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High court won't hear abortion clinic 'buffer zone' cases
Top Legal News | 2020/07/03 04:50
The Supreme Court on Thursday turned away pleas from anti-abortion activists to make it easier for them to protest outside clinics, declining to wade back into the abortion debate just days after striking down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics.

The justices said in a written order that they would not hear cases from Chicago and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where anti-abortion activists had challenged ordinances that restrict their behavior outside clinics.

As is usual, the justices did not comment in turning away the cases. The order from the court noted Justice Clarence Thomas would have heard the Chicago case.

The Supreme Court has since the late 1990s heard several cases involving demonstration-free zones, called buffer zones, outside abortion clinics. Most recently, in 2014, the justices unanimously struck down a law that created a 35-foot protest-free zone outside Massachusetts abortion clinics. The court said Massachusetts’ law, which made it a crime to stand in the protest-free zone for most people not entering or exiting the clinic or passing by, was an unconstitutional restraint on the free-speech rights of protesters.

On Thursday, one of the two cases the court declined to take up involved an ordinance passed by the city counsel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital, in 2012 that made it illegal to “congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” in a zone 20 feet from a health care facility. Anti-abortion activists sued, arguing that the ordinance violates their free speech rights. Lower courts have upheld the ordinance, however, ruling it doesn't apply to “sidewalk counseling,” where individuals who oppose abortion offer assistance and information about alternatives to abortion to those entering a clinic.


Courts straining to balance public health with public access
Headline News | 2020/06/28 19:41
After her son was arrested for allegedly throwing rocks at police during a protest over racial injustice, Tanisha Brown headed to the courthouse in her California hometown to watch her son's arraignment.

She was turned away, told the courthouse was closed to the public because of coronavirus precautions. A day later, the Kern County Superior Court in Bakersfield posted a notice on its website explaining how the public could request special permission from judicial officers to attend court proceedings.

But problems with public access have persisted, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday on behalf of Brown and several others who have been unable to watch court sessions.

The situation in Kern County highlights the challenges courts across the U.S. are facing as they try to balance public health protections with public access to their proceedings amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a public trial, but some courts have held arraignments and other pretrial hearings without the public watching or listening. In some cases, the public had no means of participating. In other cases, the defendant's family members, friends or other interested residents weren't aware how to gain access to special video feeds.

"The courtrooms are supposed to be fully public, anybody who’s interested is supposed to be able to watch, and they have not been doing that,” said Sergio De La Pava, legal director of New York County Defender Services, a nonprofit public defenders office in Manhattan.


Supreme Court doesn’t wade into Texas mail-in voting battle
Court Center | 2020/06/27 02:41
The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request by Texas Democrats to allow all of the state’s 16 million registered voters to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The denial is not the end of the ongoing battle over mail-in voting in Texas, but it remains a loss for Democrats who made the emergency ruling request while the original case is tied up at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor urged the lower court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election.” Voting by mail in Texas is generally limited to those 65 or older or those with a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents voting in person.

For months, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has fought expanding mail-in balloting during the pandemic, saying fear of contracting the virus is an insufficient reason. A federal judge in Texas sided with Democrats in May, but that decision is on hold pending appeal.

Early voting in Texas begins Monday for primary runoff elections that had been postponed to July over coronavirus fears, but Texas is now one of the nation’s coronavirus hotspots as confirmed cases reach record levels and Gov. Greg Abbott reimposes restrictions.


Top Manhattan prosecutor leaves job after standoff with Barr
Court Center | 2020/06/24 02:36
An extraordinary standoff between the Justice Department and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman ended Saturday when the prosecutor agreed to leave his job with an assurance that his investigations into allies of President Donald Trump would not be disturbed.

The announcement capped two days of conflicting statements, allegations of political interference in prosecutions, and defiance from Berman. On Saturday, Attorney General William Barr said Berman’s refusal to resign under pressure prompted Trump to fire him. Trump tried to distance himself from the dispute, telling reporters the decision “was all up to the attorney general.”

