The Arc on Commutation for Death Row Inmate Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz In the Final Days of Obama’s Presidency

Washington, DC – The Arc commends President Obama for commuting Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz’s sentence from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mr. Ortiz’s diagnosis of intellectual disability should have ruled out the death penalty per a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia. While the Court’s prohibition of the execution of defendants with intellectual disability could not be clearer, many states continue to define intellectual disability in a manner that significantly deviates from clinical standards, resulting in inconsistent application of Atkins and a miscarriage of justice for many defendants.

“With this decision, President Obama not only ensured justice for an individual with intellectual disability, he also affirmed the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida rulings. We thank him for ensuring that justice was finally served in this case.

“Sadly, this is one of many cases where an individual with intellectual disability was wrongly being sentenced to death despite the protections promised by the Supreme Court.  We have much work to do to ensure access to justice is accessible for all citizens. The Arc remains committed to ensuring the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Marty Ford, The Arc’s Senior Executive Officer of Public Policy.

The Arc has been involved in this case for years, having filed two amicus briefs in support of Mr. Ortiz, the first in 2010 in support of his appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the second in 2015 in support of his petition for writ of certiorari (request for review of the lower court’s decision) before the United States Supreme Court. Most recently, in December 2016, The Arc submitted a clemency letter to President Obama requesting the commutation of Mr. Ortiz’s sentence.

“In this case, the pursuit of justice was a team effort, and The Arc was a leading player.  At every step of the way, from the circuit court to the Supreme Court, The Arc had Mr. Ortiz’s back, pitching in to draft a key amicus brief and fighting for his rights in support of our legal team. This is the right decision not only for Mr. Ortiz, but for the future of legal advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Amy Gershenfeld Donnella, attorney for Mr. Ortiz.

Read more about this case on The Arc’s blog.

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

Justice For Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz In the Final Days of a Presidency

By Shira Wakschlag | Director, Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel for The Arc

“In this case, the pursuit of justice was a team effort, and The Arc was a leading player. At every step of the way, from the circuit court to the Supreme Court, The Arc had Mr. Ortiz’s back, pitching in to draft a key amicus brief and fighting for his rights in support of our legal team. This is a win for not only Mr. Ortiz, but for the future of legal advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Amy Gershenfeld Donnella, attorney for Mr. Ortiz.

The Arc is thrilled to announce that President Obama has commuted the sentence of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz—an individual with intellectual disability—from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Arc has been involved in this case for years, having filed two amicus briefs in support of Mr. Ortiz, the first in 2010 in support of his appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the second in 2015 in support of his petition for writ of certiorari (request for review of the lower court’s decision) before the United States Supreme Court. Most recently, in December 2016, The Arc submitted a clemency letter to President Obama requesting the commutation of Mr. Ortiz’s sentence.

In the brief before the U.S. Supreme Court, The Arc argued that:

In implementing this Court’s decisions in Atkins and Hall, both judges and clinicians must carefully evaluate whether a defendant satisfies the clinical definition of intellectual disability according to the consensus of the scientific community…In finding that Mr. Ortiz is not an individual with intellectual disability, the district court mistakenly relied on irrelevant testimony regarding Mr. Ortiz’s adaptive strengths rather than relevant testimony regarding his adaptive deficits, thereby rejecting the scientific community’s well-established guidelines governing intellectual disability. Broad acceptance of the district court’s mistaken reasoning would deprive individuals with intellectual disability of the protections and supports to which they are entitled under state and federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

This is a major victory in protecting the rights of individuals with intellectual disability in the criminal justice system and in fulfilling the promise of Hall v. Florida and Atkins v. Virginia. In Atkins, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with intellectual disability and banned their execution as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In its more recent 2014 Hall decision, the Court reinforced its earlier decision that people with intellectual disability not be executed, requiring that consideration of evidence beyond IQ tests be taken into account when determining intellectual disability. While the Court’s prohibition of the execution of defendants with intellectual disability could not be clearer, many states continue to define intellectual disability in a manner that significantly deviates from clinical standards, resulting in inconsistent application of Hall and Atkins and a miscarriage of justice for many defendants.

The Arc has deep sympathy for the family and friends of the victim in this case, and we support appropriate punishment of all responsible parties. The Arc does not seek to eliminate punishment of Mr. Ortiz or others with disabilities, but rather, to ensure that justice is served and the rights of all parties are protected. The Arc is committed to seeking lawful outcomes for people with intellectual disability and will continue working to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on this issue are abided by in jurisdictions across the country.

