As Governor, Presidential Candidate Christie Earned Low Marks

June 30, 2015
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

ACLU-NJ Report Card Reflects Poor Performance in First Term

NEWARK – As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to announce his candidacy today for president of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) reissued its report card on his first term in office.

Christie earned a grade of D+ for his record on civil liberties and civil rights. Now into his second term, Christie not only continues his poor performance, but raises new concerns about his record on key matters of constitutional rights.

“As Americans begin to consider candidates for the presidency, it is vitally important that they are informed about their candidates’ records on constitutional rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We hope that this guide will help voters become more informed about Governor Christie’s stance on key civil liberties and civil rights issues.”

The ACLU-NJ report card graded Christie on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties matters: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice.

“Governor Christie’s record on civil liberties and civil rights has been a poor one,” said Ofer. “Some of his most frustrating moments have been those times when he paid lip service to the protection of rights but failed to back up words with actions. For gay and lesbian New Jerseyans seeking to marry, sick patients in need of medical marijuana, or New Jerseyans seeking to learn basic information about their state government, the Christie administration has been a failure.”

Christie’s lowest grades were in the areas of transparency, separation of church and state, and separation of powers. The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion. Following are some highlights (and lowlights).

  • Freedom of religion: Christie earned a solid B, his highest mark, particularly for his work to protect Muslim New Jerseyans from discrimination.
  • State involvement in religion: On the other end of the religion spectrum, Christie earned an F for giving away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions that train clergy members.
  • Transparency: Christie earned a solid F for his record on transparency, despite campaigning in 2009 as the candidate who will bring accountability to Trenton. He fought against reforms to bring more transparency to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bi-state agency at the epicenter of the Bridgegate scandal, and his administration routinely denies basic open records requests that the courts later overturn.
  • Criminal justice and drug policy: Christie’s record is a mixed one, earning him a C. He supported reforming the state’s broken bail system, as well as adding oversight to police acquisition of military equipment. However, he has dragged his heels implementing medical marijuana and more recently opposed an effort to regulate and tax marijuana, saying that as president he would prosecute individuals in the four states that have legalized marijuana for personal use by adults. During his time in office, New Jersey has made more than 100,000 arrests for marijuana possession.
  • LGBT rights: Christie fought against marriage equality, ending his opposition only when it became clear he would lose in court, earning him a D.
  • Immigrants’ rights: Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at college by signing the New Jersey Dream Act, but vetoed an important provision to open the doors fully by allowing them to apply for state financial aid.
  • Women’s rights: Christie has a mixed record. He slashed funding for women’s family planning centers, which has forced at least six clinics to close or fire staff. He did, however, sign into law a bill that protects women from pregnancy discrimination, as well as several measures aimed at closing the wage gap between men and women.

Christie’s second-term has raised other civil liberties and rights concerns. He has opposed early, in-person voting, dismissing it as an attempt at voter fraud despite the lack of evidence to support such claims. And eight months ago his administration issued an order requiring the detention of medical workers returning from one of three West African countries where they treated Ebola patients, even if they were asymptomatic. The decision was widely criticized by the medical community following the detention of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the face of public pressure, he eventually released Hickox.

Finally, Christie has repeatedly stated that the Patriot Act does not violate civil liberties, despite the fact that numerous federal courts have found provisions of the Act to be unconstitutional and to violate civil liberties.

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Civil Rights Complaint Challenges Tracking and Discipline in South Orange-Maplewood School District

October 10, 2014
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NEWARK -- Civil rights organizations filed a complaint late yesterday (PDF) with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) urging an investigation into New Jersey’s South Orange-Maplewood School District’s practices of tracking and school discipline that affect students differently based on race and disability status.

The complaint was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of New Jersey, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The groups charge the school district's tracking and discipline practices disproportionately confine students of color to lower-level classes and punish students of color and students with disabilities to a greater degree.

“These problems are all too common in school districts across the country, and the numbers in South Orange-Maplewood are particularly troubling,” said ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom. “We've been meeting with officials from South Orange-Maplewood in the hopes that they address this issue and become a partner in building a more democratic, equitable learning environment for all children.”

