Protecting Civil Liberties in Hawaii

The Hawaii legislature is debating a non-binding resolution that condemns sweeping new federal powers to fight terrorism and urges state and local officials to avoid any actions that threaten the civil rights of the state's ethnically diverse residents.

The resolution has passed the state House. If the state Senate passes it, which sponsors say is likely, Hawaii will become the first state to go on record against provisions of the 2001 USA Patriot Act and the 2002 Homeland Security Act. Both statutes expand federal powers to spy on U.S. citizens and curb traditional court oversight of such activities.

Language in the Hawaii measure indirectly refers to the internment of Japanese-American citizens after Pearl Harbor. "The residents of Hawaii during World War II experienced firsthand the dangers of unbalanced pursuit of security without appropriate checks and balances," it states.

"While federal laws such as the USA Patriot Act ... are aimed at saving our human rights, civil liberties, and constitutional protections, they run the serious risk of destroying the very freedoms that they purport to protect through invasive surveillance, secret searches and so forth," said Hawaii Rep. Ken Ito (D), author of the House version of the resolution which passed by large majority in the Democrat-controlled House last week.

The state Senate, which also has a lopsided Democratic majority, is expected to bring the measure to a vote this week. Because the resolution merely expresses the sense of the legislature, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) cannot sign or veto it.

Some of Lingle's fellow Republicans charge that the resolution is politically motivated. "This is a partisan effort designed to go after the U.S. Attorney General, the President and his administration. It's wholly consistent with the very liberal and extremely partisan elements of the Hawaii state legislature who seem more concerned with making partisan problems than making bipartisan solutions," Senate minority leader Fred Hemmings said.

The USA PATRIOT Act, a catchy acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism," sped through Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush less than two months after the 9/11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The act was passed with bipartisan support but with very little debate. Supporters said the legislation was needed to close loopholes that could allow terrorists to operate with impunity.

The Homeland Security Act consolidates a number of existing federal agencies in a new U.S. Cabinet department responsible for protecting U.S. borders, harbors, coastal waters and territory.

Resolutions similar to the one pending in Hawaii were introduced in the New Mexico and Vermont legislatures this year, but neither of them went anywhere. A grassroots push has resulted in passage of resolutions critical of the federal anti-terrorism statutes in 75 cities in the past year. The drive started in liberal strongholds such as Berkeley, Calif., Boulder, Colo., Santa Fe, N.M. and Amherst, Mass., but spread to more conservative communities like Fairbanks, Alaska and Tampa, Fla.

Most communities acted with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a grassroots group in Florence, Mass.

The movement has seen a recent groundswell of support, said Damon Moglen of the ACLU. "I think it speaks to the genuine frustration, fear, anger and anxiety about these federal actions at the local level," Moglen said.

The community-passed resolutions cannot compel local authorities to ignore some of the provisions of the new federal anti-terrorism laws, but merely affirm civil rights that some critics say are being trampled in the rush to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks.

Hawaii's resolution, which also lacks teeth, urges state law enforcement officials not to engage in any activities that "threaten the human rights, civil liberties and constitutional protections of people residing in the State of Hawaii."

The resolution passed by the Hawaii House asks the state's Congressional delegation to "actively work for the repeal" of the PATRIOT Act and Homeland Security Act, and it asks the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to report to the legislature all actions under those laws in Hawaii. It also asks authorities to disclose the names and locations of any detainees held in the state or any state resident detained elsewhere as an "enemy combatant." The resolution before the state Senate is a watered down version of what the House approved.

Kavan Peterson is a staff writer at Stateline.org

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