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Lawyer: Case of Black inmate set to die reveals racial bias
Legal Watch | 2020/09/25 05:01
The lawyer for the first Black inmate scheduled to die this year as part of the Trump administration’s resumption of federal executions says race played a central role in landing her client on death row for slaying a young white Iowa couple and burning them in the trunk of their car.

One Black juror and 11 white jurors heard the 2000 federal case in Texas against Christopher Vialva, who is now 40 but was 19 at the time of the killings. Prosecutors portrayed Vialva as the leader of a Black street-gang faction and alleged he killed the deeply religious husband and wife, Todd and Stacie Bagley, to boost his status within the gang, attorney Susan Otto said.

But Otto contends there was no evidence Vialva, scheduled to be put to death Thursday, was even a full-fledged member ? let alone a leader ? of the 212 PIRU Bloods gang in his Killeen, Texas, hometown. She said the false claim only served to conjure up menacing stereotypes to prejudice the nearly all-white jury.

“It played right into the narrative that he was a dangerous Black thug who killed these lovely white people. And they were lovely,” Otto said in a recent phone interview. She added: “Race was a very strong component of this case.”

Questions about racial bias in the criminal justice system have been front and center since protests erupted across the country following the  death of George Floyd after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on the handcuffed Black man’s neck for several minutes.



White House lawyer in running for seat on the Supreme Court
Opinions | 2020/09/22 12:02
President Donald Trump didn't have to look very far for one of the contenders on his short list to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court: he's been considering one of his own lawyers.

Kate Comerford Todd is a deputy White House counsel, helping navigate Trump's White House through a thicket of legal issues. It's a role she knows well, having served in the counsel's office during the administration of the last Republican president, George W. Bush.

Todd, 45, is the only lawyer mentioned as being on Trump's shortlist who has not previously been a judge, though she's hardly unfamiliar with the high court, having clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas. Her experience is otherwise diverse: she's twice counseled the White House, worked at a prestigious law firm and represented the interests of a leading business advocacy group.

“She is absolutely brilliant,” said Helgi Walker, a partner at the Gibson Dunn law firm who also served as a Thomas law clerk and in the White House counsel's office under Bush. “She is thoughtful, caring, considerate. She always tries to get it right, no matter what she's doing.”

Trump has signaled that he intends to name a woman for the third Supreme Court selection of his administration. Amy Coney Barrett is emerging as the early favorite to be the nominee after he met with her Monday before leaving the White House to campaign in Ohio. Todd was viewed as the favorite of White House lawyers, but there were concerns that the confirmation process would not be as smooth for a first-time jurist, according to people familiar with the situation.


Biden to focus on health care in Supreme Court debate
Legal Watch | 2020/09/20 22:56
Joe Biden on Sunday used the sudden Supreme Court vacancy to reinforce his argument that the upcoming election should be a referendum on President Donald Trump's handling of health care and the coronavirus.

The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg jolted the presidential campaign just six weeks before the election and as several states are already voting. Trump has seized on the opportunity to nominate a new justice to motivate his most loyal voters. Biden kept the focus on health care, which has proven to be a winning issue for Democrats during previous elections and could be even more resonant amid the pandemic.

The Supreme Court will hear a Republican-led case seeking to throw out the Affordable Care Act, which the Trump administration supports, the week after the Nov. 3 election. Biden charged that Trump is seeking to undermine the protections for people with pre-existing conditions under the ACA, as well as its provisions covering preventative care for women.

“Millions of Americans are voting because they know their health care hangs in the balance," Biden said during remarks at Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “In the middle of the worst global health crisis in living memory, Donald Trump is before the Supreme Court, trying to strip health care coverage away from tens of millions of families.”

The Supreme Court could also hear cases on a few more particularly salient issues in the next few months: voting rights, and potentially who wins the November election.

Biden is expected to focus in the weeks ahead on the Democratic fight to prevent a nominee from being confirmed to the court, with a particular emphasis on the effect the court could have on health care and climate change. Biden aides stopped short of ruling out the possibility the campaign would advertise around the court fight, though that decision hadn’t been finalized.


Shooting outside US court in Phoenix wounds federal officer
Legal News | 2020/09/16 15:52
A drive-by shooting wounded a federal security officer outside the U.S. courthouse in downtown Phoenix on Tuesday, and a person was later taken into custody, authorities said. The officer was taken to a hospital and was expected to recover, according to city police and the FBI. Jill McCabe, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Phoenix office, said someone was later detained and there was no indication of a further threat to the public.

