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Committee Gives Favorable Report to Open Meetings Act

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Wednesday, March 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave a favorable report to the Open Meetings Act, S.B. 21. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said that the Senate has worked tirelessly to craft legislation to replace Alabama’s old Sunshine Law after provisions of it were struck down in three court cases. The act passed out of the Senate in the 2014 legislative session but got tied up in the logjam in the House. Without passage of a new open meetings law there is a lot of uncertainty out there.

Sen. Ward said that Senator’s Reed and Hightower had raised the issue of the Walker and Mobile County Commissions. The law makes it a violation for the majority of a council, commission, or board to meet, even casually, unless it is a public meeting to prevent meetings from happening in secret without the public or the press present. The Mobile and Walker County Commissions only have three members. Sen. Ward said that most county commissions in the state have either five or seven commissioners. Ward’s native Shelby County has nine. Since Walker and Mobile Counties have just three members an exception to the law had to be added for them, because if two commissioner just happened to eat at the same restaurant that could be a violation of the law.

In the case of three member commissions, if the two people are together but not deciding how to vote on an issue, that is ok. If they are having a conversation on how they are going to vote on county business that is a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) said that is depends on what conversation they are having.  “There is no way to enforce that.”

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Sen. Ward acknowledged that proving they violated the act would be a challenge. “They wanted to be exempted from the Open Meetings Act. I didn’t want to exempt anybody from the Open Meetings law.:

Ward said that the act clamps down on serial meetings where two members meet to decide business and then two or more meet to decide business in order to get around the law.

Commissions, councils, boards, etc. can go into executive session to discuss negotiations with an individual entity you are in negotiations with over economic development or to discuss litigation or where the good name and character of an individual is involved……that’s where you are about to fire and employee.

Sen. Greg Albritton (R) asked if this affects work sessions.

Ward said that it does.  They have to meet publicly.  We are trying to get the law back to where we were before the court rulings gutted it.

Sen. Linda Coleman (D-Birmingham) asked if this applied to water boards and zoning commissions.

Sen. Ward said that yes it does.

The committee voted to give SB 21 a favorable report.

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ACLU sues John Merrill for blocking followers on Twitter

Chip Brownlee

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Secretary of State John Merrill is facing a lawsuit over his blocking of individuals on Twitter.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Merrill Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2018, on behalf of three Alabama citizens who say they were blocked on Merrill’s Twitter. They say an elected official shouldn’t be allowed to block constituents on Twitter because it’s a violation of their First Amendment rights under the Constitution.

“It is upsetting to me that the Secretary of State, who primarily uses his Twitter account to disseminate information on issues related to his office, has also weaponized that account by blocking those with whom he disagrees politically,” said Kimberly Fasking, a plaintiff in the case. “It is not the Secretary of State’s job to communicate only with those who agree with him, but with all of the people of the State of Alabama. I am disappointed that I no longer have ready access to information from the Secretary of State’s office in a way that allows me to engage meaningfully on topics that I find incredibly important.”

Fasking, along with the other plaintiffs in the case, are all residents and registered voters in Alabama, according to the initial court filing and the ACLU.

Fasking is a law student at the University of Alabama and says she was blocked after asking about crossover voting, while Heather Melvin Boothe, a second plaintiff, was blocked for stating “Good point! Ballot has major typo.”

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The third plaintiff, Herbert Hicks, a farmer and educator, was blocked after asking Merrill about a speaking engagement.

Merill quickly responded to the lawsuit Tuesday in a statement.

“The lawsuit filed today by the ACLU of Alabama is an attempted political hack job,” Merrill said. “Members of this liberal group are attempting to create an issue concerning lack of access to public officials that simply does not exist. As every member of the media and general public who interacts with this office knows, the most important thing for an elected official to do is to remain accessible to the people of this state. That is why I always make my cell number — 334.328.2787 — available to all Alabamians.”

Merrill does regularly release his phone number and responds inquiries.

The ACLU says Merrill’s Twitter account, @JohnHMerrill, is used “regularly to discuss Alabama election law, inform about his duties as Alabama Secretary of State, remind the public about upcoming elections, and generally engage with the citizens of Alabama.”

They argue that because of the way he uses this account, even if it’s personal, it has become an important source of news and information regarding Alabama elections and election law.