The complaint, brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, outlines the scope of the disparate impact wrought by the district’s policies and recommendations to remedy the inequalities in the school system. It says that the policies and practices in effect impact different populations unfairly, even if those policies have a neutral intent.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District is among the New Jersey school districts with the highest racial disparities in tracking and student discipline. While white students make up slightly less than half of the student body, 70 percent of the higher-level classes are filled by white students, while 70 percent of the lower-level classes are filled by black students.

“Researchers know two things: tracking provides no concrete benefit and even harms students, and out-of-school suspension should be treated as a last resort because of its disruptive effects on both children and the learning environment,” said Courtney Bowie, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "The small investment of time and resources for South Orange-Maplewood to overhaul these two conventions will pay off in the form of more engaged students who perform at higher levels than their peers in other schools.”

Based on the same data from the 2011-2012 school year, black students had a 15.9 percent chance of being suspended, compared to the overall suspension risk of 10.7 percent. Black students were also more than 4.5 times more likely to face out-of-school suspension than their white peers, while Hispanic students were slightly more than twice as likely to face out-of-school suspension compared to their white peers. Additionally, despite federal and state mandates requiring support and accommodation for students with disabilities, these students are more than 2.5 times as likely to face out-of-school suspension as their peers. Independent of disability status, black students have a 16.1 percent suspension rate versus white students’ rate of 2.7 percent.

The personal story of a student of color, plaintiff C.B., illustrates the effects of the disparate impact of the district’s practices and policies in the lives of individual young people. This student, an academically high-performing sophomore, met the pre-requisites for placement in Advanced Placement Calculus. Despite her stellar academic record, she was not recommended for the course she would have needed to take to qualify for AP Calculus. Her teachers had consistently placed her in the class level below the highest level without her parents’ knowledge and with no explanation. Repeatedly, when her s parents asked why her daughter was not placed in the highest level, school staff could not provide an answer.

“We hope that our action will prompt the district to replace its detrimental reliance on exclusion with methods that will improve the school climate for all children and dramatically reduce the large discipline gap along the lines of race and disability status documented in the complaint,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “Ultimately, anti-discrimination law requires the rejection of the status quo in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. All students, regardless of their race or disability status, must be afforded access to a rigorous curriculum in a safe and supportive environment. By closing the access and discipline gaps we believe the district will also make strides in closing the achievement gap.”

Among the recommendations, the complaint proposes some of the following steps for reform:

  • Replace tracking with a standard curriculum for students of all levels, with supplementary instruction for students who need it. Such reform in Rockville Center, New York, resulted in a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap.
  • Reserve out-of-school suspension for only the most extreme cases of harm, focusing instead on dealing with behavior directly. School districts that have removed suspension as a routine disciplinary measure have found greater learning outcomes among the students affected.
  • Partner with experts, community members, and the complainants to reduce the adverse impact on students.

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ACLU-NJ Calls on Department of Defense to End Discriminatory Practice Against Transgender Veterans

August 11, 2014
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ACLU-NJ action challenges DOD’s denial to change discharge documents to reflect true gender of transgender former service members

On July 30, The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) submitted two applications to the Department of Defense’s Army Review Boards Agency on behalf of two New Jersey-based transgender military veterans who are petitioning to have their new legal names fully recognized by the Army. Specifically, they seek a change to the principal document that a military veteran uses to prove a veteran’s status, known as the “DD-214 Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.”

According to the Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA Law School, an estimated 134,300 American transgender veterans encounter substantial obstacles to obtaining post-service benefits because the names and genders memorialized on their military service discharge documents no longer match their names and genders following from the end of their service. This inconsistency might deprive them of benefits or services, or could subject them to invasive questions requiring personal information to explain discrepancies between documents.

The ACLU-NJ has taken action on behalf of Jennifer, a Sergeant Major who served in the United States Army for 29 years, and Nicolas, a New Jersey National Guardsman who served for 9 years. “It’s incredibly difficult when the self you present to the world doesn’t match a piece of paper meant to represent you,” said Jennifer, who served four tours including in Iraq and Afghanistan, receiving numerous awards for bravery. “I want my medical history to be protected and to be able to start a new chapter in my life without constantly being forced to look to the past.”

