Civil liberties violations of 2014: civil forfeiture, grand juries, religion, abortion, voting rights.

The 10 Worst Civil Liberties Nightmares of 2014

The 10 Worst Civil Liberties Nightmares of 2014

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 29 2014 1:32 PM

The 10 Worst Civil Liberties Violations of 2014

It’s been an exceptionally awful year.

Hobby Lobby, Ferguson, MO.
Trust between police and citizens fell precipitously in 2014.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call; Scott Olson/Getty Images; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The world may not actually be falling apart—but it feels like America is. From police brutality and botched executions to voter suppression and election corruption, 2014 was a terrible year for civil liberties in the United States. Protests were quelled by military-grade weapons in scenes worthy of a banana republic, and the divide between the rich and the poor in the freedom and justice they are afforded is Dickensian in its scope. While the country has evolved on marriage equality, it often appears to be backtracking on just about every other advance we have made, from the racial and gender progress of the 1960s to the most basic principles of the criminal justice system. Below, we’ve listed the top 10 civil liberties nightmares of 2014 in no particular order. Here’s hoping this list is harder to put together next year.

10. The Supreme Court adds more sectarian religion to our lives.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court’s five conservatives ruled that legislative sessions in town council meetings can open with explicitly sectarian prayers. Almost immediately, town boards began inviting Christians to speak at their meetings while excluding speakers of minority faiths (and, naturally, atheists). In short order the Galloway majority’s gauzy vision of pluralistic civic tolerance began to look a lot more like a governmental endorsement of Christianity at the expense of minority religions. Increasingly, to the conservatives of the Roberts court, “religious liberty” means the freedom of religious majorities to push their religious beliefs on the rest of us. Speaking of which …

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9. The Supreme Court invites our corporate bosses to takes away our birth control.

In the court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the same five conservatives ruled that “closely held corporations” had a religious right to deny female employees certain forms of birth control, if those employers believe the device or method causes abortions. It matters not at all whether the device or method in fact causes abortions. Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito downplayed the notion that women’s health and autonomy are “compelling interests,” leaving female employees’ intensely private health care choices at the mercy of their bosses. Alito reasoned that employees could rely on the government’s birth control accommodation granted to religious hospitals and colleges —then the court immediately suggested that the accommodation might be against the law, too.

8. Secrecy and botched executions.

In January the state of Oklahoma executed Michael Lee Wilson using a secret chemical cocktail. Twenty seconds after the injection of the drugs—which Oklahoma claimed would ensure a painless death—Wilson said, “I can feel my whole body burning.” Three months later, Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett with another secret drug cocktail; the procedure turned into a brutal torture session after the drugs left Lockett “writhing and bucking” on the gurney. In July the state of Arizona executed Joseph R. Wood III using a protocol of secret drugs. The procedure took two excruciating hours during which, according to witnesses, Wood gasped and snorted. Arizona officials insisted that Wood hadn’t suffered—then added that if he had, he would’ve deserved it.

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We are killing people in America, and we are doing so in a fashion that is ever more brutal, secretive, and flawed. Last week the 325th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence was cleared of a rape for which he served nearly 31 years. The only thing certain about our current capital punishment system is that hiding its flaws, errors, and biases, doesn’t make them go away.

7. The great torture shrug.

In December the Senate Intelligence Committee released a declassified summary of a historic and long-awaited comprehensive report on the use of torture techniques implemented during the George W. Bush administration, including “rectal feeding,” waterboarding, confinement in small spaces, and shackling in stress positions. In hundreds of partly redacted pages, the report concluded that the CIA “enhanced interrogation” practices were ineffective and failed to provide unique or actionable information, and that the CIA systematically misled the White House, Congress, and the public about the torture methods and program for years. The report also revealed that the CIA’s tactics went beyond the generous legal terms laid out in Justice Department legal memos. The study, based on examination of more than 6 million internal CIA documents, concluded that the U.S. government engaged in what clearly amounts to torture practices and lied about it.

Nobody will be held to account. Nobody will be prosecuted. And the release of the report led to another shameful round of debates by public intellectuals willing to defend state-sanctioned violence against prisoners because it worked for Jack Bauer.

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6. Voting rights.

In 2013 the Supreme Court gutted a key section of the federal Voting Rights Act. As a direct result of that decision, states with a history of suppressing voting rights, which had previously been required to seek “preclearance” before implementing new voting rules, were freed up to create voting requirements that made it harder for certain groups to vote. In the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder decision—in some cases, just hours later—states raced to impose new rules that would disproportionately burden the elderly, the young, the poor, and minorities. Last November we witnessed the fruits of those efforts: People in Texas were faced with new voting restrictions, as were those in Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and others. The Supreme Court batted back some of these new voting restrictions if they were apt to cause chaos just before an election and allowed others to stand. But this whole raft of efforts to “protect the integrity of the vote” is and has always been nothing more than a fig leaf. Federal appeals court Judge Richard Posner, assessing an array of such laws, called them precisely what they are, “a means of voter suppression, rather than of fraud prevention.”

What was the impact of these newest efforts to fiddle with voting rights in the November election? The preliminary data show that felon disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, and ending same-day registration had some impact on the 2014 elections. This is to be expected. It is, after all, the whole point.

