Legislative Panel

Following the untimely death last fall of longtime lobbyist Keith Smith, the ACLU of Oklahoma found itself at a crossroads when the Oklahoma Legislature prepared to begin its 2007 session. There was no easy choice for finding a successor to Smith, whose skills, knowledge and political savvy were irreplaceable. As a result, the affiliate’s leadership decided to refocus the legislative program by recruiting more activists at the grassroots level to lobby for civil liberties.

The ACLU of Oklahoma hosted a legislative training workshop on January 27, 2007 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City. The event drew more than 100 participants, who were eager to become more involved in affecting legislation.

State Legislative Counsel Charles Mitchell of the ACLU National Legislative Office in Washington, D.C. presented information on effective grassroots lobbying techniques. Political strategist Linda Murphy gave advice on organizing around particular issues. Former Governor David Walters, former State Senator Bernest Cain, former State Representative Opio Toure and former State Representative Wanda Jo Stapleton were joined by current State Senator Andrew Rice and current State Representative Al McAffrey in a session that provided the perspective of lawmakers on lobbying.

Attendance at the workshop was free. Participants were able to network about particular issues and to discuss strategies for the upcoming legislative session. A group of highly motivated grassroots activists left the event with new knowledge and enthusiasm for safeguarding civil liberties in the legislature.

At the top of the ACLU of Oklahoma’s legislative agenda for 2007 was opposition to the state’s implementation of the U.S. Government’s Real ID program, which mandates standards for drivers’ licenses in all 50 states that would ultimately create a national identity card. The ACLU opposed this legislation on the federal level due to grave concerns about privacy and technology.

Senator Constance Johnson proposed SB 464 in the Oklahoma Legislature as a moratorium on the implementation of the Real ID program by the State of Oklahoma until the federal government could address data privacy and security concerns. The legislation also addressed the program’s nature as an unfunded mandate, which would cause a budgetary crisis for Oklahoma.

With support from a network of grassroots activists, SB 464 was sent to the full Senate by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee in February. The Senate later approved the bill and sent it to the House of Representatives for consideration.

While in the House Committee, SB 464 was amended to provide greater protection to individual liberty. The amendments included the deletion of the digital finger imaging requirement on Oklahoma drivers’ licenses.

Following approval by the House Committee, the bill did not receive a vote until early spring on the House floor due to the budget disagreement between Governor Henry and legislative leaders. The House ultimately voted to approve SB 464 with its amendments and sent it back to the Senate for consideration of its altered form.

The Senate voted unanimously on May 16, 2007 to accept the House amendments to SB 464. The bill was sent to Governor Henry, who signed it on May 23, 2007.

Unfortunately, there were some bleak spots during the session. Oklahoma politicians joined in the nationwide demagoguery about illegal immigration by passing HB 1804, which required local law enforcement and small businesses to enforce federal immigration restrictions. The ACLU of Oklahoma provided Governor Henry’s office with extensive educational material about constitutional problems with HB 1804. Despite this and other lobbying efforts, Henry signed the bill.

Following the passage of HB 1804, the ACLU of Oklahoma began working with representatives of the state’s Latin American community here in Oklahoma. A few days after the measure became law, Program Coordinator Tamya Cox and Legal Director C.S. Thornton met with officials from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) at the affiliate office.

Both the ACLU and LULAC agreed that one of the most troubling aspects of this legislation is the psychological effect it will have on documented and undocumented Latinos in Oklahoma. LULAC reported that members of the Latin American community in Oklahoma City were being “stalked” by self-appointed citizen watchdogs. The ACLU of Oklahoma and LULAC shared concern about a potential to increase in racial profiling, not only by government officials, but also by self-appointed watchdogs.

The ACLU of Oklahoma is analyzing the Oklahoma Taxpayers and Citizens Protection Act (OTCPA) codified by HB 1804 in order to determine what portions of it are vulnerable to attack on constitutional grounds. The affiliate plans to involve the ACLU National Immigrants’ Rights Project in this process. Additionally, Thornton and Cox are conferring with immigration lawyers in private practice who have concerns about the enforcement of the OTCPA.

To complement the ACLU’s efforts in combating the OTCPA, the affiliate is working in coalition with groups like LULAC to mount an effective public education campaign. The first of many planned public conversations staged by the ACLU of Oklahoma and its coalition partners to discuss OTCPA was held on Saturday, June 2, 2007 in Tulsa.

The legislative session’s most epic battle was unsurprisingly centered on the issue of reproductive choice. Senator James Williamson authored SB 714, which prohibited physicians from performing nearly all abortions in medical facilities that receive public funding. Representative John Wright sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives.

Both the House and Senate passed SB 714 with solid majorities in spite of strong grassroots opposition generated by the ACLU and its coalition partners like Planned Parenthood and Progressive Alliance. The bill was sent to Governor Henry in early April, and a massive telephone, letter-writing and e-mail campaign was mounted to encourage him to veto SB 714. The Oklahoma State Medical Association; the Oklahoma section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; the Osteopathic Association; and the Oklahoma Nurses Association joined the coalition opposing the bill.
Governor Henry announced his veto of SB 714 at a press conference on April 18, 2007. Flanked by more than 40 physicians, nurses and other medical professionals, Henry said of the bill, "I have grave concerns that its inadvertent consequences would prove disastrous."

Henry further explained his veto by saying, "I share the concerns of a majority of medical experts who believe this bill would severely compromise healthcare in our state by placing undue restrictions on the sacred relationship between doctor and patient. Under this measure, a woman may have no option but to carry to term a fetus with a fatal birth defect. There are a number of fatal birth defects in which there is no chance of survival, and yet SB 714 would add to a family's suffering and medical costs by forcing a woman to carry that fetus to term. Although designed to simply prohibit taxpayer-funded abortions, in reality the bill reaches much further, impacting most community hospitals in the state and severely compromising the quality and availability of medical care."

Senator Williamson, sponsor of SB 714, moved to override Henry's veto on April 25 and on May 9. Both attempts failed to garner the necessary two-thirds (32 votes) supermajority required to override a gubernatorial veto.

Williamson's failed attempts resulted in a new strategy being adopted by anti-abortion legislators. The Oklahoma House voted on May 14 to suspend its rules and allow SB 139 to be revived from dormancy. The bill's original wording was replaced with new language that was essentially a slightly revised version of SB 714. Although the legislators behind this substitution were trying to create an anti-abortion bill that would overcome Henry's veto objection, SB 139 did not include exceptions for fatal fetal anomalies or for the health of the mother. The only significant differences from SB 714 were exceptions allowing for abortions in cases of rape and incest. However, both the rape and incest exceptions would require the victim to report her attacker to law enforcement before she could obtain an abortion.

Both the House and Senate passed SB 139. It was sent to Governor Henry, who was lobbied extensively by pro-choice activists asking him to veto it. Unfortunately, Henry did not veto SB 139 before the session's May 23, 2007 deadline, and it became law.

Experience with the 2007 legislative session demonstrated the value of having additional activists in the lawmaking process. However, more Oklahomans still need to make their voices heard. It is important for those who want to lobby their elected officials about civil liberties issues to provide the affiliate office with their e-mail addresses. If you are interested in participating as an activist, please send your e-mail address to acluok@mindspring.com.