Don't Tread on Montana

Just four days before FBI Director Robert Mueller and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez were urging the U.S. Senate to renew and possibly strengthen expiring portions of the USA PATRIOT ACT on Tuesday, April 5, the Montana Legislature was sending an entirely different message to the federal government: Enough already.

Montana opposition to the Patriot Act began shortly after the Act was passed in the wake of 9/11. Critics of the Act have contended that their opposition is driven by support for the Bill of Rights and Americans' civil liberties, not partisan politics. That message has apparently resonated with Montana's legislature, which has just passed the most strongly-worded statewide anti-Patriot Act resolution of any state so far by an overwhelming margin of 40-10 in the Montana Senate and 87-12 in the state House.

The resolution, SJ 19, was carried in the House by a conservative, Rep. Rick Maedje, a Republican from Fortine, Mont. and was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jim Elliot, a Democrat from Trout Creek.

Nationally, 372 cities and counties and five states have adopted anti-Patriot Act resolutions, including Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont-and now Montana. Legislators and activists in 14 additional states are currently working toward passing statewide resolutions, according to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

The Montana resolution states that the Patriot Act allows the federal government “to more liberally detain and investigate citizens and to engage in surveillance activities that may violate or offend the rights and liberties guaranteed by our state and federal constitutions.”

SJ 19 was drafted by Helena, Mont. resident Paul Edwards, a film and television writer whose credits include episodes of “Gunsmoke,” “Knight Rider” and “21 Jump Street,” and a political organizer who managed Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign in Montana.

Edwards says the bill was modeled after Alaska's version, but that Montana's resolution goes above and beyond predecessors by adding accountability measures “so that Montana officials will not be asked by the federal government to do things which are patently in opposition to our own constitution.”

The 1972 Montana State Constitution contains a “right to privacy” clause that has been interpreted as providing an added level of protection to that guaranteed by the federal Constitution.

Among SJ 19's provisions are the following: a general directive that the war on terrorism not be fought at the expense of essential civil rights and liberties granted under the U.S. Constitution; directives that local law agents not gather, record or share information that would violate constitutionally guaranteed civil rights or civil liberties; an instruction that schools let students know if their records have been obtained by law enforcement agents under the Patriot Act; an instruction for public libraries to post in a prominent place a notice indicating that book borrowing records may be seized by federal agents and that a librarian is prohibited from telling a library patron of such a seizure; a section requiring Montana's attorney general to periodically release data on how many arrests have been made and how much surveillance-of electronics, school records, library and bookstore records-has been conducted within the state under the Patriot Act; a provision requiring libraries to periodically destroy book borrowing records; a directive to ultimately allow the Patriot Act to expire and another to encourage the Montana congressional delegation to oppose the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, otherwise known as Patriot Act II.

“Most of our big cities have now passed these resolutions. Except for Billings, we've pretty much got them all,” Edwards says.

Local resolutions have been passed in Montana by Beaverhead County, Bozeman, Butte-Silver Bow, Dillon, Eureka, Helena, Lewis and Clark County, Missoula and Whitefish.

Because some provisions of the Patriot Act are subject to the sunset clauses that Mueller and Gonzalez are currently attempting to stave off, Edwards says he and other organizers thought the time was right to introduce a bill to the state legislature.

Describing his decision to sponsor the bill, Sen. Elliot quotes former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas verbatim: “As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances there is a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of the change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.” Elliot was surprised to find not only across-the-board support from fellow Democrats, but also from a majority of Montana's Republican lawmakers.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Elliot says. “Politics makes strange but good bedfellows.”

Edwards believes what little opposition there was came from “people whose loyalty to the Bush administration is so unswerving or blinding that they would actually countenance backing pieces of law which are demonstrably unconstitutional to protect the administration's position,” a stance that Edwards considers “un-American,” and one that he says he's glad doesn't appear to be the norm in a Montana political sphere he describes as better known for breeding independent thinkers than fierce partisans. One of the 12 Senate Republicans who broke ranks with the Bush administration party line to vote for the resolution was Sen. Jerry O'Neill, R-Columbia Falls, who says that parts of the Patriot Act -- such as allowing the FBI to share information with other agencies -- are good, but that parts of it are unconstitutional.

Though the resolution doesn't carry the force of law and merely states the Legislature's opinion to the federal government, O'Neill says that as more states join Montana and other resolution-passing states, “sooner or later, the federal government has to take notice, and it should make it easier for our congressmen in D.C. to have more to stand upon when they oppose parts of the Patriot Act.”

But how did a state that overwhelmingly voted for George W. Bush in 2004 wind up turning its collective back on a piece of legislation that the Bush administration has so adamantly defended?

It's simple, according to O'Neill: “Montana's Republicans value civil rights and freedom,” he says. “I'm glad to see Democrats do too, because it gives me more confidence in where our government is heading.”

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