The DD-214 form determines veterans’ eligibility for benefits and legal protections tied to military service. Veterans need this document to engage in a wide range of activities in public life, including securing a home loan, taking the bar exam, or applying for a job with an employer that gives veterans preference in hiring. Transgender veterans not only risk the denial of these many benefits because of inconsistencies on the DD-214, but also face invasive questions every time this document is presented.

“When applying for a job, the only thing I want to bring with me is my qualifications – not a pile of papers explaining in unnecessary detail who I am,” said Nicolas, who served throughout the United States during his time with the National Guard. “With a simple fix, the military could make life much easier for countless veterans. With new regulations prohibiting discrimination against gender identity within the federal government, the federal government should take steps to make that kind of discrimination that much more unlikely.”

The DOD’s review board has thus far refused to amend the DD-214s, expressing an interest in preserving the historical accuracy of military records. However, the ACLU-NJ contends that the board has the authority – as well as an imperative -- to change this policy and thereby prevent the continued injustice facing transgender service members. Not changing the document is a form of discrimination against transgender veterans.

“Transgender service members bear substantial burdens when they cannot use their DD-214s without fear of discrimination,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Despite having served honorably in the military and earning the right to an accurate and complete picture of their military service, transgender veterans struggle with challenges the Department of Defense could easily alleviate by recognizing the needs of a group of veterans above an abstract principle. If anything, keeping the previous name is the greater inaccuracy, and the change would correct the record to reflect that veteran’s fundamental true identity.”

ACLU-NJ and civil rights groups seek to reinstate challenge to NYPD spying on Muslims in New Jersey

July 14, 2014
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Amicus brief argues that lower court decision erred in dismissing claims of religious and ethnic profiling by the NYPD

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has submitted a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) on behalf of itself and numerous civil rights advocacy organizations in the case of Hassan, et al., v. City of New York, which challenges the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) surveillance of Muslims, mosques, and Muslim-owned businesses in New Jersey. The brief, which was submitted to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, explained that the lower court erred when it issued a decision in February dismissing the plaintiffs' claims.

The organizations on the brief included Latino Justice PRLDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Garden State Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar Association, and the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey.

"When a person presents evidence that a government agency has singled them out for harsher treatment because of their race, ethnicity or religion, the government bears a heavy burden of justifying its actions," stated Rutgers Law School-Newark's Acting Dean Ronald Chen, who is serving as the ACLU-NJ's cooperating counsel in the case. "The plaintiffs deserve to have their day in court to challenge being profiled by the NYPD."

For years, the New York City Police Department secretly conducted surveillance that targeted Muslims living in New Jersey, until a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press series uncovered the program. On February 21, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge William Martini dismissed the lawsuit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates on behalf of eight Muslim residents of New Jersey, despite the serious constitutional concerns involved in targeting people for surveillance based solely on their religion.

"This appeal is significant, not only because it seeks to restore a challenge the NYPD's surveillance practices, but also because of what it could mean for future civil rights causes," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Our federal courts must be open to hearing discrimination claims. As explained in the brief, when the government profiles an entire group of people based solely on a characteristic such as ethnicity or religion, it has a ripple effect, causing others to fear and discriminate against that group."

The amicus brief in Hassan v. City of New York was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

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Gov. Chris Christie gets D+ in Civil Rights and Liberties from ACLU-NJ

June 9, 2014
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NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has given Gov. Chris Christie a D+ (PDF) for his overall record on civil liberties and civil rights during his first term in office. The ACLU-NJ examined the governor’s record in 12 issue areas and gave him his lowest grades in the areas of separation of church and state, transparency, and separation of powers.

The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion and voting rights. The report card examines the Christie administration from January 19, 2010 when Gov. Christie was sworn into office, to January 20, 2014 when his first term ended.

“Gov. Christie’s overall record on civil liberties and civil rights has been poor, ranging mostly from mediocre to failing,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The Christie administration’s first-term record on civil liberties will be remembered for its assaults on judicial independence and the separation of church and state, as well as for its disdain for transparency. Some of Governor Christie’s most frustrating civil liberties moments have been those instances where he has failed to back up bold words with substantive actions, such as in the areas of LGBT rights and the failed war on drugs.”

