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There were several story lines possible when the Connecticut Supreme Court heard arguments last week in Ramos v. Vernon. There was the case itself, challenging the town of Vernon, Conn.’s juvenile curfew as unconstitutional. Then there was the added fillip of seeing Ann M. Parrent, in her first argument before the state’s high court, representing the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union against traditional CCLU stalwart Wesley W. Horton. But the high court, sitting en banc May 31, found still another angle: the lack of factual findings made in the case by U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas. Nevas, who heard the case last year, certified several state constitutional issues to the Connecticut Supreme Court after finding that the town’s curfew did not violate the plaintiffs’ federal constitutional rights. The high court agreed to take up the matter, but expressed dismay last week at the lack of a factual record from the federal court. Justice David M. Borden indicated the state high court might be able to determine whether the ordinance on its face violates state free speech and vagueness guarantees, but that other questions before the court needed some factual underpinning. Jon L. Schoenhorn, co-counsel with Parrent, said Nevas decided the case on the law in his May 13, 1999 decision, and declined to incorporate findings of fact proposed by the parties. Schoenhorn said he could understand the Supreme Court’s reluctance to act as a finder of fact, but that most of the facts in the case are uncontested, and are before the court in the form of the trial transcript. “It’s the equivalent of going in with almost a stipulated record,” he said. “Everything but the expert testimony is uncontested.” Ramos involves a challenge to a 1994 Vernon ordinance meant to combat gang-related activity and drug trafficking. The ordinance imposes fines on teen-agers under 18 who are out from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weeknights and from midnight to 5 a.m. on weekends. The CCLU challenged the ordinance on behalf of Angel Ramos, then 17, his 14-year-old brother Richard and their mother, Janet Ramos. Schoenhorn said the case went to federal court after the state dropped charges against Angel Ramos in return for a forfeiture of bond. The court dismissed him as a plaintiff in the case when he turned 18. The civil liberties organization contended that the curfew violated state and federal constitutional guarantees of free speech and against unreasonable searches and seizures; that it denied teen-agers equal protection of the law and due process; and that it usurped parents’ rights to supervise their children. Parrent, who left CCLU last month to join the Capital Defenders in New York City, returned last week to argue that there was “little question” the ordinance would be unconstitutional “if applied to adults. The nature of the intrusion would not be tolerated.” She said the assumptions on which the ordinance was based were unfounded, and urged the court to look at the ordinance from the perspective of a Vernon teen, unable to leave home after 11 p.m. for a legitimate reason without being questioned by police. Even though the ordinance grants exceptions for activities protected by the First Amendment and in cases where a teen-ager has parental permission, she said, teen-agers would still be stopped and bear the burden of explaining themselves. Parrent also said the First Amendment exception is vague, providing little guidance to police on what is and isn’t constitutionally protected speech. Borden said he found that argument a “Catch-22.” Include a First Amendment exception in a curfew ordinance, he mused, and the ordinance is too vague; omit it, and the ordinance is overbroad. Justice Richard N. Palmer was concerned about the age of the youngsters involved. Would Parrent make the same argument, he asked, if the children out late at night were 12 years old, or 10, or 8? The constitutional analysis would be the same, Parrent replied, but it would be a “harder case … The state’s interest in protecting children is more compelling.” Parrent also contended that the government is treading on the role properly belonging to the parent. If a parent had no problem with her child being out late at night, she asked, “when does it become the job of the state to … intrude in family decision making?” But Horton, of the Hartford, Conn., firm of Horton, Shields & Cormier, said the ordinance was as airtight as could be. “If this ordinance is unconstitutional,” he said, “it’s hard to understand what ordinance would be constitutional.” He particularly emphasized the ordinance’s exceptions for First Amendment activities and for parental permission. Courts that have rejected similar ordinances have done so because they don’t provide for the exercise of free speech rights, as Vernon does, he said. Horton rejected the argument that Vernon’s First Amendment was too vague, saying it is “no vaguer than the First Amendment itself.” Horton called the Vernon parental permission exception “the broadest parental rights exception in the country.” He said a teen-ager would have no problem as long as a parent has given permission for him or her to engage in a specified activity. But Horton said the permission must be tied to a particular activity on a particular night. Blanket authorization allowing a teen-ager to stay out any night for any purpose would not suffice. Far from intruding upon parental rights, Horton said, “the purpose of the ordinance is to enhance parental rights,” by requiring children to get their parents’ permission to be out late. Ramos was the first case that Horton, the lead attorney with the CCLU team that successfully fought Sheff v. O’Neill — which claimed that the educational system in the Hartford area was “inherently unequal” from that of the surrounding suburbs — through the state court system, has argued against his old allies. He said he was “very comfortable with my position.” “There are rights, and there are rights,” he said. “Some rights are more important than others. There’s a big difference between the right to a free public education and the right to be out on the streets after midnight,” he said.

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