US Voters in Several States Decide on Key Legal Issues

World | November 7, 2012, Wednesday // 00:47
US Voters in Several States Decide on Key Legal Issues: US Voters in Several States Decide on Key Legal Issues In addition to electing their President and members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Americans are voting on a number of key legal issues. Photo by EPA/BGNES

Voters in the US are voting on November 6 to elect the 45th president in one of the closest races in history with incumbent President, Democrat Barack Obama, and challenger, Republican Mitt Romney running neck and neck.

Along with the race for president, all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 Senate seats are being contested in Tuesday's election.  Analysts generally say Republicans will continue to hold their majority in the House, while the president's Democratic party could maintain their slim majority in the Senate.

The Republicans have majority in the current House of Representatives with 240 Republicans, 190 Democrats, 0 Independents and 5 vacancies. The Senate is currently composed of 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and 2 independents.

In addition to all of the above, voters is several States will make choices about some of the most important and contentious legal issues the country is facing.

Below is a list of some of the law-related election battles generated for The by Andrew Cohen.

Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and legal analyst for 60 Minutes. He is also chief analyst and legal editor for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the US leading legal analysts and commentators.

1. California and the death penalty. Proposition 34 would end the state's costly and inefficient experiment with capital punishment and transform all existing death penalties (725 in all) into life sentences without the possibility of parole. Passage would mean an annual savings to California taxpayers of approximately 0 million. The Los Angeles Times has endorsed the change and so have many legislators and law enforcement officials. There are national implications here, too. If the state with the largest death row in the nation turns away from capital punishment you can bet it won't be long before some federal judge, or Supreme Court justice, cites it as an "evolving standards of decency" under Eighth Amendment law.

2. Marijuana. Voters in six states will be voting on marijuana initiatives. In Arkansas and Massachusetts, voters will decide whether to legalize, regulate, and tax medical marijuana. In  Montana, voters will decide whether to repeal their 2004 medical-marijuana initiative. And in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, voters will decide whether to legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana. Of the latter contests, the Colorado measure, Amendment 64, appears to have the best chance of passage. None of these measures is technically legal under federal law but the Obama Administration went on the record recently, in a 60 Minutes segment, pledging not to harass individual users.

3. Same-Sex Marriage. Voters in three states** -- Maryland, Maine and Washington -- will vote on same-sex marriage initiatives. In Maine, the vote is to overturn or ratify a 2009 measure that outlawed same-sex marriage. In Maryland, the vote is to affirm or reject a new law permitting same-sex marriage. And in Washington, the vote is to endorse or preclude a similar new law. These measures are important in their own right, of course, but they also are vital for what ammunition they will give lawyers and the justices in Washington, who are about to confront the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.*

4. Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The most infamous lawman in America -- and longstanding sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona -- is heading toward yet another reelection victory. This despite a series of recent political scandals, costly litigation and allegations of fiscal mismanagement. Over at Mother Jones, Timothy Murphy offers up an instant classic on the race:

Arpaio, meanwhile, has conducted his campaign more or less the same way he's run the MCSO for 20 years -- occasionally absent, punctuated by frenzied bursts of activity, and an enormous appetite for spending money. He's refused Penzone's offer to debate. His campaign website is Spartan. His campaign's listed phone number is actually the number for an insurance company (the site is out of date), which in turn directs you to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which, finally, refers you to the Summit Group, a Phoenix consulting firm run by a longtime confidant, which Arpaio's campaign has paid .8 million over the last year. In one of his television spots (another attacked Penzone for a 2003 domestic complaint), Arpaio fidgets, unsmiling and uncomfortable, as his wife, Ava, explains why her husband shouldn't retire.

5. Judiciary. In four states closely aligned with Tea Party sentiment -- Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Florida-- conservative activists seek through ballot measures to limit judicial authority and independence through a series of partisan initiatives. The most blatant of these efforts is in Florida, where Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-sponsored group, is seeking to remove three justices of the Florida Supreme Court. Millions have been spent on that race alone. Follow William Raftery's Gavel To Gavel blog on election night if you want the play-by-play. Here is his list of all judiciary-related amendments.

6. Alabama segregation. For the second time in eight years, voters in Alabama will have an opportunity to delete from their state constitution an explicit reference to racial segregation in public schools. The language currently on the books, a vestige of the state's dubious history of interposition, states:

To avoid confusion and disorder and to promote effective and economical planning for education, the legislature may authorize the parents or guardians of minors, who desire that such minors shall attend schools provided for their own race, to make election to that end, such election to be effective for such period and to such extent as the legislature may provide.

It seems simple. But it's not. Many Democrats and school administrators believe the initiative would make matters worse. And speaking of which, Alabama voters will get a chance again on Tuesday to choose or reject for the judiciary Roy Moore, the infamous former state supreme court justice who once defied a federal court order forcing him to remove the Ten Commandments monument he had ordered built at the state's supreme court.

7. Abortion. In Florida, voters will confront Amendment 6, a measure that seeks to limit interpretation of the privacy rights contained in the state's constitution. In Montana, voters face LR-120, which involves parental-notification rules. In Oklahoma, a "personhood" measure that would have criminalized abortion was rejected as unconstitutional by the state's supreme court before it could make it onto the ballot. In case you were wondering, following a campaign where abortion and reproductive rights were issues, this isn't much different than 2010, when there were also three similar measures (in Alaska, Colorado, and Missouri).

8. Health Care. Silly you, you thought the Supreme Court's decision in June to uphold the Affordable Care Act meant the end of legal challenges to the federal health care law. Wrong. New litigation has been filed. And voters in five states -- Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming -- will have the opportunity on Tuesday to weigh in with their views of the obligations contained in the Care Act. The gist of each of these measures is made clear in the simple language of Wyoming's proposed Amendment A:

The adoption of this amendment will provide that the right to make health care decisions is reserved to the citizens of the state of Wyoming. It permits any person to pay and any health care provider to receive direct payment for services

9. Three-strikes. Back to California for Proposition 36, which would reduce the scope of the state's notorious three-strikes law in an effort to clear overcrowded prisons there of more non-violent offenders. Like Proposition 34, the popularity of this initiative is owed perhaps as much to the budget savings the state would see from it as it is from the fact that the existing "three-strikes" law has resulted in terrible injustice to some Californians. If it passes -- and it was up in the polls the last time I checked -- it will be the clearest signal yet that states are serious about adjusting their views of the harsh costs of our prison society.

10. Death with dignity. Voters in Massachusetts face Question 2, which upon approval would mean a new state law "allowing a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally-ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that person's life." The measure has been consistently in front in polling although its margin has slipped in the past few weeks. It's an important moment for supporters of a "right to die." It's been long enough for them to have comforting research on how Oregon's landmark law has worked. But they've struggled to translate that information into legislative success.

Guns are on the ballot only in Louisiana. Affirmative action is on the ballot only in Oklahoma.

*In Iowa, it's a retention year for Justice David Wiggins, the lone jurist remaining from the 2010 voter purge that kicked three Iowa Supreme Court justices off the bench for a ruling they wrote which recognized same-sex marriage. The beneficiary of good timing more than anything else, it appears that Justice Wiggins may survive a coordinated effort this year to oust him.

** Four states! I forgot to include Minnesota's Amendment One, which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

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Tags: Democrat, Republican, House of Representatives, Senate, legal issues, death penalty, marijuana, same-sex marriage, judiciary, segregation, abortion, health care, three-strikes, Death with dignity, guns, affirmative action
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