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Pennsylvania high court to settle voter signatures fight
Legal Watch | 2020/10/17 13:53
Pennsylvania’s highest court granted a request Wednesday to wade into a fight over whether counties should count mail-in ballots when a voter’s signature doesn’t necessarily match the one on their registration. In its brief order, the state Supreme Court said it will decide the matter after a filings deadline in the case on Friday.

In guidance last month to counties, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, told them that state law does not require or permit them to reject a mail-in ballot solely over a perceived signature inconsistency. After President Donald Trump’s campaign contested that guidance in a federal court case, Boockvar asked the court to back up her guidance.

Rejection of ballots over signatures poses “a grave risk of disenfranchisement on an arbitrary and wholly subjective basis,” Boockvar’s court filing said. Trump’s campaign asked a federal judge to declare that Boockvar’s guidance is unconstitutional and to block counties from following that guidance. The judge dismissed the case on Saturday.

However, state Republican lawmakers oppose Boockvar’s guidance to counties, saying in court filings that it would “rewrite existing law,” while disrupting Pennsylvania’s “clear and unambiguously crafted procedures for determining and challenging the validity” of a mail-in or absentee ballot. Boockvar’s guidance to counties comes amid a surge in mail-in voting and rising concerns that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots will be discarded in the presidential election over a variety of technicalities.

The fight over signatures is one of many partisan battles  being fought in the state Legislature and the courts over mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, amid warnings that a presidential election result will hang in limbo for days on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania. After President Donald Trump’s campaign contested that guidance in a federal court case, Boockvar asked the court to back up her guidance.

Rejection of ballots over signatures poses “a grave risk of disenfranchisement on an arbitrary and wholly subjective basis,” Boockvar’s court filing said. Trump’s campaign asked a federal judge to declare that Boockvar’s guidance is unconstitutional and to block counties from following that guidance. The judge dismissed the case on Saturday. However, state Republican lawmakers oppose Boockvar’s guidance to counties, saying in court filings that it would “rewrite existing law,” while disrupting Pennsylvania’s “clear and unambiguously crafted procedures for determining and challenging the validity” of a mail-in or absentee ballot.

Boockvar’s guidance to counties comes amid a surge in mail-in voting and rising concerns that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots will be discarded in the presidential election over a variety of technicalities. The fight over signatures is one of many partisan battles  being fought in the state Legislature and the courts over mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, amid warnings that a presidential election result will hang in limbo for days on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania.


Barrett bats away tough Democratic confirmation probing
Legal Watch | 2020/10/14 20:53
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett batted away Democrats’ skeptical questions Tuesday on abortion, health care and a possible disputed-election fight over transferring presidential power, insisting in a long and lively confirmation hearing she would bring no personal agenda to the court but decide cases “as they come.”

The 48-year-old appellate court judge declared her conservative views with often colloquial language, but refused many specifics. She declined to say whether she would recuse herself from any election-related cases involving President Donald Trump, who nominated her to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is pressing to have her confirmed before the the Nov. 3 election.

“Judges can’t just wake up one day and say I have an agenda ? I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion ? and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world,” Barrett told the Senate Judiciary Committee during its second day of hearings.

“It’s not the law of Amy,” she said. “It’s the law of the American people.”

Barrett returned to a Capitol Hill mostly shut down by COVID-19 protocols, the mood quickly shifting to a more confrontational tone  from opening day. She was grilled by Democrats strongly opposed to Trump’s nominee yet unable to stop her. Excited by the prospect of a judge aligned with the late Antonin Scalia, Trump’s Republican allies are rushing ahead to install a 6-3 conservative court majority for years to come.

The president seemed pleased with her performance. “I think Amy’s doing incredibly well,” he said at the White House departing for a campaign rally.

Trump has said he wants a justice seated for any disputes arising from his heated election with Democrat Joe Biden, but Barrett testified she has not spoken to Trump or his team about election cases. Pressed by panel Democrats, she skipped past questions about ensuring the date of the election or preventing voter intimidation, both set in federal law, and the peaceful transfer of presidential power. She declined to commit to recusing herself from any post-election cases without first consulting the other justices.

“I can’t offer an opinion on recusal without short-circuiting that entire process,” she said.

A frustrated Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, all but implored the nominee to be more specific about how she would handle landmark abortion cases, including Roe v. Wade and the follow-up Pennsylvania case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which confirmed it in large part.


Texas AG taps investigator tied to donor’s defense attorney
Court Center | 2020/10/12 16:33
When Texas’ attorney general needed someone to probe a claim by one of his wealthy political donors alleging crimes by the FBI, he turned to a junior Houston lawyer with no prosecutorial experience, a modest criminal defense practice and ties to the donor’s defense attorney.

Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton said his own staff had been working to “impede the investigation” into real estate developer Nate Paul’s allegations against federal law enforcement. He explained that’s why he brought in an “outside independent prosecutor” to look into the case.

The move led Paxton’s top deputies last week to accuse him of bribery and abuse of office.  It’s unclear what underlies these allegations, and what would have recommended Brandon Cammack to handle the fraught investigation.

But Cammack’s contract shows he’s not independent of Paxton. And social media posts show Cammack and Paul’s defense attorney, Michael Wynne, are connected on Facebook and are both part of a Houston civics organization. The lawyers didn’t respond to questions about their connections.

Paxton’s choice of outside counsel raises further questions about a decision that has deepened political, and possibly legal, trouble for the attorney general. Paxton rose to national prominence during his time in office but also has spent most of it maintaining his innocence in the face of a felony indictment.

Cammack told Paxton’s staff in an early September email that “my firm does not have any conflicts of interest with regards to this investigation.” Paxton office did not respond to questions about the lawyer’s selection. The attorney general has resisted calls for his resignation and cast blame on “rogue employees and their false allegations.”

Cammack’s father said he thinks his son is being set up as a “scapegoat.”

“I think Paxton was looking for someone that could get beat up on. I think he might have been looking for an easy mark,” Samuel Cammack III said. “Brandon doesn’t even have the ability to do what Paxton was asking him to do.”

A 2015 University of Houston Law Center graduate, Cammack is being paid $300 an hour to look into the complaint from Paul, who gave Paxton a $25,000 campaign contribution in 2018. It’s unclear what the developer has alleged, but his claims came to light a year after the FBI searched his home and office.




Daines, Bullock clash over pandemic, Supreme Court in debate
Top Legal News | 2020/10/12 16:32
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and his Democratic opponent, Gov. Steve Bullock, clashed over the response to the pandemic and the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy in the last debate of Montana’s U.S. Senate race.

Bullock accused Daines of stalling on a second federal coronavirus relief package. Bullock said he would not implement stricter measures to limit the spread of the virus, despite a high infection rate in the state, because there was no federal safety net for workers and businesses.

The freshman senator rejected Bullock’s view that Americans must learn to live with the virus, instead hanging the solution to the rampant spread of the virus on therapeutic drugs and vaccinations, which he promised would be distributed free of charge once approved.

The governor was praised for his swift response in the spring, which included a shutdown order that helped keep the virus at bay. But as the state reopened in early summer, the case tally began to climb. A record number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths were reported in recent days, as the governor delegated responsibility for precautions to local authorities.

Bullock rejected the confirmation process of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying it could put parts of the Affordable Care Act in jeopardy. Daines has expressed support for a court case seeking repeal the health law, which is set to be heard by the court days after the Nov. 3 election.

Bullock said that if Coney Barrett was confirmed, he would be open to measures including adding justices to the bench, a practice critics have dubbed packing the courts. “We need to figure out the ways to actually get the politics out of the court,” Bullock said. “That’s anything from a judicial standards commission, or we’ll look at any other thing that might be suggested, including adding justices.”

Daines, who supports the confirmation of Coney Barrett, said adding justices to the bench would threaten the Second Amendment, which gives people the right to carry guns.  Bullock said he would protect gun access, but that he is open to conversations on new safety measures, including universal background checks.  The debate was recorded remotely and aired Saturday evening on the Montana Television Network, a day after many counties in the state mailed ballots to voters.


Court blocks extension of Wisconsin absentee ballot deadline
Legal Watch | 2020/10/09 03:37
A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked a decision to extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots by six days in battleground Wisconsin, in a win for Republicans who have fought attempts to expand voting across the country. If the ruling stands, absentee ballots will have to be delivered to Wisconsin election clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day if they are to be counted.

The ruling makes it more likely that results of the presidential race in the pivotal swing state will be known within hours of poll closing.  Democrats almost certainly will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. A spokesman and an attorney didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Under state law, absentee ballots are due in local clerks’ offices by 8 p.m. on election night. But Democrats and allied groups sued to extend the deadline after the April presidential primary saw long lines, fewer polling places, a shortage of poll workers and thousands of ballots mailed days after the election. Wisconsin, like much of the rest of the country, is already seeing massive absentee voting for November and the state expects as many as 2 million people to vote absentee.

U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled last month that any ballots that arrive in clerk’s offices by Nov. 9 will be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3. In that ruling, Conley noted the heavy absentee load and the possibility it could overwhelm election officials and the postal service.

The 7th Circuit Court judges initially upheld Conley’s ruling  on Sept. 29, rejecting the Republicans’ standing to intervene. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed that standing, the same three-judge panel delivered Thursday’s ruling. Justices Frank Easterbrook and Amy St. Eve voted to stay the order and Ilana Rovner opposed.


