitutional and to enjoin state officials from enforcing their convictions. On February 11, 1965, the three-judge District Court continued the case to allow the Lovings to present their constitutional claims to the highest state court.

[3] Loving v. Commonwealth,206 Va. 924, 147 S.E.2d 78 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1966) ; Naim v. Naim, 197 Va. 80, 87 S.E.2d 749 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1955). remanded, 350 U.S. 891 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1955), aff’d, 197 Va. 734, 90 S.E.2d 849 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1956), appeal dismissed, 350 U.S. 985 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1956).

[4] Loving v. Virginia, 385 U.S. 986 (1966).

[5] Loving v. Virginia, 386 U.S. 1 (1967). Mr. Justice Stewart submitted a brief concurring opinion to reiterate his  “belief that ‘it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.’”

[6] Other provisions of the Virginia statutes automatically voided all marriages between “a white person and a colored person” without any judicial proceeding (§ 20-57) and defined “white persons” and “colored persons and Indians” for purposes of the statutory prohibitions (§§ 20-54 and 1-14).

[7] The other states with anti-miscegenation laws were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. (Justices Upset All Bans On Interracial Marriage, N.Y. Times (June 13, 1967).)

[8] As discussed in an earlier post, I was a pro bono volunteer attorney for the Minnesota ACLU chapter in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Minneapolis Police Department raid and arrests of citizens at a political fundraiser.

 

U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Review of U.S. Human Rights

In March 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (the Committee) made a very negative evaluation of how the United States of America (U.S.) was implementing and complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant), which is regarded as an important part of the International Bill of Rights.

Before we examine the Committee’s hearings that resulted in that very negative evaluation in subsequent posts, we will look at the background of the ICCPR and the events leading up to the Committee’s hearings and evaluation.

Background of the ICCPR

As discussed in a prior post, the ICCPR was approved and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The drafting of the treaty was the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in which the U.S. participated.

The ICCPR (in terms reminiscent of the U.S. Bill of Rights) establishes an international minimum standard of governmental conduct for rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; family; and participation in public life. The ICCPR forbids “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

The ICCPR’s Part IV established the Human Rights Committee, and its Article 41 provides that periodically the States Parties to the treaty shall “submit reports on the measures they have adopted which give effect to the rights recognized . . . [in the treaty] and on the progress made in the enjoyment of those rights” and that the Committee “shall study [such] . . . reports . . . . [and make] such general comments as it may consider appropriate.”[1]

Under Articles 28 and 29 of the treaty, its states parties elect the 18 Committee members to four-year terms from “nationals of the States Parties . . . who shall be persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights, consideration being given to the usefulness of the participation of some persons having legal experience, . . . [and] who shall be elected and shall serve in their personal capacity.”

The Committee, under Article 31, “may not include more than one national of the same State” and “consideration shall be given to equitable geographical distribution of membership and to the representation of the different forms of civilization and of the principal legal systems.”

As discussed in a prior post, the Covenant went into force on March 23, 1976, in accordance with its Article 49(1), after 35 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. On October 5, 1977, the U.S. signed the treaty, but it was not until nearly 15 years later (June 8, 1992), that the U.S. ratified this treaty (with reservations) and became a state party thereto. Now there are 168 states parties to the treaty.

Events Leading Up to the Committee’s Evaluation 

1. U.S. Report. On December 30, 2011, the U.S. submitted to the Committee its 188-page Fourth periodic report.[2]

The report opened with these words of President Obama,“By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. . . .”

The report then marched through the U.S. implementation of each of the 27 Articles of the ICCPR.

In conclusion, the U.S. report discussed the Committee’s Concluding Observations on the prior U.S. report that the U.S. “acknowledge the applicability of the Covenant with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction, but outside its territory, as well as its applicability in time of war.” The U.S., however, reiterated its position that the Covenant does not so apply.

With respect to the Committee’s prior request that the U.S. “consider in good faith the interpretation of the Covenant provided by the Committee,” the U.S. continued to reject the Committee’s interpretation on applicability, but said it “appreciates its ongoing dialogue with the Committee with respect to the interpretation and application of the Covenant, considers the Committee’s views in good faith, and looks forward to further discussions of these issues when it presents this report to the Committee.”

