Waldlaw Blog

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sometimes All It Takes is a Little Human Decency

I just came across a wonderful decision from the United States District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania. Since most of you would otherwise never see this decision, I thought I'd share. First, by way of editorial comment: The United States federal courts are generally remarkably conservative on "social" issues, what with only 8 years of Democrats controlling the White House in the past 26 years. (In case you weren't aware, it is our President who is charged with filling vacancies in the federal courts.) And then there's Pennsylvania, hardly a den of radicalism.... So it was a very pleasant surprise to read a recent decision from the federal district court in Pennsylvania where the court, quite simply, got it right. The case has a rather inauspicious start, involving a gay male couple -- Steven Roberts and Daniel Mangini -- who were sentenced to prison for conspiracy to possess methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. Mangini was sentenced to 18 months in prison; Roberts got 30 months. Both men were subject to 5 years of "supervised release" (i.e. probation/parole) upon release from prison. When Mangini got out of prison, he went to live with Roberts's uncle. When Roberts got out, he requested permission to move in with his uncle as well. Now here's the catch: it is a standard condition of federal probation that probationers cannot fraternize with convicted felons without permission from the Probation Office. Roberts and Mangini -- who had been together as a couple for almost 20 years at this point -- requested such permission, but were denied on the grounds that they were neither relatives nor spouses. (Remember, this is a federal regulation we're dealing with here, so it's the federal government's definition of "spouse" that controls, not that Pennsylvania's definition of "spouse" is any better!) All efforts to convince their probation officer to change his mind failed, and the two men were forced to live apart. Further, they were not allowed to have any contact with each other (again a standard condition of probation). What this meant was that their families (including an adult daughter whom they had raised together) had to choose which of them to invite to any family event, but could never be with both of them together. It also meant that each of them was denied the companionship of his life partner during a difficult period when each was struggling mightily (and, apparently, successfully) against meth addiction and one -- Mangini -- was also fighting AIDS. Ultimately, they sued (that's how we get a decision from the district court), advising the court that: "From the moment of their arrest, each has planned and worked toward the time when they can be reunited. Both men acknowledge that their relationship suffered from their pre-incarceration drug use and each has committed himself to recovery from addiction and the rebuilding of their relationship without that type of destructive influence. Both are well aware that this rebuilding will take time and talking and care, in order to ensure that their future is not only loving but also healthy and long-lasting." And here is the federal court's description of their partnership: "Prior to their arrest at the end of 2003, Defendants lived together in a committed relationship for 18 years. They made a home together and built a life together. They supported one another financially, sharing a joint bank account. They also supported one another emotionally, each caring for the other when he was sick, celebrating successes and sharing sorrows. They considered, and still consider, themselves to be spouses. "Defendants were in every way a family. They even raised a child together, as Defendant Roberts’s niece was placed with them as a foster child by the City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services. The relationship between them was and remains the most significant in each of their lives." The court noted that: "The separation imposed [by the Probation Office] is particularly harsh in light of the fact that Defendant Mangini is fighting AIDS. Defendant Mangini is forbidden from seeing or even speaking with the person who has been more important to him than anyone else; the emotional and psychological effect of this separation undermines his physical health and causes him great distress. Defendant Roberts wants to be able to provide comfort and support to the man with whom he shared most of his life, but is forbidden from contacting Defendant Mangini while knowing that he is facing the most difficult challenge of his life. Defendant Mangini’s doctor has advised him to avoid unnecessary stress, yet the separation from Defendant Roberts enhances his stress. Defendant Roberts will be on supervised release until June 2011, and he dreads the thought that Defendant Mangini could die of AIDS before then, without the two having been allowed to resume their relationship." The court went on to hold that denying the two men the right to be together violated their "rights of intimate association and equal protection, which are protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.... Given the undisputed evidence that Defendants were committed life partners for 18 years before their convictions and continue to be devoted to one another, Defendants have a constitutionally protected liberty interest in their intimate relationship with each other." Effective July 31, 2007, the court has granted Roberts and Mangini the right to call each other, e-mail each other, and be together as much as they want to be including living together if that is their choice. I wish them both long life and happiness. With all the very public political battles being waged right now over the big issues of our time, sometimes it is the small cases like this -- where two regular, flawed people just want the right to live their lives with dignity and love -- that have the biggest impact on history.

2 Comments:

  • Deborah: As one of Dan and Steven's attorneys in Philadelphia I thank you for commenting favorably on our wonderful victory. One correction to your otherwise excellent summary: Judge Katz ordered the Probation Office to allow them to associate and communicate freely in every way *short of* living together again right away. In fact, we hadn't asked for that at this point since, as Dan explained, after being forced to separate for over 3 years, they clearly needed to get to know each other again before moving in together. The judge didn't rule it out by any means, but did say that adopting a new residence (i.e., moving in together) would require a separate grant of permission. You will also be interested to see a lovely human interest profile of them as a couple -- including a very winsome photo -- on the front page of today's Philadelphia Inquirer: at this link.

    By Blogger Peter G, at 8:18 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Addiction-Rehab, at 11:10 AM  

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