Durbin under fire for ‘Stand Your Ground’ inquiries

Chuck Ross | Reporter

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin is facing a firestorm of criticism after sending letters to hundreds of organizations trying to find out the depth of their relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The senator’s interest in ALEC is based on the stand your ground legislation that has become a focal point for liberal activists and lawmakers after the George Zimmerman trial in Florida. But his hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, editorialized that the inquiries looked like “Durbin’s enemies list.”

In the August 6 letter sent to think tanks and corporations, Durbin wrote, “I am seeking clarification whether organizations that have funded ALEC’s operations in the past currently support ALEC and the model ‘stand your ground’ legislation.”

ALEC is a free-market organization of state legislators, businesses, and think tanks which has also focused on self-defense and gun rights legislation.

Durbin will convene the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights in September to investigate the law.  Stand Your Ground, which removes the duty to retreat in self-defense claims, was cited in the national discussion of the death of Trayvon Martin.

Initially, it was believed that Zimmerman would cite the Florida law — implemented in 2005 — in his self-defense claim in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.  But the “stand your ground” law only came into play when the judge in the case included the relevant portions of the law in jury instructions. Zimmerman and his lawyers waived his right to a “stand your ground” hearing and instead relied on a classic self-defense claim.

Martin’s family and other activists have been focusing heavily on overturning the law throughout the country.  Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton said in a speech “We have to change the law so that this doesn’t happen to someone else’s child.”

As Durbin noted in his letter, ALEC released a statement last year saying that it was eliminating the task force that had approved “stand your ground” but that the organization had never changed its stance on the law.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz released a statement today blasting Durbin’s inquiry:

“Senator Durbin’s request for ALEC supporters to announce an official position on gun laws in advance of a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing is inappropriate, and I encourage recipients not to respond,” Cruz said. “While Senator Durbin is free to make any inquiry he likes, in my view this effort represents an inappropriate governmental intrusion into the personal and political views of American citizens and businesses.”

“In light of the current IRS targeting scandal, this action raises concerns about retaliation against those who may disagree with the Chairman and the Obama Administration,” Cruz added.

ALEC adopted “stand your ground” as its model legislation in August 2005 and became the poster-child for the law.  Then-governor Jeb Bush signed “stand your ground” into law in Florida several months later.  Besides Florida, twenty-one other states have “stand your ground” statutes.

The Cato Institute was among those receiving a letter from Durbin, but the think tank’s president John Allison called the letter a “blatant violation of our First Amendment rights.”

“Your letter of August 6, 2013 is an obvious effort to intimidate those organizations and individuals who may have been involved in any way with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),” wrote Allison in a response to Durbin.

Some newspapers have expressed outrage at what they see as the political exploitation of Martin’s shooting death.

“The campaign to suppress political speech has found its next tactic, using outrage over Trayvon Martin’s killing in Florida as a hammer,” read a Wall Street Journal editorial. “Mr. Durbin knows that if he can drive a wedge between ALEC and its corporate donors, it will help cripple the group’s influence on issues like tax policy and education and remove a significant voice for conservative reform in the states, including Illinois.”

Franklin Center president Jason Stverak, whose website is Watchdog.org, expressed frustration at Durbin’s move.  “What is it he thinks he’s doing here?  Does he think he has the authority to oversee state legislatures?” he asked. “Is it his job to tell citizens and groups what sort of policies they may advocate? What about tracking down all the members of that group?

ALEC national chairman John Piscopo released a statement responding to Durbin’s request.  “ALEC is addressing its response for this hearing and, like every other individual and group, will insist upon our First Amendment right to free speech and free association.”

Durbin spokesman Max Gleischman explained his boss’s intent, telling The Chicago Tribune that the Senator wanted “to find out if groups that support (ALEC) financially agree with (ALEC’s) position on ‘stand your ground’ laws. Simple as that.”

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