For many of us, the end of the year brings a time for reflection. As champions of freedom and justice, we have faced unprecedented challenges in 2016, with North Carolina making headlines time and again for all the wrong reasons.
Yet even in the midst of repeated attacks on civil liberties, the wheels of progress have not halted. No matter who holds political office or what power they may wield, our work to hold the government to the eternal promise of the Constitution continues.
With vigilance and the generous support of our members and donors, this year the ACLU of North Carolina was able to achieve crucial advances in our work to reform the criminal justice system, protect reproductive freedom and voting rights, and protect all people from discrimination. Here is our list of the top ten advances for civil liberties in North Carolina this year.
1. North Carolina pledged to end solitary confinement of 16-and 17-year-olds. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety in June announced plans to end the horrendous practice of placing youthful offenders in solitary confinement, where they are isolated for up to 23 hours a day. North Carolina is one of two states in the country that still charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and place them in adult correctional facilities. Locking children in solitary confinement is child abuse, damaging their physical, psychological, and social development. We’ll continue working in 2017 to curb North Carolina’s use of this tortuous practice.
2. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that abortion is a constitutional right. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Texas law that imposed medically unnecessary regulations on doctors and facilities that provide abortions in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. In doing so, the nation’s highest court reaffirmed that a woman has a constitutional right to have an abortion, no matter where she lives – sending a powerful message to anti-abortion politicians who would seek to curb this right.
3. The ACLU-NC and our allies helped stop an anti-immigrant bill from becoming law. H.B. 100 would have encouraged racial profiling and doubled down on anti-immigrant policies, allowing massive government overreach and wasting precious taxpayer dollars – all in an attempt to target and single out undocumented North Carolinians who work, go to school, and contribute to our communities in countless ways.
4. North Carolina’s voter suppression law was overturned in time for the 2016 election. In July, after a three-year legal battle waged by the ACLU and our allies, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter suppression law in its entirety, finding that it was enacted “with discriminatory intent” and targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” Thanks to our efforts, thousands of voters across the state were able to register and vote in the November election without unnecessary barriers.
5. HB2, North Carolina’s sweeping anti-LGBT law, was found to likely violate federal law. In August, in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU and Lambda Legal, a court blocked the University of North Carolina from enforcing the discriminatory law against three of our transgender clients because it likely violates Title IX. The ruling is an important first step to chipping away at the injustice of HB2 that is harming thousands of other transgender people who call North Carolina home.
6. Our fight for religious liberty for all in Rowan County was granted another chance. Rowan County residents the ACLU is representing in a challenge to their county commissioners’ practice of opening meetings with prayers that coerce public participation and overwhelmingly advance beliefs specific to one religion will have their case reheard in 2017. In September, a divided 2-1 panel overturned a lower court finding that the practice was unconstitutional. We successfully appealed the decision and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed to grant full bench review of the case. That means that the September panel decision will be vacated, and all 15 judges for the Fourth Circuit will now review the case.
7. A commission convened by Chief Justice Mark Martin recommended raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction. Right now, North Carolina is one of only two states left in the country that continues to treat 16-and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system – without exception. That means that any 16- or 17-year- old who makes one bad decision and is charged with even the most minor offense —like stealing a candy bar — is housed in an adult jail, where they face an increased risk of suicide and sexual assault. But this year, the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, convened by Chief Justice Mark Martin, recommended the change, and we are hopeful that we could finally raise the age in 2017.
8. The ACLU filed several new lawsuits aimed at advancing and protecting civil liberties. This year we filed a lawsuit challenging the anti-LGBTQ HB2 days after it was passed, we are representing three students in a lawsuit challenging part of a public charter school’s dress code that requires all female students to wear skirts or risk being punished, and we most recently filed a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s harmful and unconstitutional ban on abortions after the twentieth week of pregnancy.
9. The ACLU of North Carolina is growing to meet new challenges. Today we boast our largest staff ever, with more attorneys, advocates, and communications professionals than at any other time in our organization’s 51-year history. Karen Anderson also became our new Executive Director to lead our fight to advance democracy, equality, justice, and freedom for all.
10. More than 16,000 North Carolinians are card-carrying members of the ACLU. As we prepare to face new threats to civil liberties, we are sustained by our largest membership ever, and every day the support continues to grow. Our work is possible because of your support, and we grow stronger and our voice grows louder with every new member.
As a new year begins, we are renewing our commitment to the treasured gifts of freedom entrusted to us on behalf of the next generation. And together, we will remain proud, principled, and unflinching in the face of the challenges facing us in 2017 and beyond.