The court security officer works for the U.S. Marshals Service and was struck in their protective vest, said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly. Court security officers work under the direction of the U.S. Marshals Service but generally are employed by private security companies.

The FBI said it isn’t providing any more details as it investigates. Police had released a photo of a silver sedan spotted leaving the area around the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse. Hours after the shooting, a street surrounding the courthouse was closed to traffic, roped off by yellow tape with police officers standing on each corner. Armed federal officers talked outside the main entrance to the courthouse, which was still open to the public, according to a court clerk.

The shooting came after the weekend ambush of two Los Angeles County deputies. They were sitting in their parked vehicle when a man walked up to the passenger’s side and fired multiple rounds. The deputies were struck in the head and critically wounded but were expected to recover. The gunman hasn’t been captured, and a motive has not been determined. Federal courthouses have been flashpoints for recent violence, but it’s not clear who shot the officer in Phoenix or why.

In June, a federal security officer was shot and killed and his partner was wounded outside the federal courthouse in Oakland as they guarded the building during protests over racial injustice and police brutality. An Air Force sergeant was charged with the shooting, and prosecutors say he had ties to the far-right, anti-government “boogaloo” movement and used the protest as cover for the crime and his escape.

During demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, protesters and federal officers clashed at the federal courthouse, where people set fires and tossed fireworks and rocks, while federal authorities unleashed tear gas and made arrests.


'Hotel Rwanda' hero charged with terrorism in Rwanda court
Headline News | 2020/09/15 22:52
A Rwandan court on Monday charged Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda,” with terrorism, complicity in murder, and forming an armed rebel group.

Rusesabagina declined to respond to all 13 charges, saying some did not qualify as criminal offenses and saying that he denied the accusations when he was questioned by Rwandan investigators.

Rusesabagina, 66, asked to be released on bail, citing poor health that has caused him to be taken to hospital three times in the time that he has been held in Rwanda.

“I request that I am given bail and I assure the court that I will not flee from justice,” Rusesabagina said. The court said it will rule on his bail application on Thursday.

Rusesabagina was represented by Rwandan lawyers David Rugaza and Ameline Nyembo, who have been discounted as state-imposed representation by his family outside Rwanda.

Neither his lawyers nor the prosecution explained the circumstances under which Rusesabagina arrived in Kigali at the end of August from Dubai. He had traveled from the U.S. to Dubai and then mysteriously appeared in Rwanda. The Rwandan court said the suspect was arrested at Kigali International Airport, contradicting the earlier police version that he was arrested through “international cooperation.”

When Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke on national broadcasting about the case, he indicated that Rusesabagina may have been tricked i nto boarding a private plane in Dubai that took him to Rwanda.

Amnesty International on Monday urged Rwandan authorities to guarantee Rusesabagina his right to a fair trial.


Wisconsin Supreme Court halts Dane County school order
Court Center | 2020/09/12 17:32
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has temporarily blocked an order that prevented most students in Dane County from attending school in person, restrictions issued by health leaders to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

The court, a 4-3 vote, agreed Thursday night to hear a lawsuit challenging the Public Health Madison and Dane County order.

The court's conservative justices were in favor of hearing the case, while more liberal justices opposed. The county's order issued Aug. 21 required students in grades 3-12 be taught online.

The court issued a temporary injunction on the county's order, which means schools across the county can open immediately.



Democrats appeal Green Party case to Pennsylvania high court
Court Center | 2020/09/12 00:32
Democrats on Thursday signaled their intent to appeal a lower court decision ordering election officials to put the Green Party’s candidate for president on the ballot in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

They filed an intent to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, where the Democratic majority-panel will could decide the last remaining legal hangup before ballots can be mailed out to voters who applied for one.

The Democrats’ protest targets what they say are disqualifying irregularities in how the Green Party candidates for president and vice president filed affidavits that accompany paperwork to get them on the ballot.

The lower court judge, a Republican, dismissed arguments that the presidential nominee, Howie Hawkins, should be barred from the ballot, but agreed that the Green Party’s vice presidential nominee should be barred.

In 2016, Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 44,292 votes in Pennsylvania, helping him win the White House. The Green Party’s nominee that year, Jill Stein, drew slightly more votes than that, 49,941.

Democrats have already dropped their challenges to Green Party candidates for three statewide offices, attorney general, treasurer and auditor general.


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