(Updated: May 17, 2012 at 10:45 AM CT)
More than 70 disability advocates arrested last month during a Medicaid protest at the U.S. Capitol are being forced to return to Washington to appear in court.
In what the disability rights group ADAPT is calling an unprecedented event in their over 30-year history, members of the organization are being threatened with bench warrants if they do not appear in D.C. Superior Court on Tuesday.
Last month, 74 people — many in wheelchairs — were arrested on charges of unlawful conduct after they refused to disband a protest in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building. The group organized by ADAPT was there to oppose cuts to Medicaid.
Actor Noah Wyle who is best known for appearing on NBC’s “ER” is a vocal advocate for universal health care and was among those detained in the April protest.
Though ADAPT regularly holds protests where arrests are commonplace, leaders of the group say they are typically represented in court by an attorney and are not required to be present. This time, however, prosecutors are insisting that all of those arrested appear in person at the hearing.
The requirement is leading to a mad scramble since several of those arrested live as far away as Colorado and Utah. Traveling back to Washington on short notice is costing some involved $1,000 or more.
“I’m shocked and angry,” said Marsha Katz, a member of ADAPT who lives in Missoula, Mont. She plans to make the return trip to Washington in order to assist her husband, Bob Liston, who uses a wheelchair and was among those arrested during the April action.
“This is the first time in more than 20 years that the court wouldn’t allow an attorney to represent us and wouldn’t entertain a motion to postpone,” said Katz. “Are they doing this to dissuade us from exercising our First Amendment rights?”
Officials at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia said they are simply following protocol.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is sensitive to the concerns raised by the defendants. However, the office typically requires defendants to appear in court for their arraignments and is following that practice in this matter,” said William Miller, a spokesman for the office.
So far, 53 of those arrested have made plans to travel back to Washington next week, according to Rahnee Patrick, an ADAPT leader from Chicago who’s helping to arrange the court appearance. But she says that for ADAPT members relying on Social Security income alone, the sheer cost of making the trip means appearing in court will be prohibitive.
As for Wyle, Patrick said it wasn’t yet clear when he would appear in court.
Patrick declined to speculate on the motives behind the mandated court showing, but did say that the organization’s attorney indicated that prosecutors were “very, very familiar with ADAPT.”
Regardless, Patrick said she did not believe that future protests would be impacted.
“These cuts are personal,” Patrick said of ADAPT’s recent opposition to Medicaid changes. “It hasn’t been easy, but our people are willing to make the sacrifice because we understand that people’s lives are at stake.”