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Cemetery case puts property rights issue before high court
Legal Watch | 2018/10/05 06:22
Rose Mary Knick makes no bones about it. She doesn't buy that there are bodies buried on her eastern Pennsylvania farmland, and she doesn't want people strolling onto her property to visit what her town says is a small cemetery.

Six years ago, however, Knick's town passed an ordinance that requires anyone with a cemetery on their land to open it to the public during the day. The town ordered Knick to comply, threatening a daily fine of $300 to $600 if she didn't. Knick's response has been to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in her case Wednesday.

"Would you want somebody roaming around in your backyard?" Knick asked during a recent interview on her Lackawanna County property, which is posted with signs warning against trespassing.

Her neighbors in Scott Township, the Vail family, say they just want to visit their ancestors' graves.

The Supreme Court isn't going to weigh in on whether there's a cemetery on Knick's land. Instead, it's considering whether people with property rights cases like Knick's can bring their cases to federal court or must go to state court, an issue groups nationwide are interested in.

Knick, 69, says her town's ordinance wouldn't protect her if people injure themselves on her land and sue. And she says if the town is going to take her private property and open it up to the public, they should pay her. She says she believes that the town was trying to make an example out of her for questioning lawmakers' decisions.


Supreme Court could limit execution of people with dementia
Court Center | 2018/10/04 06:24
The Supreme Court appeared willing Tuesday to extend protection from capital punishment to people with dementia who can't recall their crime or understand the circumstances of their execution.

The eight justices heard arguments in the case of Alabama death row inmate Vernon Madison, who killed a police officer in 1985 but has suffered strokes that his lawyers say have left him with severe dementia.

The high court has previously said the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment means that people who are insane, delusional or psychotic cannot be executed.

A ruling for Madison probably would mean a new hearing in state court over whether his condition renders him ineligible for execution.

Chief Justice John Roberts and the court's four liberal justices seemed most willing to rule for Madison. The other three justices, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, are unlikely to side with Madison because they voted to allow his execution to proceed when their colleagues blocked it in January, setting up the current case.

In a reflection of the changed dynamics on the court, Roberts' vote would appear to be decisive since a 4-4 split would leave in place a state court ruling against Madison and allow Alabama to try again to execute him. The high court is down one justice, following Anthony Kennedy's retirement in July and a delay in a vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh so that the FBI can investigate allegations against him of sexual misconduct.

Kennedy had been the conservative justice most likely to vote with the liberals on death penalty cases. The court agreed to hear the appeal while Kennedy was on the bench. He had been a key voice in limiting capital punishment, having voted to bar the execution of people under 18, the intellectually disabled and those who lack a rational understanding of why they are to be put to death.



High court denies review of Grand Canyon-area mining ban
Legal News | 2018/10/02 16:23
The U.S. Supreme Court won't review an Obama-era action that put land around the Grand Canyon off-limits to new mining claims, ending the legal battle as environmentalists keep a close eye on actions by the Trump administration that they fear could lead to more access for the mining industry.

The Obama administration put about 1,562 square miles (4,045 square kilometers) outside the boundaries of the national park off-limits to new hard rock mining claims until 2032. The 20-year ban was meant to slow a flurry of mining claims over concern that the Colorado River — a major water source serving 30 million people — could become contaminated and to allow for scientific studies.

The mining industry asked the Supreme Court in March to review the ban, saying it was based on an unconstitutional provision of federal law. The high court on Monday declined the request, leaving the ban in place.

"Clearly, we're disappointed," said Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. "There continues to be great risk to our domestic supply chain thanks to unwarranted withdrawals like this." Burke said the association will continue advocating for land access. The American Exploration and Mining Association also challenged the ban. Environmentalists hailed the court's decision but are worried the ban could be undone administratively.





Supreme Court won't hear case over California beach access
Lawyer Blogs | 2018/10/02 06:24
The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from a California billionaire who doesn't want to open a road on his property so that the public can access a beach.

The justices said that they will not take up Vinod Khosla's appeal of a California appeals court decision. The case had the potential to upend California's longstanding efforts to keep beaches open to the public.

Khosla bought the property in the San Francisco Bay Area for $32.5 million in 2008 and later blocked the public from accessing it. That prompted a lawsuit by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation.

A state appeals court ruled last year that Khosla needed to apply for a coastal development permit before denying public access.

