As D.C. Activists Enter Second Day Of Trial, Abortion Funding Is Again Key Issue (UPDATED)
WASHINGTON -- The trial of eight District of Columbia activists arrested while protesting congressional restrictions on the District's use of funds on abortion is continuing Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court. But the defendants' lawyer said that his group had already won at least one victory in the courtroom.
D.C. shadow Senator Paul Strauss, who is representing the eight activists, said he expects the trial to wrap up Wednesday, though he said he isn't sure whether the judge will deliver a verdict then or give his ruling at a later date.
But either way, the trial is bringing attention to D.C.'s lack of budget autonomy and "Congress' mistreatment of the District," Strauss, a long-time proponent of D.C. voting rights, emphasized.
"To the extent we're using this process to raise awareness, we're encouraged by the turnout, support and interest in the citizens that are following this trial," Strauss said. "We're treating D.C.'s women like a bargaining chip. That's pretty outrageous."
On Tuesday, the first day of the trial, prosecutors finished presenting their cases against the demonstrators. All eight were initially charged with two misdemeanor counts, but the charge of blocking traffic was dropped against D.C. shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown (D), one of the protesters, by the end of the day.
The eight activists on trial are among some 44 arrested last April while protesting federal budget deal, which banned the District from using its own funds to pay for abortions. Many in D.C. saw that move as a prime example of why D.C. should have more budget autonomy. Currently, the D.C. government needs congressional and presidential approval to enact its budget.
There's some irony in the timing of the trial: House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) drafted a new proposal Tuesday that would grant D.C.'s government more budget autonomy. But that proposal would again restrict D.C.'s ability to use funds to pay for abortions.
At the trial on Tuesday, D.C. House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) testified on the defendants' behalf, despite objections from the prosecutors.
Strauss told HuffPost that Norton's testimony about the federal budget deal helped the court understand "why D.C. residents were so unusually upset that day."
On Wednesday, more defense witnesses will take the stand. Strauss said their legal strategy will focus on the idea that the protesters were, at the time of their arrest, engaged in activity protected by the First Amendment.
"They were within their rights," Strauss said. "Plenty of people in the exercise of their First Amendment rights demonstrate in the streets. I happen to agree with the causes that these protesters stand for. But anybody that lives in the District of Columbia has seen protesters marching through streets. It's not illegal to demonstrate in the streets in the District of Columbia or the United States."
In a media release, Norton credited the April protests with the Senate's passage of a D.C. budget for fiscal year 2012 that does not restrict the District's spending of funds on abortion.
In another release, Norton said she would oppose Issa's new D.C. budget bill if it were introduced because of the provisions limiting the District's ability to pay for abortions:
"We recognize that the abortion provision is what Chairman Issa believed would be necessary to get the bill passed in the House. But the views of others should not prevail over the views of our own residents. Our opposition to the provision to permanently prohibit the District from spending its local funds on abortion services for low-income women is as strong as the views of those outside our city who support it. "
UPDATE, 4:39 p.m.: Antonette Russell (@MrsAntonette) is reporting via Twitter that some verdicts are in:
Russell reports that Deangelo B. Scott, Jack Evans and Lawrence Harris will each pay $100.
UPDATE, 4:53 p.m.: Martin Austermuhle from DCist reports seven guilty, one acquitted.
Flickr photo of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton at a 2011 Flag Day celebration by tedeytan.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the eight activists are among some 70 arrested last April. The correct number of activists is 44.
RELATED VIDEO: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in July 2011, on D.C. budget authority during the debt ceiling debate.