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Minnesota Supreme Court defers ruling on Minneapolis police
Legal News | 2021/09/16 18:05
The Minnesota Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling Thursday in the fight over a ballot question about the future of policing in Minneapolis, but it didn’t settle the bigger question of whether the public will get to vote on the issue.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea’s ruling lifted a small part of a lower court’s order that rejected the ballot language approved by the City Council, saying that elections officials don’t have to include notes with ballots instructing people not to vote on the question and that any votes won’t be counted.

The order didn’t address the main issue in dispute — whether voters will get to decide on a proposed charter amendment that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety that “could include” police officers “if necessary.”

The proposal has its roots in the “defund the police” movement that gained steam after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last summer, but it leaves critical details about the new agency to be determined later.

The Supreme Court was under pressure to rule quickly because early and absentee voting opens Friday in the Minneapolis municipal elections, and ballots have already been printed.

Terrance Moore, an attorney for the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, which spearheaded the proposal, said he expects a ruling on the bigger question to come at some point later. The city attorney’s office agreed that the high court has yet to rule on the main issues.

Joe Anthony, an attorney for former City Council member Don Samuels and two other people who challenged the ballot language as misleading, called the order “a little mysterious.” He noted the lower court injunction barring counting and reporting votes was left in place, at least for the moment. There are a few possibilities for what could happen next, he said, including the Supreme Court taking time for fuller arguments, then deciding by Nov. 2 whether the votes cast would count.


1st female LGBT federal appeals court nominee to get hearing
Legal News | 2021/09/14 19:23
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is considering President Joe Biden’s nomination of a Vermont judge who played a role in the state’s passage of the first-in-the-nation civil unions law, a forerunner of same-sex marriage, to become the first openly LGBT woman to serve on any federal circuit court.

At the start of the Tuesday hearing, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, called the nomination of Beth Robinson, an associate justice on the Vermont Supreme Court, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit “truly historic.” The court’s territory includes Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

“She’s been hailed as a tireless champion for equal rights and equal justice in the mode of the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Leahy said as he introduced Robinson. “It’s no exaggeration to say that Beth helped Vermont and America more fully realizing the meaning of equality under the law.”

Robinson helped argue the case that led to Vermont’s 2000 civil unions law. She has served on the Vermont Supreme Court since 2011.

She “has built a reputation for her impartiality, and fair application of the law,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, in his introduction. “She treats people with respect and compassion and she understands the duty of the court to provide equitable justice.”

Robinson told the committee that she would be honored to continue her work promoting the rule of law as a judge on the 2nd circuit.


Supreme Court hanging up phone, back to in-person arguments
Legal News | 2021/09/08 19:33
The justices are putting the “court” back in Supreme Court. The high court announced Wednesday that the justices plan to return to their majestic, marble courtroom for arguments beginning in October, more than a year and a half after the in-person sessions were halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The justices had been hearing cases by phone during the pandemic but are currently on their summer break. The court said that oral arguments scheduled for October, November and December will be in the courtroom but that: “Out of concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees, the Courtroom sessions will not be open to the public.”

“The Court will continue to closely monitor public health guidance in determining plans,” the announcement said.

The court said that while lawyers will no longer argue by telephone, the public will continue to be able to hear the arguments live. Only the justices, essential court personnel, lawyers in the cases being argued and journalists who cover the court full-time will be allowed in the courtroom. The court that returns to the bench is significantly different from the one that left it.

When the justices last sat together on the bench at their neoclassical building across the street from the U.S. Capitol on March 9, 2020, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the court’s most senior liberal and conservatives held a narrow 5-4 majority. But Ginsburg died in September 2020, and her replacement by conservative Amy Coney Barrett in the final days of the Trump administration has given conservatives a significant 6-3 majority.

Because of the pandemic, Barrett has yet to be part of a traditional courtroom argument, with the justices asking questions of lawyers in rapid succession, jockeying for an opening to ask what’s on their minds. The arguments the court heard by telephone were more predictable and polite, with the justices taking turns asking questions, one by one, in order of seniority. That often meant the arguments went longer than their scheduled hour.

It also meant that lawyers and the public heard from the previously reticent Justice Clarence Thomas in every telephone argument. Before the pandemic Thomas routinely went years without speaking during arguments and had said he doesn’t like his colleagues’ practice of rapid-fire questioning that cuts off attorneys. “I don’t see where that advances anything,” he said in 2012.

One change from the remote arguments will stay for now. The justices said they will continue their practice during the pandemic of allowing audio of oral arguments to be broadcast live by the news media. Before the pandemic, the court would only very occasionally allow live audio of arguments in particularly high profile cases.

That meant that the only people who heard the arguments live were the small number of people in the courtroom. The court releases a transcript of the arguments on the same day but, before the pandemic, only posted the audio on its website days after.


Court rules Catholic school wrongfully fired gay substitute
Legal News | 2021/09/06 21:48
A gay substitute teacher was wrongfully fired by a Roman Catholic school in North Carolina after he announced in 2014 on social media that he was going to marry his longtime partner, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn ruled Friday that Charlotte Catholic High School and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Charlotte violated Lonnie Billard’s federal protections against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Cogburn granted summary judgment to Billard and said a trial must still be held to determine appropriate relief for him.