Khosla - a venture capitalist who co-founded the Silicon Valley technology company, Sun Microsystems - closed a gate, put up a no-access sign and painted over a billboard at the entrance to the property that had advertised access to the beach, according to the appellate ruling.

The secluded beach south of Half Moon Bay, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of San Francisco, is only accessible by a road that goes over Khosla's land.



Court to explore competency claim of ailing Alabama inmate
Top Legal News | 2018/10/01 08:25
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in the case of an inmate sentenced to death for killing an Alabama police officer in 1985 but who lawyers say can no longer remember the murder because of stroke-induced dementia.

Justices will decide if it would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute Vernon Madison, 68, because of the mental declines he has experienced resulting from strokes. Madison was convicted of killing Mobile police officer Julius Schulte in 1985.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said death row prisoners must have "rational understanding" that they are about to be executed and why.

Atorneys for Madison say he has an IQ score of 72, suffers from vascular dementia and memory loss as a result of brain damage from several strokes and "does not remember the crime for which he has been convicted and does not have a rational understanding of why the state of Alabama seeks to execute him."

"The execution of Vernon Madison consequently is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment's essential commitment to human dignity," attorney Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative wrote.

Madison's lawyers in court filings described him as a physically and mentally frail man who attended a competency hearing in a wheelchair. They say he is incontinent, legally blind, frequently confused, can no longer recite the alphabet and repeatedly asks for his deceased mother to visit him.

A state court in 2016 ruled that Madison was competent. A neuropsychologist hired by the defense team said that Madison has no independent recollection of the murder. A court-appointed psychologist found that while Madison had suffered a mental and physical decline, he was able to recall details of his case and appeals.

The Alabama attorney general's office cast doubt on the defense description of Madison's mental state in court filings. They argued he claimed as far back as 1990 to have amnesia about the murder and that the court-appointed expert concluded he could recall and understood many details about his life, trial and looming death sentence.

But ultimately, the state argued the Eighth Amendment doesn't prohibit executing someone who lost can't remember their crime.


The Latest: 6 countries seek criminal probe of Venezuela
Legal Watch | 2018/09/29 07:22
Six countries from the Americas say they are asking the International Criminal Court to investigate Venezuela's government for alleged crimes against humanity. It's the first time that member countries have referred another country to the Netherlands-based U.N. court.

Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Canada made the announcement on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting.

The court has already opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that since April 2017 Venezuelan government forces "frequently used excessive force to disperse and put down demonstrations," and abused some opposition members in detention.

Wednesday's move could broaden the scope of the existing preliminary probe. The countries accuse Venezuela of several crimes including murder, torture and unjust imprisonment.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says his meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was "very positive."

Pompeo made the comment on Twitter on Wednesday after meeting with Ri at the U.N. General Assembly. The meeting comes as U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un work to set up a widely expected second summit to restart stalled diplomacy meant to rid the North of its nuclear weapons.

Pompeo said that "much work remains, but we will continue to move forward."

Kim made denuclearization vows last week in a summit with the South Korean president in Pyongyang, but there's still skepticism over his sincerity to relinquish weapons that many believe are the only major guarantee of his continued authoritarian rule.


Bill Cosby's day of reckoning arrives in court
Headline News | 2018/09/28 10:20
The woman Bill Cosby was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting said in a statement released at the comedian's sentencing Tuesday that she has had to cope with years of anxiety and self-doubt that have left her "stuck in a holding pattern."

Andrea Constand, 45, said her training as a professional basketball player had led her to think she could handle anything, but "life as I knew it" ended on the night in 2004 that Cosby knocked her out with pills and violated her.

The statement was released as Judge Steven O'Neill weighed Cosby's punishment and whether to declare the 81-year-old TV star a "sexually violent predator," a legal scarlet letter that would subject the comedian to monthly counseling for the rest of his life and would require that neighbors, schools and day care center be notified of his whereabouts.

The comic once known as America's Dad faced anywhere from probation to 10 years in prison after being convicted in April in the first celebrity trial of the #MeToo era.

Prosecutors asked a judge to give Cosby five to 10 years behind bars, while his lawyers asked for house arrest, saying the former TV star is too old and helpless to do time in prison.

Constand said she now lives alone with her two dogs and has trouble trusting people.

"When the sexual assault happened, I was a young woman brimming with confidence and looking forward to a future bright with possibilities," she wrote in her five-page statement.


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