Lawyers for juveniles, representation for noncitizens debated; Gale says Krist can run as Democrat

Feb. 27, 2018, 5:43 a.m. ·

Sen. John Murante discusses redistricting (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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In the Nebraska Legislature Tuesday, senators debated requiring lawyers for juveniles, and held a hearing on excluding noncitizens from redistricting decisions. And the secretary of state rejected a challenge to Senator Bob Krist’s candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Two years ago, Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks wanted to require lawyers be appointed to represent juveniles in court statewide. But in the face of opposition, she compromised on having the requirement apply only to the states three most populous counties: Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy.

Now, she is again trying to require it statewide. To bolster her argument, Pansing Brooks read from an article in the Grand Island Independent the words of a woman who’d been involved in two court cases – one with a lawyer, one without – when she was a juvenile. “’When I did not have an attorney I was scared and nervous. I was in a room of adults who were staring at me and who expected me to understand everything that was being spoken, even when I did not. I didn’t think my voice would make a difference. In comparison, having an attorney was so beneficial in my other case. Having her on my side I knew my voice was being heard and she communicated with me about all aspects of my case,’” Pansing Brooks read.

Leading the opposition to the proposal, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte suggested it would put Nebraska out of step with its neighbors. “Of the surrounding states, Kansas has something similar to this. Colorado does not, Wyoming does not, South Dakota does not, Iowa does not, Missouri does not,” Groene said.

And Sen. John Lowe of Kearney suggested having one policy may not suit the entire state. “This is law that was put into effect for Omaha and Lincoln to help out the metropolitan areas. And I don’t know if western Nebraska needs it,” Lowe said. “Western Nebraska is a little bit different than the metropolitan areas. We still deem family values as very important. And part of that is allowing the family to make the decision for its child,” he said.

Under both existing law and the proposed change, juveniles or their parents are entitled to request counsel. The difference is currently, the judge informs them of that right at their first court appearance; under the proposed change, counsel would be appointed immediately when the juvenile is charged. The juvenile or the parents could then request the counsel continue, or not, at the first court hearing.

The Legislature adjourned before reaching a first round vote on the bill. Pansing Brooks says she has enough votes to break a filibuster if necessary. That could be tried after another hour and a half of debate.

Tuesday afternoon, the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on a proposal by Sen. John Murante to count only citizens for purposes of redrawing legislative and other state political districts. The proposal would not apply to congressional districts.

Murante said his goal is to follow the Nebraska Constitution, which requires redistricting to be based on, quote, the population excluding aliens, as shown by the next preceding federal census. Murante said that was done until the census stopped asking questions about citizenship in the 1960s. “Since that time we have simply ignored this provision in our state constitution. In my view that is not a serious policy consideration; I believe we cannot simply take a provision of our constitution and ignore it. And today we have the means to effectuate this provision,” he said.

Murante would do that by subtracting the census estimate of non-citizens in each district from the most recent census. Figures supplied by his office show that could dramatically affect some districts in the state, while leaving others relatively unchanged.

For example, in largely Hispanic South Omaha’s legislative district 7, more than 8,000 of the district’s nearly 40,000 people would not be counted for purposes of representation. By contrast, in central Nebraska’s largely rural 41st District, only an estimated 218 people of the nearly 38,000 there would not be counted. The districts would have to be redrawn to be within 10 percent of each other in population.

To see citizen/noncitizen estimates by legislative district and county, click here.

Source: Office of Sen. John Murante

Gabriela Pedroza of the Heartland Workers Center was among those who spoke against the proposal. “I’m not sure about you, but it seems to me this bill discriminates against a certain group of people – people who have come to this country to seek a better life. Who are paying taxes, buying homes and cars, opening businesses and working, all with the goal of making a better life for themselves and their family,” she said. “Just because they cannot vote does not mean that people should be excluded from representation.”

The committee took no immediate action, but Murante, its chairman, has named the bill his personal priority, increasing the chances it will be debated by the full Legislature.

Also Tuesday, Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale rejected a challenge to Sen. Bob Krist’s candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. The issue was raised by the Nebraska Republican Party, which Krist left to challenge Gov. Pete Ricketts, and a formal objection was filed by Tyler Davis, one of Krist’s two opponents for the Democratic nomination.

To read Secretary Gale's decision, click here.

Davis argued Krist missed a deadline last December to change parties to run for the nomination. But Gale said Krist had been registered nonpartisan at the time, so he was not changing parties, but rather, choosing one.

Krist said the decision would let voters decide who was the best candidate to challenge Ricketts in the fall, and Nebraska Democratic Chair Jane Kleeb said the party was proud to have Krist on the ballot. Davis’ attorney Joe Wilkens said Gale’s decision was one step in a process that could ultimately wind up being decided in court.