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Supreme Court rejects challenge to limits on church services
Court Center | 2020/05/30 18:48
A divided Supreme Court on Friday rejected an emergency appeal by a California church that challenged state limits on attendance at worship services that have been imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Over the dissent of the four more conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberals in turning away a request from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, in the San Diego area.

The church argued that limits on how many people can attend their services violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and had been seeking an order in time for services on Sunday. The church said it has crowds of 200 to 300 people for its services.

Roberts wrote in brief opinion that the restriction allowing churches to reopen at 25% of their capacity, with no more than 100 worshipers at a time, “appear consistent" with the First Amendment. Roberts said similar or more severe limits apply to concerts, movies and sporting events “where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in dissent that the restriction “discriminates against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment.” Kavanaugh pointed to supermarkets, restaurants, hair salons, cannabis dispensaries and other businesses that are not subject to the same restrictions. Lower courts in California had previously turned down the churches' requests.
 
The court also rejected an appeal from two churches in the Chicago area that objected to Gov. Jay Pritzker’s limit of 10 worshipers at religious services. Before the court acted, Pritzker modified the restrictions to allow for up to 100 people at a time. There were no recorded dissents.


Texas court: Virus fear alone not enough for mail balloting
Top Legal News | 2020/05/28 01:48
Texas officials fighting to block widespread mail-in voting during the pandemic claimed victory after the state's highest court ruled Wednesday that a lack of immunity to the coronavirus doesn't qualify someone to cast a ballot by mail.

The decision was unanimous by the Texas Supreme Court, which is stocked with nine Republican justices, including one who revealed last week that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Texas generally limits mail balloting only to voters who are over 65 years old or have a disability.

Justice Eva Guzman wrote the court was unified in the conclusion that “fear of contracting a disease is not a physical condition."

The Texas Democratic Party blasted the decision, and moved its hopes to a similar challenge playing out in federal court. But not all saw the decision as a total loss: the top elections lawyer in Houston, Harris County attorney Douglas Ray, said he believed the ruling leaves room for each voter to decide themselves whether they qualify, and gives clerks basically no ability to second-guess the reasoning.

In Texas, voters do not have to describe their disability when requesting a mail-in ballot.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who earlier this month lost lower court decisions that would have expanded mail-in ballots to all of the state's 16 million registered voters, has argued that fear of getting the virus alone doesn't qualify as a disability. He applauded the court for keeping the status quo with just weeks until the state is set to hold primary runoff elections in July.




Court upholds ban on in-person church services in California
Court Center | 2020/05/24 19:33
An appeals court has upheld California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on in-person church services amid the coronavirus pandemic, in a split ruling that found that government’s emergency powers override what in normal times would be fundamental constitutional rights.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego cannot reopen immediately, the Los Angeles Times reported. In this case “constitutional standards that would normally govern our review of a Free Exercise claim should not be applied,” the two judges in the majority wrote in their order.

“We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a ‘(c)ourt does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact,’” they wrote.

The decision is likely to further anger opponents who claim that California’s rules to stop the spread of the virus violate religious freedoms.




Netanyahu heads to court as 1st sitting Israeli PM on trial
Court Center | 2020/05/22 02:34
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lashing out at Israel’s justice system, saying his trial on corruption charges is an attempt to “depose” him.

Prime Minister Benjamin spoke Sunday as he arrived at a Jerusalem courthouse for the start of his trial. Netanyahu is set to appear at the opening hearing at a Jerusalem district court, after his request to have his lawyers represent him instead was rejected. The courthouse was drawing crowds of supporters, protesters and media hoping to witness Netanyahu enter the building, where he will hear the arraignment against him.

The dramatic scene comes just days after the long-serving leader swore in his new government, breaking more than a year of political stalemate following three inconclusive elections.

Netanyahu held his first Cabinet meeting with the new government just hours before heading to court. Neither he nor any of his ministers addressed the looming trial but the country's outgoing religious affairs minister wished Netanyahu that “God will bring the truth out” at his trial.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts and offering to grant favors to powerful media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his family. He denies the charges and has lashed out at the media, police, prosecution and courts of forging a conspiracy to oust him. It comes after years of scandals swirling around the family.