2. Committee’s List of Issues. On April 29, 2013, after reviewing the U.S. report and Common Core Document, the Committee issued its six-page, 27-paragraph List of Issues, which asked the U.S. to respond to the following:

  • U.S. constitutional and legal framework: clarify U.S. position on applicability of Covenant for individuals under its jurisdiction, but outside its territory; measures to ensure state and local authorities comply with the Covenant; whether a national human rights institution will be established; and whether the U.S. will withdraw its reservations to the Covenant.
  • Non-discrimination and equal rights of men and women: describe efforts to address racial disparities in criminal justice system and to eliminate all kinds of racial profiling against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians; provide information on imposition of criminal penalties on street people and on obstacles to undocumented migrants’ accessing health services and higher education institutions.
  • Right to life: provide information on various issues regarding the death penalty and victims of gun violence; and clarify how drone attacks allegedly comply with the Covenant and whether senior officers and lower-ranking soldiers have been investigated and punished for unlawful killings in armed conflict.
  • Prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and treatment of detainees: provide information on independent investigations of treatment of detainees, whether U.S. regards so-called “enhanced interrogation” to violate the Covenant, why the U.S. has not adopted a statute prohibiting torture within its territory, whether the U.S. systematically evaluates “diplomatic assurances” before transfers of detainees, addressing claims of police brutality and excessive use of force, regulation of electro-muscular-disruption devices, prohibition and prevention of corporal punishment of children and application of criminal law to minors, non-consensual use of medication in psychiatric and research institutions, solitary confinement, separation of juvenile from adults detainees, rights of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, rights of immigrant detainees and prevention of domestic violence.
  • Elimination of slavery and servitude: provide information on combatting human trafficking and protection of children from sexual exploitation.
  • Right to privacy: provide information on NSA surveillance.
  • Freedom of assembly and association: clarify why certain workers are excluded from right to organize in trade unions.
  • Freedom of movement, marriage, family and protection of minors: clarify whether all cases of individuals serving life sentences without parole for offenses committed as a minor have been reviewed and if U.S. will abolish such sentences; and provide information on children held at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Right to take part in conduct of public affairs: provide information on voting rights of citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions, states’ measures to impose legal or de facto disenfranchisement of voters and efforts to provide residents of District of Columbia right to vote and elect representatives to U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
  • Rights of minorities: provide information on protection of indigenous sacred sites and their rights to be consulted and consent to matters affecting their interests.

3. U.S. Replies. On July 5, 2013, the U.S. submitted its 28-page Replies to the List of Issues. It said the U.S. responded “with great pleasure” and was “pleased to participate in this process.” The U.S., it said, “in the spirit of cooperation, provided as much information as possible in response to the questions posed by the Committee.”

The U.S., however, maintained its position that the treaty did not have extraterritoriality, i.e., it did not apply to U.S. conduct outside the U.S. It did provide some additional information, but did not retract any of its previous positions that prompted the Committee’s List of Issues.

4. Civil Society Organizations’ Submissions. Sometime prior to October 2013, 138 reports about the status of U.S. human rights were submitted to the Committee by civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, Physicians for Human Rights and Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.

5. Postponement. The Committee’s review of the U.S was scheduled for October 2013, but was postponed until March 2014, pursuant to a U.S. request due to the then ongoing U.S. government shutdown.[3]

6. U.S. Delegation. On March 7, 2014, the U.S. submitted to the Committee the list of members of the U.S. delegation for the upcoming session. The U.S. Representative was Mary McLeod, Principal Deputy Legal Adviser, Office of the Legal Advisor, Department of State. She was to be aided by 27 Advisers from the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Interior; the U.S. Mission to the U.N.; the Attorney General of the State of Mississippi; the Mayor’s Office of Salt Lake City, Utah; and a Private Sector Adviser (a private attorney from Los Angeles, California).

Conclusion

On March 13 and 14, 2014, the Committee held hearings in Geneva, Switzerland on the U.S. report and other information, and on March 26, 2014, the Committee adopted its 11-page report (Concluding observations on the fourth report of the United States of America) that was very critical of the U.S. compliance with the ICCPR.[4]

These subjects will be discussed in subsequent posts.

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[1] The nation states creating and joining this treaty chose to not grant the Committee the power to order the states to do anything. Instead, the Committee only may make recommendations as observations.

[2] The report was supplemented the same date by the 85-page U.S. Common Core Document that contained general information (U.S. demographic, economic, social and cultural characteristics) and legal information (U.S. constitutional, political and legal structure; general framework for the protection and promotion of human rights; and information on non-discrimination and equality and effective remedies).

The U.S.’ fourth periodic report and Common Core Document were preceded by the first U.S. report to the Committee on July 29, 1994 (with the Committee’s concluding observations on October 3, 1995) and the U.S.’ combined second and third reports on November 28, 2005 (with the Committee’s concluding observations on September 15 and December 18, 2006).

[3] The civil society organizations submitted to the Committee an additional 41 reports before the March 2014 Committee session.

[4] The Committee’s procedure and report are similar to, but separate from, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of U.S. human rights that is conducted by a separate U.N. organization, the Human Rights Council, as discussed in a prior post.