Merrill said in his statement that his account’s personal nature excludes him from a recent federal court ruling that held President Donald Trump’s blocking of followers on Twitter violated the First Amendment.

“Further, the account in question — @JohnHMerrill — is exclusively my account, while the account @alasecofstate is the state’s public account, and this account has never blocked anyone from viewing any of the posts on its page,” Merrill said. “The @JohnHMerrill account has remained a personal account since its creation, in October 2009.”

The lawsuit resulting in a federal ruling against Trump was filed by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute and seven of his former followers whom Trump blocked on Twitter.

After the federal court ruling regarding Trump’s account, Merrill told the Montgomery Advertiser that he would continue to block followers who were only interested in promoting their public agendas.

He reiterated that resolve in his statement Tuesday.

“When people use a platform for public debate as a way to promote their agenda, regardless of the presentation of any factual information, I believe it is my responsibility to designate attempts to misinform the public as false,” Merrill said. “And, when users continue to publish those instances, or when they make hurtful statements about me or my family, I try to reduce the exposure to avoid misinforming members of the public.”

The lawsuit seeks to bar Merrill from blocking plaintiffs and others based upon whether he agrees or disagrees with their viewpoints, the ACLU’s complaint states. The case was filed in the Middle District of Alabama U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

Merrill said the lawsuit and its assertions don’t change the fact that he is accessible to the public.

“I am recognized as one of the most accessible and personally available elected officials in the history of the state of Alabama, which is why I visit all 67 counties each year,” Merrill said. “It is my desire to continue to be recognized in that way as long as I have the privilege to continue to serve in public office.”

ACLU of Alabama attorney Brock Boone said Merrill as a government official does not get to pick and choose who receives information on Twitter just like he can’t kick out his constituents for their beliefs at a town hall.

“This is a violation of the First Amendment,” Boone said. “It is worrisome that the individual in charge of free and fair elections chooses to discriminate against individuals on social media. As the Secretary of State, Merrill should be using his platform to inform the public, not censure them.”

 

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Want to know why Mike Hubbard still isn’t in prison?

Josh Moon

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Mike Hubbard probably isn’t going to jail anytime soon.

The former Alabama House Speaker who was convicted on 12 counts of misusing his office for personal gain, and who recently had the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals uphold 11 of those convictions, remains free on an appeals bond.

While most other convicted felons find themselves carted off to jail in handcuffs — with even most white-collar criminals allowed only a small window post conviction before reporting to prison — Hubbard has been free for more than 26 months.

And he’s likely to remain so until the Alabama Supreme Court either rules on his appeal or declines to hear it.

According to the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, which responded to questions from APR about why Hubbard remains free, the appeals bond which keeps Hubbard free doesn’t expire until his appeals expire.

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The AG’s office refused to comment specifically on Hubbard’s case, but it did provide guidance specifically about appeals bond.

“An appeal bond does not expire until the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issues the certificate of judgement, which occurs when the appeal becomes final,” AG’s office spokesman Mike Lewis wrote in an email. “In most circumstances, an appeal becomes final in one of three ways: 1) the time for seeking review in the Alabama Supreme Court expires; 2) the Alabama Supreme Court denies cert.; or 3) the Alabama Supreme Court affirms the lower court’s judgment.”

So, the ball is now in the Alabama Supreme Court. And it often moves at a snail’s pace, particularly on issues dealing with political scandal and great public interest.

However, one thing that could speed the process along is the lengthy opinion from the Appeals Court upholding those 11 Hubbard convictions. Many attorneys familiar with the opinion believe it was written in such a way that it did the ALSC’s work for it, examining myriad avenues and pulling together several different legal arguments, and would prevent the ALSC from having to dig through the voluminous file.

On the other hand, one thing that could slow the court down is that there’s a new appeal in the case — this one from the AG’s office, which is prosecuting the case.

It has appealed the Criminal Appeals Court’s overturning of one count. That’s new ground for the ALSC to cover, and that could take more time.

And all the while, Mike Hubbard, convicted felon, will remain a free man.

 

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AG Marshall moves to strip pre-existing conditions coverage from hundreds of thousands of Alabamians

Bill Britt

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Nearly one million non-elderly adults in Alabama have pre-existing conditions and can’t be denied health insurance coverage under current law. However, Alabama’s appointed Attorney General Steve Marshall is currently engaged in a court battle that would deny those individuals health care coverage.