The first-term report card graded the governor on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties issues: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice. This report card expanded on the categories of the ACLU-NJ’s 2012 interim report card, which graded him in eight categories.

“The real concern here is not what these grades mean for Gov. Christie and his administration, but what they’ve meant for everyday New Jerseyans,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “From loving couples seeking to get married, to sick patients in need of medical marijuana, to poor New Jerseyans struggling to find an affordable place to live, many of us have not had a friend in the Governor’s office. While there still remains time to improve, as of now, this administration’s legacy on civil rights and liberties is not a proud one.”

Christie’s highest grade came in the area of freedom of religion, the category in which he also earned his highest marks in the ACLU-NJ’s interim report card. Christie deservedly received praise for supporting a developer’s decision to construct a mosque and Muslim community center near the World Trade Center during the height of the controversy in 2011. Soon after, Christie garnered national attention for excoriating a faction that railed against the appointment of a Muslim lawyer to serve as a Superior Court judge.

Christie’s appreciation for freedom of religion swung too far in the other direction when it came down to state involvement in religion. In the category of separation of church and state, Christie received the lowest score – an F. Especially damning was his administration’s decision to give away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions: Beth Medrash Govoha, a school that trains Orthodox rabbis, and Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains Christian clergy.

The ACLU-NJ recognized his administration’s support for voting rights, especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, with a B-. In transparency, separation of powers and economic justice, Christie earned solid Fs for his abysmal record on all three issues across the board. The Bridgegate scandal exposed how frequently the administration attempted to keep government business out of the public eye, but it hardly stands in isolation.

Christie’s protracted fight against marriage equality, which ended only when it became clear that he would lose, cast a long shadow over some of his gestures of good will toward the LGBT community, resulting in his final grade of a D in LGBT rights. When it comes to immigrants’ rights, Gov. Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at a higher education by signing the NJ Dream Act, but he removed an important provision that would have fully opened the doors of opportunity by allowing them to apply for state financial aid, earning him an overall grade of a C in immigrants’ rights. Gov. Christie earned Cs in a plurality of other subjects as well, including freedom of expression, women’s rights, privacy, and criminal justice and drug policy, although even those grades ranged from C- to C+.

“The Christie administration deserves credit where credit is due, especially in taking a stand for religious expression and being responsive to voting concerns in the wake of Superstorm Sandy,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “But where Gov. Christie stumbles, such as when it comes to the separation of powers and to transparency, the bottom falls out. We hope the governor learned his civil liberties lesson from numerous court actions that were successfully brought against his administration during his first term, but if not, we’re ready to compel him to act as if he were an A student.”

Where Do the 12th Congressional District Candidates Stand on Civil Rights and Liberties Issues

May 30, 2014
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On May 1, the ACLU of New Jersey and other leading civil rights organizations hosted a civil rights and liberties debate in Princeton for candidates vying for the 12th Congressional District seat. The seat is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, who is retiring.

Democratic candidates Upendra Chivukula, Linda Greenstein, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Andrew Zwicker and Republican candidate Alieta Eck, squared off on a variety of questions about civil rights and civil liberties issues. The event was moderated by NJTV anchor Mike Schneider.

The ACLU works to protect the fundamental right of every adult citizen in New Jersey to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted. Call the League of Women Voters of New Jersey Election Day hotline: 1-800-792-VOTE (8683) if you encounter any problems at the polls on June 3rd.

Co-sponsoring organization included: AFSC Immigrant Rights Program, CAIR-NJ, Drug Policy Alliance- New Jersey, The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., New Jersey NAACP State Conference, YWCA Princeton, and YWCA Union County.

Inform yourself about the candidates’ stances on civil rights and liberties issues. (PDF)

ACLU-NJ Statement on Judge’s Decision to Dismiss NYPD Surveillance Lawsuit

February 21, 2014
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NEWARK – U.S. district Judge William Martini on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the NYPD surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey. The lawsuit, Hassan v. City of New York, was filed in 2012 by eight Muslim residents who alleged the NYPD’s surveillance programs were unconstitutional because they focused on religion, national origin and race.

The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the California-based civil rights organization Muslim Advocates represented the plaintiffs.