This episode deepened tensions between the Justice Department and congressional Democrats, who have accused Barr of politicizing the agency and acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than the country’s chief law enforcement officer. It also raised questions about ongoing investigations in the Southern District of New York, most notably a probe into Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney.

Barr set off the whirlwind chain of events on Friday night with a surprise announcement that Berman was resigning, without explanation. But Berman insisted he had not resigned, was not stepping down and his investigations would continue.

On Saturday morning, he showed up to work, telling reporters, “I’m just here to do my job.” Hours later, Barr announced Berman’s firing.  “Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service,” Barr wrote in a letter released by the Justice Department. He said the idea that Berman had to continue on the job to safeguard investigations was “false.”

Although Barr said Trump had removed Berman, the president told reporters: “That’s all up to the attorney general. Attorney General Barr is working on that. That’s his department, not my department.” Trump added: “I wasn’t involved.”

The administration’s push to cast aside Berman amounted to a political and constitutional clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation’s top districts, which has tried major mob, financial crimes and terrorism cases over the years.



Court to weigh state’s request to close Carlisle auto show
Court Center | 2020/06/23 02:39
The state Health Department’s effort to shut down a large auto show in central Pennsylvania over claims it represents a risk to the public will be the subject of an emergency hearing, a state court said late Wednesday.

The order from Commonwealth Court scheduled a Thursday morning hearing at the judicial center in Harrisburg, with social distancing rules because of the pandemic.

The unsigned order also declined to immediately shut down Spring Carlisle over the state’s claim the event runs afoul of a 250-person limit for gatherings in Cumberland County.

Attendees streamed into the fairgrounds Wednesday, the first day of the event put on by defendant Carlisle Productions Inc., also known as Carlisle Events. It is scheduled to run through Saturday.

Business closures and social distancing have saved lives, lawyers for the Health Department said.

“When individuals choose to ignore those safeguards ? such as by holding an event anticipating 100,000 attendees ? they put the lives of Pennsylvanians at risk and threaten to reverse the significant progress that has been made to resolve this crisis. That dangerous conduct must be stopped before it can occur,” they told the court.

Carlisle Events has held the spring auto show at the Carlisle Fairgrounds since 1976. It typically draws about 100,000 people, although organizers say they expect a smaller crowd for this year’s event.


New Mexico high court rules on privacy for banking records
Legal Watch | 2020/06/20 17:27
Prosecutors can obtain a person’s banking records using a warrantless grand jury subpoena without violating the individual’s right to privacy under New Mexico’s Constitution, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

In a unanimous decision Thursday, the justices concluded that a district court properly allowed the use of five years of personal financial records as evidence in a pending criminal case against a Taos couple facing charges of tax evasion and other finance-related offenses.

The high court rejected the married couple’s argument that the state’s Constitution provided greater privacy protections for their financial records than offered under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The couple contended that a court-authorized warrant should have been required to obtain bank records.

The justices adhered to a decadesold legal doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court that people have no constitutionally protected privacy interest in the financial account records they voluntarily share with third parties.


Court rejects Trump bid to end young immigrants’ protections
Court Center | 2020/06/18 00:25
The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected President Donald Trump’s effort to end legal protections for 650,000 young immigrants, the second stunning election-season rebuke from the court in a week after its ruling that it’s illegal to fire people because they’re gay or transgender.

Immigrants who are part of the 8-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program will retain their protection from deportation and their authorization to work in the United States ? safe almost certainly at least through the November election, immigration experts said.

The 5-4 outcome, in which Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices were in the majority, seems certain to elevate the issue in Trump’s campaign, given the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his first presidential run in 2016 and immigration restrictions his administration has imposed since then.

The justices said the administration did not take the proper steps to end DACA, rejecting arguments that the program is illegal and that courts have no role to play in reviewing the decision to end it. The program covers people who have been in the United States since they were children and are in the country illegally. In some cases, they have no memory of any home other than the U.S.


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