Supreme Court blocks House from Mueller grand jury material
Headline News | 2020/05/19 18:35
The Supreme Court on Wednesday temporarily prevented the House of Representatives from obtaining secret grand jury testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

The court’s unsigned order granted the Trump administration’s request to keep previously undisclosed details from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election out of the hands of Democratic lawmakers, at least until early summer.

The court will decide then whether to extend its hold and schedule the case for arguments in the fall. If it does, it’s likely the administration will be able to put off the release of any materials until after Election Day. Arguments themselves might not even take place before Americans decide whether to give President Donald Trump a second term.

For justices eager to avoid a definitive ruling, the delay could mean never having to decide the case, if either Trump loses or Republicans regain control of the House next year. It’s hard to imagine the Biden administration would object to turning over the Mueller documents or House Republicans would continue to press for them.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi objected to the high court’s decision in a statement Wednesday evening. “The House’s long-standing right to obtain grand jury information pursuant to the House’s impeachment power has now been upheld by the lower courts twice,” Pelosi said. “These rulings are supported by decades of precedent and should be permitted to proceed.”

The federal appeals court in Washington ruled in March that the documents should be turned over because the House Judiciary Committee’s need for the material in its investigation of Trump outweighed the Justice Department’s interests in keeping the testimony secret.



Nebraska court orders disclosure of execution drug records
Legal Interview | 2020/05/17 20:44
Nebraska prison officials cannot withhold public records that reveal where they purchased their supply of lethal injection drugs, the state's highest court ruled Friday.

In ordering the documents to be disclosed for public scrutiny, the Nebraska Supreme Court sided with two newspapers and a prisoner advocacy group that had sued the Department of Correctional Services after it refused to release records related to its supply of execution drugs in 2017.

The department previously had regularly disclosed such records without objection to anyone who requested them. Department officials at the time were under increasing pressure to obtain lethal injection drugs as death-penalty critics questioned whether Nebraska would ever carry out another execution.

Media outlets including The Associated Press, The Omaha World-Herald and The Lincoln Journal Star filed formal requests in 2017 for records including purchase orders for the lethal injection drugs that would have identified the supplier. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska filed a similar request. The Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal Star and the ACLU of Nebraska sued after the request was denied, arguing that the department had violated Nebraska's open-records laws.

Prison officials said the state's supplier should be considered a member of the official “execution team,” whose identities are confidential under Nebraska law.

A district court judge ordered the department to release the records in 2018, and the case has been under appeal ever since. That same year, Nebraska executed its first inmate since 1997, using the drugs prison officials had obtained from the unknown supplier.




Supreme Court appears likely to reject Trump immunity claim
Headline News | 2020/05/14 03:41
The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared likely to reject President Donald Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal investigation while in office. But the court seemed less clear about exactly how to handle subpoenas from Congress and the Manhattan district attorney for Trump’s tax, bank and financial records.

The court’s major clash over presidential accountability could affect the  2020 presidential campaign, especially if a high court ruling leads to the release of personal financial information before Election Day.

The justices heard arguments in two cases by telephone Tuesday that stretched into the early afternoon. The court, which includes six justices age 65 or older, has been meeting by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There was no apparent consensus about whether to ratify lower court rulings that the subpoenas to Trump’s accountant and banks are valid and should be enforced. The justices will meet by phone before the end of the week to take a preliminary vote on how those cases should come out, and decisions are expected by early summer.

On the same day Trump’s lawyers were telling the court that the subpoenas would be a distraction that no president can afford, Trump found the time to weigh in on a long string of unrelated issues on Twitter, about Elon Musk reopening Tesla’s California plant in defiance of local authorities, the credit he deserves for governors’ strong approval ratings for their handling of the virus outbreak, the anger Asian Americans feel “at what China has done to our Country,” oil prices, interest rates, his likely opponent in the November election and his critics.

The justices sounded particularly concerned in arguments over congressional subpoenas about whether a ruling validating the subpoenas would open the door to harassing future presidents.

“In your view, there is really no protection against the use of congressional subpoenas for the purpose of preventing the harassment of a president,” Justice Samuel Alito said to Douglas Letter, the lawyer for the House of Representatives.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he worried about a “future Sen. McCarthy,” a reference to the Communist-baiting Wisconsin senator from the 1950s, with subpoena power against a future president.

But in the case involving Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s subpoena for Trump’s taxes, the justices showed little interest in the broadest argument made by Jay Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, that a president can’t be investigated while he holds office.


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