Justic watch: Keeping an eye on the law

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A field of their own

BEND, ORE. - The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Nov. 20 the settlement of a groundbreaking lawsuit that allows a girls' community softball team to have equal access to city playing fields. The agreement will provide a dedicated playing field for senior girls' softball in the city's main outdoor sports complex, and enable the girls' league to host at least two tournaments annually.

"We are delighted that girls in Grants Pass will now have equal athletic opportunities, and we hope that other cities and towns across the country will follow this example," said Emily Martin, a staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project.

The Oregon lawsuit, Bellum v. Grants Pass, was filed by the ACLU in April 2002 on behalf of a group of girls age 8-18 who compete in the Amateur Softball Association's Grants Pass Blaze softball league. The city had dedicated two high-quality fields to the exclusive use of two boys' baseball leagues, forcing the girls of the Blaze league to share remaining playing fields with all the teams in the city's Little League, as well as with the local high school's varsity softball teams and community adult leagues.

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The ACLU lawsuit charged that the city's athletic policy violated the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, as well as a state constitutional guarantee of gender equality and the state public accommodations law. The city denied it discriminated and the case was settled prior to any court determination.

Under the terms of the settlement, the city will improve the girls' playing field and install new fencing, additional seating, a batting cage with storage, bullpens, and other facilities available on the boy's diamonds. These improvements will make it possible for the girls to raise funds for equipment and trips by selling advertising on field fences and through concession-stand sales.

The Bend lawsuit was part of an ACLU initiative to extend gender equity in sports from high schools and colleges to municipalities, says Ms. Martin. "In recent decades, enforcement of federal law has increased equity for female athletes in the context of school athletic programs," she adds.

"But there are still sharp disparities in community sports programs across the country."

Illinois's death-penalty law altered

SPRINGFIELD, ILL. - Nearly four years after the release of several wrongly condemned prisoners led to a moratorium on executions, Illinois lawmakers overhauled the state's death-penalty system last week.

The state House, in a 115-0 vote, approved a series of changes to a system that led to the wrongful conviction of at least 17 men.

The action, an override of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's veto, makes the measure law immediately.

Among other things, the legislation gives the Illinois Supreme Court greater power to throw out unjust verdicts, offers defendants more access to evidence, and bars the death penalty in cases that depend on a single witness. It also bars the execution of the mentally impaired, bringing the state in line with last year's US Supreme Court ruling.

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