High Court Won't Take up Ex-Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis' Case
Headline News | 2020/10/05 23:17
The Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision that allowed a lawsuit to move forward against a Kentucky clerk who was jailed in 2015 after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The high court said Monday it would not take the case involving Kim Davis, the former clerk of Rowan County, and two same-sex couples who had sued her. Soon after the 2015 Supreme Court decision in which same-sex couples won the right to marry nationwide, Davis, a Christian who has a religious objection to same-sex marriage, stopped issuing all marriage licenses.

That led to lawsuits against her, and a judge ordered Davis to issue the licenses. She spent five days in jail after refusing. Davis had argued that a legal doctrine called qualified immunity protected her from being sued for damages by couples David Ermold and David Moore as well as James Yates and Will Smith. Their case will now move forward. Davis, a Republican, ultimately lost her bid for reelection in 2018. Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr. is now the county’s clerk.

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas wrote for himself and Justice Samuel Alito that while he agreed with the decision not to hear the case, it was a "stark reminder of the consequences" of the court's 2015 decision in the same-sex marriage case. Because of that case, he wrote, “those with sincerely held religious beliefs concerning marriage will find it increasingly difficult to participate in society without running afoul" of the case “and its effect on other antidiscrimination laws.”


Trump taps ‘eminently qualified’ Barrett for Supreme Court
Headline News | 2020/10/01 16:23
President Donald Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Saturday, capping a dramatic reshaping of the federal judiciary that will resonate for a generation and that he hopes will provide a needed boost to his reelection effort.

Barrett, a former clerk to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, said she was “truly humbled” by the nomination and quickly aligned herself with Scalia’s conservative approach to the law, saying his “judicial philosophy is mine, too.”

Barrett, 48, was joined in the Rose Garden by her husband and seven children. If confirmed by the Senate, she would fill the seat vacated by liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It would be the sharpest ideological swing since Clarence Thomas replaced Justice Thurgood Marshall nearly three decades ago.

She would be the sixth justice on the nine-member court to be appointed by a Republican president, and the third of Trump’s first term in office.

Trump hailed Barrett as “a woman of remarkable intellect and character,” saying he had studied her record closely before making the pick.

Republican senators are lining up for a swift confirmation of Barrett ahead of the Nov. 3 election, as they aim to lock in conservative gains in the federal judiciary before a potential transition of power. Trump, meanwhile, is hoping the nomination will galvanize his supporters as he looks to fend off Democrat Joe Biden.

For Trump, whose 2016 victory hinged in large part on reluctant support from white evangelicals on the promise of filling Scalia’s seat with a conservative, the latest nomination in some ways brings his first term full circle. Even before Ginsburg’s death, Trump was running on having confirmed in excess of 200 federal judges, fulfilling a generational aim of conservative legal activists.

Trump joked that the confirmation process ahead “should be easy” and “extremely noncontroversial,” though it is likely to be anything but. No court nominee has been considered so close to a presidential election before, with early voting already underway. He encouraged legislators to take up her nomination swiftly and asked Democrats to “refrain from personal and partisan attacks.”

In 2016, Republicans blocked Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to fill the election-year vacancy, saying voters should have a say in the lifetime appointment. Senate Republicans say they will move ahead this time, arguing the circumstances are different now that the White House and Senate are controlled by the same party.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate will vote “in the weeks ahead” on Barrett’s confirmation. Barrett is expected to make her first appearance Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where she will meet with McConnell; Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chair of the Judiciary Committee; and others. Hearings are set to begin Oct. 12, and Graham said he hoped to have Barrett’s nomination out of the committee by Oct. 26.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that a vote to confirm Barrett to the high court would be a vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act. Schumer added that the president was once again putting “Americans’ healthcare in the crosshairs” even while the coronavirus pandemic rages.

Biden took that route of criticism, as well, framing Trump’s choice as another move in Republicans’ effort to scrap the 2010 health care law passed by his former boss, President Barack Obama. The court is expected to take up a case against it this fall.

The set design at the Rose Garden, with large American flags hung between the colonnades, appeared to be modeled on the way the White House was decorated when President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg in 1993.

Barrett, recognizing that flags were still lowered in recognition of Ginsburg’s death, said she would be “mindful of who came before me.” Although they have different judicial philosophies, Barrett praised Ginsburg as a trailblazer for women and for her friendship with Scalia, saying, “She has won the admiration of women across the country and indeed all across the world.”

Within hours of Ginsburg’s death, Trump made clear he would nominate a woman for the seat. Barrett was the early favorite and the only one to meet with Trump.

Barrett has been a judge since 2017, when Trump nominated her to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But as a longtime University of Notre Dame law professor, she had already established herself as a reliable conservative in the mold of Scalia, for whom she clerked in the late 1990s.




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