Learn more about The Arc’s legal advocacy work on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The Arc Applauds Appointment of Disability Champion Tom Perez as U.S. Secretary of Labor

Washington, DC – The Arc, the largest civil rights organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), applauds President Obama’s nomination of Tom Perez, the current head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, as the next U.S. Secretary of Labor.

“Tom Perez has been a champion for people with disabilities throughout his career, and we are pleased that he has been nominated for a post that plays a critical role in employment for people whom The Arc represents.  We are thrilled that he steps into this important position with a wide breadth of knowledge regarding people with I/DD, and we look forward to his confirmation and to working with him in his new role,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

In 2012, The Arc and the five other disability organizations that host the annual Disability Policy Seminar in Washington, DC presented Perez with their prestigious Leadership in Disability Policy Award for his aggressive enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s “integration mandate” and the Olmstead decision.  Just since 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has been involved in several cases that will result in major transformations of states’ delivery of long term services and supports to people with disabilities.  In each of these cases, people with disabilities were living in segregated settings or at risk of being institutionalized while they could be living in more integrated community settings.  Due to Perez’s tireless work, thousands of people with disabilities will be able to leave institutional settings or avoid ever having to enter an institution, and will be able to participate more fully in their communities.

“Tom Perez has set a high bar at the Department of Justice for the enforcement of the laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities to be a part of their community.  We appreciate his tremendous efforts and look forward to working with him at the Department of Labor to further the employment of people with disabilities,” said Berns.

The Arc at the Table with President Obama to Discuss Tax Cuts for the Middle Class, Budget and Medicaid

Washington, DC– Today, The Arc’s CEO Peter Berns participated in a small meeting with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior economic advisors about the President’s goal to stop middle class tax increases and to raise revenues to help invest in the nation and reduce the deficit.  The discussion centered on the urgency of passing a plan to avert raising taxes on the middle class and to raise revenues to finance the federal government without allowing drastic cuts to programs that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and other vulnerable groups rely on, like education, housing and employment.  These cuts are scheduled to take place on January 1, 2013, along with the expiration of a variety of tax provisions.  Without a deal this year, The Arc is very concerned about the future of Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, along with Social Security and Medicare.

“I think everyone agrees that raising taxes on the middle class will hurt families, and that it would be particularly troubling to those that have a loved one with I/DD.  These families report that they already don’t have the money they need for the care and support their loved ones need to live a decent life in the community. What will they do if they suddenly have a bigger tax bill come January 1st?”  Berns said.

“We welcome the President’s framework for generating revenue and protecting low income families,” Berns added.  “Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and Supplemental Security Income, which are lifeline programs for people with disabilities, should not be at risk in these budget negotiations.  This approach from President Obama would help keep our nation’s commitment to people with disabilities.”

The Arc has been on the front lines of the recent budget battles to protect Medicaid, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicare from cuts.  As the nation faces this January 1 deadline, known as the “fiscal cliff”, The Arc is urging Congress to restore the scheduled cuts in non-defense discretionary programs and find other ways – specifically through increasing revenues as included in President Obama’s plan – to move the nation forward.  This effort is critical to protecting the people that rely on Medicaid, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicare from losing these critical services and supports.

“We can’t afford to not protect Medicaid.  Medicaid is the lifeline keeping people with disabilities from unfathomable alternatives – like being institutionalized and losing their independence – and preserving all that we have worked for as a nation over the last 60 years to bring people with disabilities out of the shadows and into society,” said Berns.

Berns was joined at the White House by Sister Simone Campbell, NETWORK, Chad Griffin, Human Rights Campaign, Wade Henderson, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Deepa Iyer, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, Ben Jealous, NAACP, Marc Morial, National Urban League, Janet Murguia, National Council of La Raza, Barry Rand, AARP, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, MomsRising.org, Rev. Al Sharpton, National Action Network, Aaron Smith, Young Invincibles, and Rev. Jim Wallis, Sojourners.

The Arc’s Peter V. Berns on the White House Blog

One thing I have learned in my 3 ½ years as CEO of The Arc is that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), their parents, siblings and family members are a passionate lot.   So when the White House invited us to bring in 150 of The Arc’s chapter leaders, including people with I/DD, I knew we would have an enthusiastic response.  Yet little did I expect the extraordinary energy that erupted when President Obama entered the room to speak to the group.  Our leaders from throughout the country were quick to their feet with a rousing welcome, rising again when the President concluded his remarks telling the disability community “I’ve got your back.”

– The Arc’s CEO Peter Berns pens a guest post for the The White House blog with thoughts on The Arc’s White House visit during the Community Leaders Briefing (which included a surprise visit from President Barack Obama).