“After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained to teach all this time,” Billard said in a statement released Friday by the ACLU, which represented him in court. “Today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”

Billard taught English and drama full-time at the school for more than a decade, earning its Teacher of the Year award in 2012. He then transitioned to a role as a regular substitute teacher, typically working more than a dozen weeks per year, according to his 2017 lawsuit.

He posted about his upcoming wedding in October 2014 and was informed by an assistant principal several weeks later that he no longer had a job with the school, according to the ruling.

The defendants said that they fired Billard not because he was gay, but rather because “he engaged in ‘advocacy’ that went against the Catholic Church’s beliefs” when he publicly announced he was marrying another man, the ruling said.

But Cogburn ruled that the school’s action didn’t fit into exemptions to labor law that give religious institutions leeway to require certain employees to adhere to religious teachings, nor was the school’s action protected by constitutional rights to religious freedom.


Maryland’s highest court reviewing teen sniper’s life term
Legal News | 2021/08/30 01:15
Maryland’s highest court has agreed to take up the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, who is serving life in prison for his role in the 2002 sniper spree that terrorized the Washington, D.C., region.

Malvo’s lawyers argue that his punishment goes against a 2012 Supreme Court ruling barring mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders and Malvo should benefit from Maryland’s new law enabling prisoners convicted as juveniles to seek release once they’ve served at least 20 years.

The state Court of Appeals granted a “bypass” review in Malvo’s case and that of two others serving life sentences for crimes committed as youths, news outlets report. The order issued Wednesday scheduled oral arguments to begin in January.

Malvo was 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad embarked on a killing spree that left 10 people dead and three wounded in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Others were killed as the pair made their way to the D.C. region from Washington state. Muhammad was executed in 2009.

Malvo has claimed that the six life-without-parole terms he received in Maryland are illegal in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions saying mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles except in rare cases.

His case may have new standing after Maryland’s General Assembly abolished life without parole for youths, overriding a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan. Virginia passed similar legislation last year. That change prompted Malvo to drop a legal appeal that had gone to the Supreme Court to determine if his life sentence should be rescinded.


Idaho Supreme Court overturns tougher ballot initiative law
Legal News | 2021/08/26 01:51
The Idaho Supreme Court has rejected a new law designed to make it harder for voters to get initiatives on the ballot, saying the legislation was so restrictive that it violated a fundamental right under the state’s constitution.

The ruling issued Monday was a win for Reclaim Idaho, a group that successfully sponsored a Medicaid expansion initiative three years ago and that is now working to qualify an initiative for the ballot that aims to increase public education funding.

Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke said in a prepared statement that members of the House Republican Caucus were disappointed by the ruling. He said the law would have increased voter involvement, “especially in the corners of the state too often forgotten by some.”

Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville said the ruling means thousands of Idaho residents are “breathing sighs of relief.”

“Nearly every time in our history that our legislature attempted to eliminate the initiative process, either the governor or the courts stepped up to protect the rights of the people. Today’s decision adds a new chapter to that history, and future generations of Idahoans will look back on the court’s decision with gratitude,” Mayville said in a prepared statement.

The high court’s opinion written by Justice Gregory Moeller was unanimous in its main conclusion — that the law should be overturned — though two of the justices said they would have gotten at the same conclusion in slightly different ways.

“The ability of the legislature to make laws related to a fundamental right arises from the reality that, in an ordered society, few rights are absolute,” Moeller wrote. “However, the legislature’s duty to give effect to the people’s rights is not a free pass to override constitutional constraints and legislate a right into non-existence, even if the legislature believes doing so is in the people’s best interest.”

The case pitted the rights of voters to enact and repeal laws against the power of the state Legislature to shape how ballot initiative efforts are carried out. The new law, which passed earlier this year, required signature-gatherers to get 6% of registered voters in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts within a short time span. Opponents said it made Idaho’s initiative process the toughest in the nation, rendering such efforts virtually impossible to achieve. But supporters said the law would protect people with less popular political opinions from being overrun by the majority.


Judge tells prison to seize Nassar’s money for victims
Legal Interview | 2021/08/23 02:10
A judge ordered the government to take money from the prison account of a former Michigan sports doctor who owes about $58,000 to victims of his child pornography crimes.

Larry Nassar has received about $13,000 in deposits since 2018, including $2,000 in federal stimulus checks, but has paid only $300 toward court-ordered financial penalties and nothing to his victims, prosecutors said.

He had a prison account balance of $2,041 in July.

“Because (Nassar) has received substantial non-exempt funds in his inmate trust account since incarceration, he was required by law to notify the court and the United States attorney and to apply those funds to the restitution that he still owed,” U.S. District Judge Janet Neff said Thursday.

In a court filing, Nassar said he had received “gifts” from “third parties.”

He said inmates should be paid a “living wage” for prison jobs so they can “make reasonable payments towards restitution.”

Nassar was a doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians. He pleaded guilty in federal court to child pornography crimes before pleading guilty in state court to sexually assaulting female gymnasts.

Nassar is serving decades in prison.


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