Marshall, the Republican nominee for attorney general, is part of a federal lawsuit which, if successful, will not only leave a third of Alabamians without health coverage for pre-existing conditions, it would strip over 50 million Americans of the same rights, as well.

The case, Texas, et al. vs. the United States, et al., is currently being heard in The United States District Court for The Northern District of Texas, where 18 Republican attorneys general and two Republican governors are suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Recently, the Trump Administration joined the Texas lawsuit challenging portions of Obamacare that prohibit insurers from rejecting certain individuals or charging more for those with pre-existing conditions.

Polling shows public concerns over keeping coverage for pre-existing conditions is a major issue for voters with a supermajority — 75 percent — saying it’s “very important” to keep ACA’s insurance protections, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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The American Medical Association, The American Academy of Family Physicians, The American College of Physicians, The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have all sought to influence the court filing, an Amici Curiae. These groups argue what Marshall and his fellow litigants would strip health care from tens of millions of Americans, sow chaos in the nation’s health care system​ and would remove protections for Americans with pre-existing health conditions.

Here in Alabama, the state’s Hospital Association is supporting Marshall’s election with nearly $20,000 in contributions to his campaign. A number of other health care related organizations are backing Marshall, including one firm’s founder who represents the Southern Poverty Law Center.

APR reached out to the Alabama Hospital Association’s Danne Howard asking why the organization supported a candidate who would take away medical coverage for Alabamians with pre-existing conditions, but as of publication deadline, Howard failed to answer APR‘s query.

Protect Our Care Campaign Director Brad Woodhouse sees Marshall’s action as politically motivated and harmful to those he has promised to protect.

“Steve Marshall’s politically inspired effort to get rid of the Affordable Care Act could take health insurance away from 483,500 Alabamians, raise premiums, and end the Medicaid expansion, which has been critical for combating the opioid epidemic and keeping rural hospitals afloat,” said Woodhouse.

Marshall joins another GOP lawsuit challenging Obamacare

Marshall, an Obama-Democrat until 2012, turned to the Republican Party once he was determined to run for attorney general. He was first appointed Marshall County District Attorney by then-Gov. Don Siegelman and later appointed Attorney General by Robert Bentley before he was forced from office.

Marshall faces Joseph Siegelman in November’s general election.

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Alliance for a Pro-Life Alabama plans a statewide campaign to pass constitutional amendment

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, a newly-formed political committee known as the Alliance for a Pro-Life Alabama announced that they will coordinate campaign and media efforts for passage of the pro-life constitutional amendment that will appear on the Nov. 6, statewide ballot.

The committee is chaired by Cole Wagner of Montgomery. It is officially registered with the Secretary of State’s office and has already recruited several prominent partner organizations and elected officials, which include: Alabama Citizens’ Action Program (ALCAP), Alabama Policy Institute, Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, Alabama Pro-Life Education Fund, Choose Life, Inc., Cameron’s Choice, Eagle Forum, Southeast Law Institute, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R – Monrovia, State Senator Steve Livingston, R – Scottsboro, and State Representative. Will Ainsworth, R – Guntersville, who is also the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor.

“Passage of Amendment Two on the statewide ballot will allow Alabama to begin protecting unborn life as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Wagner said. “The Alliance for a Pro-Life Alabama is tasked with educating voters about the constitutional amendment and providing them with accurate and truthful information while, at the same time, refuting falsehoods and misinformation that may be disseminated by pro-abortion forces within the state.”

Wagner said that the Alliance has created a public Facebook page and will soon begin its grassroots campaign and media efforts in support of the constitutional amendment. Additional organizations and public officials are also expected to announce their support for the group’s efforts in coming days.

Amendment 2 was sponsored by State Representative Matt Fridy, R – Montevallo.

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The Alabama Fair Ballot Commission released the following description:

“Amendment 2 provides that it would be the public policy of the state to recognize and support the importance of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life; and to protect the rights of unborn children. Additionally, the amendment would make clear that the state constitution does not include a right to abortion or require the funding of an abortion using public funds.”

The amendment will be on the Nov. 6 general election.

Abortion was illegal in Alabama until the U.S. Supreme Court issued the controversial 5 to 4 Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1972 stripping the state legislatures from the authority to regulate abortion within the states.

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Committee Gives Favorable Report to Open Meetings Act

by Brandon Moseley Read Time: 2 min
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