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Human Rights Commission panel discusses importance of rights guarantees

BY KATHLEEN FOXkfox@paducahsun.com

Students, local professionals and other community members gathered Monday to discuss the civil rights given each citizen of the United States which serve as the backbone to the legal system.

The event served as the kick-off for the 50th anniversary of the Paducah Human Rights Commission, Chairwoman Bernice Belt said.

The commission along with Alpha Epsilon Beta hosted the panel discussion with two local judges and three local lawyers Monday at Crounse Hall at West Kentucky Community & Technical College. The panelists who discussed human and constitutional rights were Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Donna Dixon, U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell, McCracken Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Seth Hancock, J. Chris McNeill, director attorney of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, and Matthew Schultz with the Schultz Law Office.

The panel began with an explanation from each member about daily professional obligations and the overall legal and court structure on the federal and state level.

The group answered questions from audience members and human rights commissioners ranging from common rights violations, due process rights, trial time lines, and amendments dealing with individual rights including the 4th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

Russell emphasized the benefits of the constitutional form of government, which employs a system of checks and balances among the legislative, judicial and executive branches. He said the system is governed by the sovereignty of the people and revolves on the presumption of innocence, not guilt.

Members of the panel were asked to compare the U.S. Constitution with that of Kentucky. Dixon said the state features many additional sections, such as the oath of office with a promise the individuals haven't fought a duel in the state. She said the federal document provides the minimum standards and the state can expand or change but cannot diminish those rights.

"The more something possibly infringes on a right, the higher the scrutiny will be to pass it," Dixon said.

The group also discussed amendments that prohibit legislative discrimination, such as the 14th and 15th, which grew out of the abolition of slavery and the universal right to vote. Hancock said the most common rights violations deal with law enforcement errors regarding searches, seizures or interview protocol but emphasized that these instances, which would result in the suppression of evidence, locally occur infrequently.

"Members of law enforcement care about prosecuting the case and work hard to get all the processes right," Hancock said.

He used the example of search warrants, which allow an outside judge to examine the evidence gathered by law enforcement officers and determine if more action in warranted, as a method of successful checks and balances.

McNeill emphasized that often the law is murky and there is a fine line between legitimate, warranted action and a reasonable expectation of privacy for residents.

"The law is not always as clear as you would like it to be," he said. "Cases help to put in new or to clarify existing laws. Little facts can change the result of a case so dramatically."

The group also discussed the request of a speedy trial, which for state inmates would mandate that the case is heard within 180 days. Hancock said in general that right is waived to give the state and the defense team time to negotiate deals to try and resolve the case outside court. He said the county tries to move quickly and effectively to move inmates from the McCracken County Regional Jail, financed by the county, to the state jail system.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, the city of Paducah and the Human Rights Commission will sponsor the annual Fair Housing Luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 17  in Walker Hall. The event will recognize local winners and offer entertainment and a buffet. Admission is free, but the cost of the lunch is $13. The annual Evening of Performance is set for May 9 at the Robert Cherry Civic Center. The free event will feature awards for city and county residents, dinner, and local and regional entertainment, Belt said.

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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