In case you missed President’s Obama’s remarks, you can view them below:

The Arc Brings Issues Facing People with Disabilities to the White House, President Obama Tells Disability Community “I’ve Got Your Back”

Washington, DC – Today, 150 leaders of The Arc from across the country met with a variety of senior White House officials at a Community Leaders Briefing to ask questions and discuss issues facing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). The session, held just for The Arc, included an unannounced visit from President Barack Obama. The President spoke of his commitment to people with disabilities saying, “I’ve got your back.”

This surprise appearance by the President of the United States was the highlight of the day for many attendees, along with the opportunity to interact with high level government officials about how they can support people with I/DD to live in the community. Over the course of the day, leaders of chapters of The Arc were briefed on topics ranging from Medicaid to education to community living and employment for people with I/DD. Many of the speakers, including President Obama, referenced the impact advocates made during budget negotiations to protect Medicaid, and encouraged The Arc and others to continue these efforts.

Another unannounced speaker was White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who reiterated the President’s opposition to turning Medicaid into a block grant. He also took questions from the audience, including Barbara Coppens, a member of the national board of directors of The Arc and a self-advocate who took the opportunity to speak about the importance of self-advocacy by people with disabilities.

“I tell other self-advocates – you’ve got to get out there and advocate for yourself because you can’t rely on other people to make change for you,” said Coppens to Chief of Staff Jack Lew.

The day was organized by Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy, who kicked off the agenda by welcoming guests and speaking about employment issues. The Arc heard from Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who spoke of their commitment to providing services and supports to all in need. Other speakers included Carol Galante, Acting Assistant Secretary – Federal Housing Administration Commissioner, Department of Housing and Urban Development; Cindy Mann, Deputy Administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Robert Gordon, Executive Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget; and Tom Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Department of Justice.

Assistant Attorney General Perez discussed the recent Department of Justice settlement with the Commonwealth of Virginia regarding people with I/DD who live in any of its five institutions who could live in the community. He spoke about the bipartisan work going on across the country to implement the Olmstead decision, which states that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), unnecessarily institutionalizing a person with a disability who, with proper support, is capable of and who wants to live in the community can amount to discrimination.

After a tour of the East Wing of the White House, advocates from The Arc took part in policy breakout sessions that allowed for more detailed discussions on certain issue areas, like community living, family caregiving, education, and Medicaid. The purpose of these briefings was to allow White House and administration officials to engage in a dialogue with leaders of The Arc about how government policies affect the lives of people with I/DD and impact their ability to live full, independent lives. Given the Department of Education’s announcement yesterday to allow ten states waivers from some of the No Child Left Behind law requirements, the education session with Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, was incredibly timely, as were meetings with representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Administration on Aging, and the White House Domestic Policy Council.

“This unique, face-to-face opportunity to speak directly to people in positions to make change from within the government allowed leaders of The Arc to make the voices of the millions of people with I/DD heard at the White House. Our network seized on this opportunity, and we left the White House feeling a sense of accomplishment and inspiration for continued advocacy that we will take back to our communities to help grow our movement,” said Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc.

White House Community Leaders Briefing Gallery

A collection of photos from The Arc, taken at the White House for the Community Leaders Briefing February 10, 2012.

Tune in to see The Arc at the White House!

Television image

Tomorrow, 150 leaders of The Arc from across the country will attend a White House Community Leaders Briefing just for The Arc. Over the course of the day, leaders of chapters of The Arc , including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), will be briefed by high level White House and Administration officials on topics ranging from Medicaid to education to community living for people with I/DD, and have the chance to engage with and ask questions of these officials.

You are invited to tune in online. The opening session of the day will be streamed live, courtesy of The White House live feed at www.whitehouse.gov/live from 8:00 to 11:00 AM ET. Participants will also be live-tweeting from the event so feel free to join in by following the #AtTheWH hashtag on Twitter.

You can also share your thoughts by tweeting at @TheArcUS or leaving a comment on our Facebook page.

We hope you are able to tune in and watch this exciting opportunity for The Arc!

What Did Obama Say About the Budget Battle?

You may have read our CEO Peter V. Berns’ reaction to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday about the budget battle being waged at the Federal level. You know that we at The Arc are unwavering in our conviction that we must preserve the social safety net for the most vulnerable Americans, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We simply can’t balance the budget on the backs of individuals and families who need our support to meet the most basic needs of medical care, housing, employment and education opportunities, much less to meet their expectations that they be fully included and able to participate in their communities and in society. Now, you might want to read the full text of the President’s speech on the matter and judge for yourself where he falls on the subject. Tell us what you think. Is the President pursing the right path? Will he succeed against the opposition he faces in Congress?