5. Money in elections.

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In 2014 the Supreme Court handed down another campaign finance decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, striking down the aggregate limits that Americans may contribute. (The cap had been $123,200, or twice the median family income, to all federal candidates, parties, and PACs combined, not including super PACs.) Once the very, very, very richest among us were liberated to donate as much as they wished, the spending around the 2014 elections predictably bubbled over with McCutcheon money. As the Washington Post reported, “More than 300 donors have seized the opportunity, writing checks at such a furious pace that they have exceeded the old limit of $123,200 for this election cycle, according to campaign finance data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics.” Election spending in general made all kinds of news in 2014, including on state judicial races, which have become some of the ugliest, spendiest battlegrounds going. But McCutcheon isn’t important simply because it put some more big money into political races; it’s also a signal that the Supreme Court plans to finish what it started with Citizens United v. FEC—give the wealthy unlimited power in the name of free speech—and that there are five votes to do so. Don’t worry. Your vote still counts. It just counts a little bit less with every election.

4. The Ferguson protest crackdown.

After Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown in August, residents took to the streets to protest the killing and a long-standing pattern of police mistreatment. They were met with a militarized police force that used tear gas, sound cannons, smoke grenades, armored vehicles, and assault weapons to shut down the protests. A federal judge later ruled that the officers’ stunningly aggressive tactics violated the protesters’ freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and due process rights. But images of officers illegally arresting journalists, training assault rifles on civilians, and gassing law-abiding demonstrators remain seared into Americans’ minds. This is how we are policed when we protest now. Our constitutional rights to speak and assemble don’t seem so inviolable when the police can break up rallies with armored cars and assault weapons. But wait, how did the police manage to finance military-grade equipment to quell civil disobedience? Glad you asked …

3. Civil forfeiture.

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One of the shocking lessons of the events in Ferguson was the revelation that its local police department was financing itself—and in this case, its weapons purchases—with money wrested from people under civil forfeiture laws. These laws were developed to squeeze drug lords and mob bosses, but they are now used by thousands of police departments and drug task forces across the country to take cash and property, often from the poorest Americans, without proving any crime has occurred. The Washington Post found that police departments have used their massive civil forfeiture slush funds to purchase G.I. Joe toys including “Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes, and sniper gear” as well as “electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.”

Civil forfeiture isn’t the only form of harassment facing people in poor communities. Americans were horrified this summer when they learned that in 2013, the city of Ferguson, a city of just 21,135 people, issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, most of which were trivial driving violations. The town was charging exorbitant court fines and fees for these nonviolent offenses, then arresting anyone who couldn’t pay. NPR produced a brutal series this year showing that the poor are being pressed into financing the very system that prosecutes and incarcerates them. Welcome to the return of the debtors’ prison.

2. Abortion clinic closures.

Roe v. Wade is still good law in America. Abortion is still legal. And yet throughout the country, abortion clinics are being shuttered at record rates. According to this report from Bloomberg last month, the rate of clinic closures is unprecedented. Since 2011, legislative reforms, protests, and a series of onerous and costly new regulations have ensured that more clinics than ever are closing their doors. One in 10 clinics have shut or stopped providing the procedure since 2011. Four states, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, have only a single clinic now in operation.

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The best test case for what’s happened nationwide unspooled itself in Texas this year. A sweeping package of abortion regulations put into effect draconian building codes and requirements that physicians obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals. The law led 19 facilities to stop performing abortions, leaving only 22 in the state. The Supreme Court ordered Texas to stay some of those requirements pending a full hearing. One federal judge on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which approved the regulations, said driving hundreds of miles across the state to procure an abortion wasn’t that bad on a flat Texas highway at 75 miles per hour, and assumed that the prospect of perhaps one-sixth of Texas women having their abortion rights burdened did not represent a sufficiently large fraction to be constitutionally fussed about. 

1. Grand juries reviewing police misconduct.

2014 has been a terrible year for relations between cops and citizens. A spiral of mistrust has led to a spiral of brutality and violence that exploded with the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and John Crawford, among others. Then Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot and killed two Brooklyn police officers, claiming he was acting in the name of those who had been killed by police. This deplorable, appalling act of alleged retribution sparked a new wave of recriminations and accusations.

One fundamental problem with the criminal justice system that came to light this fall illuminates the reason there is such distrust between police and communities of color: We should not continue to use the grand jury system to hold police to account. One of the lessons of the Brown and Garner grand juries is that while grand juries will famously indict anyone up to and including a ham sandwich, they virtually never do so when a police officer is before them. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, “U.S. police officers kill approximately 1,000 citizens per year in the line of duty. On average, four officers are indicted for causing gun-related deaths on duty every year, according to a study by Bowling Green State University in Ohio. In one sample, grand juries in Harris County, Texas, haven’t indicted a police officer in a decade. Grand juries in Dallas looked at 81 possible cases of police criminality between 2008 and 2012, but handed down only one indictment, according to the Houston Chronicle.” There are many reasons for this: Grand jurors tend to trust cops; the prosecutors are in complete control of the proceedings; and prosecutors have every incentive to go easy on the police officers with whom they work. With grand jury proceedings taking place in secret, all of these incentives are compounded and mistrust is exacerbated.

Reforming the way we assess police shootings in the criminal justice system will not cure the extreme mistrust that now exists in America. But it will be a step toward assuring citizens that the system is not rigged to protect the powerful—which is certainly how it looks in the waning days of 2014.