The following statement is from Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

Udi Ofer

“The ACLU-NJ is highly disappointed in yesterday’s ruling by Judge Martini dismissing a challenge brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates against the New York City Police Department’s surveillance program targeting Muslims living in New Jersey. For years, the NYPD conducted secret intelligence gathering activities in New Jersey targeting Muslim community members based on their religious beliefs. The New Jersey public was kept in the dark during these investigations, which targeted New Jersey residents who engaged in no wrongdoing. The ACLU-NJ disagrees with Judge Martini’s decision and will support the Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates as they appeal this decision.”

ACLU-NJ Sends Letter to Giants and Jets About LGBT Discrimination

February 12, 2014
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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) sent a letter to the Giants, Jets and NFL (4mb PDF) today to remind them that they must comply with the state’s Law Against Discrimination when it comes to drafting players.

The letter was sent in response to University of Missouri player Michael Sam’s revelation that he is gay. Sam, a top NFL prospect, may be the first openly gay player in the NFL. One news outlet, SI.com, quoted general managers anonymously saying they would not draft Sam because he is gay.

The ACLU-NJ letter highlights that employers who provide services in the State of New Jersey – such as the Jets and Giants – cannot judge people on their sexual orientation and doing so would violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

ACLU-NJ Applauds Enactment of Law Tackling Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers

January 23, 2014
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NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) applauds the enactment of a bill that would help end discrimination against pregnant workers in New Jersey.

New Jersey joins other states, such as California, Connecticut and Illinois, to address this issue.

The bill was passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie on Jan. 21.

The following is a statement from Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the ACLU-NJ:

We commend Senator Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, the legislature, and Governor Chris Christie for enacting legislation to help end discrimination against pregnant workers in New Jersey. The bill signed by the Governor, S2995, adds pregnancy status to our state’s Law Against Discrimination, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women’s needs, and prevents employers from penalizing women from requesting or using those accommodations.

We know that even in 2014, pregnant women across the country continue to face discrimination and suffer employment consequences due to their medical needs during pregnancy. This law will help prevent women from being forced to make the agonizing choice between their health and their jobs. Our state has long been a proud leader in ending discrimination and this law will honor our values of fairness and equality under the law. The ACLU-NJ is proud to have supported this bill and we look forward to its implementation in workplaces across New Jersey.

ACLU-NJ and National ACLU File Brief in Support of Woman’s Right to Make Medical Decisions During Pregnancy

January 6, 2014
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State punished pregnant woman's choice of treatment made in consultation with health care provider

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the American Civil Liberties Union - Reproductive Freedom Project filed a friend-of-the-court brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court on Jan. 3, supporting the rights of a woman who took prescribed medication during her pregnancy that helped treat her addiction to Percocet.

“The government should not get involved in second-guessing the decision-making of pregnant women and their health care providers, especially when those decisions are made with the intent of reducing the risks of harm both to the woman and to the fetus,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas.

After Y.N. found out she was pregnant, she sought treatment for her Percocet addition. Her health care providers prescribed methadone, as the risk of harm from an immediate withdrawal would likely be greater than the risks of the methadone side effects. The child was born healthy and was successfully treated upon birth for methadone withdrawal symptoms.

Despite finding that Y.N. was not a risk to her child, and sending the baby home with her, a judge nevertheless held that Y.N. was guilty of child abuse and neglect. The appellate court affirmed, holding that any “harm” to a child, even if it results from a legal chosen course of action supervised by a physician, should result in a finding that a pregnant woman has abused or neglected her child.

On Oct. 18, 2013, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to review the appellate court's decision.

“New Jersey's constitution and laws prohibit a blanket rule that any injury to a child due to a chosen course of treatment by a pregnant woman in and of itself justifies an abuse finding; rather individual fact finding is required before the State can intrude on a woman's individual and familial rights,” said Ronald Chen of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic.

“If, as a society, we are truly interested in supporting healthy moms and babies, we would not be undermining basic constitutional principles in order to penalize the pregnant women and mothers who need health care the most. Our efforts should be focused on ensuring that pregnant women get the treatment and support they need,” noted Alexa Kolbi-Molinas of the ACLU-Reproductive Freedom Project.

The case is captioned New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. Y.N.

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