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Judge from Mississippi civil rights murder trial dies at 79
Court Center | 2021/04/08 21:49
A private funeral will be held Friday for the Mississippi judge who handed down a life sentence to the white supremacist convicted of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Retired Hinds County Circuit Court Judge L. Breland Hilburn died Monday at the University of Mississippi Medical Center of complications from COVID-19, according to a news release from the state Administrative Office of Courts. He was 79.

Hilburn presided over the 1994 murder trial of former fertilizer salesman Byron De La Beckwith in the killing of Evers three decades earlier.

The Mississippi NAACP leader was shot to death in his own driveway shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, while his wife and their three small children were inside the home in Jackson. President John F. Kennedy had given a televised speech about civil rights hours earlier. Prosecutors said Beckwith staked out the Evers home, waiting across the street to assassinate the World War II veteran.

Two all-white juries tried Beckwith in the 1960s, but they deadlocked and mistrials were declared. The case was reopened in the early 1990s after new witnesses came forward. In 1994, an integrated jury convicted  Beckwith of murder, and Hilburn sentenced him to life in prison. Beckwith died in prison in 2001.

Hilburn retired May 31, 2002, after spending 30 years as a city, county or circuit judge. He continued working part-time in retirement as senior status judge until 2017 ? a position appointed by the state Supreme Court. In that role, Hilburn helped Hinds County deal with a long criminal docket when the jail was crowded with pretrial detainees.

William Gowan, another retired Hinds County circuit judge who has worked as a senior status judge, said in the state courts’ news release that Hilburn was “a public servant who could identify with the public.”

“He never tried to impress people with being a judge,” Gowan said.


High court revives ex-student’s suit against Georgia college
Court Center | 2021/03/08 22:32
from distributing Christian literature on campus.

The high court sided 8-1 with the student, Chike Uzuegbunam, and against Georgia Gwinnett College. Uzuegbunam has since graduated, and the public school in Lawrenceville, Georgia, has changed its policies. Lower courts said the case was moot, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

Groups across the political spectrum including the American Civil Liberties Union had said that the case is important to ensuring that people whose constitutional rights were violated can continue their cases even when governments reverse the policies they were challenging.

At issue was whether Uzuegbunam’s case could continue because he was only seeking so-called nominal damages of $1.

“This case asks whether an award of nominal damages by itself can redress a past injury. We hold that it can,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a majority of the court.

Writing only for himself, Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed. Roberts argued that the case brought by Uzuegbunam and another student, Joseph Bradford, is moot since the two are no longer students at the college, the restrictions no longer exist and they “have not alleged actual damages.”

Writing about the symbolic dollar they are seeking, Roberts said that: “If nominal damages can preserve a live controversy, then federal courts will be required to give advisory opinions whenever a plaintiff tacks on a request for a dollar.” He accused his colleagues of “turning judges into advice columnists.”

It appears to be the first time in his more than 15 years on the court that the chief justice has filed a solo dissent in an argued case. That’s according to Adam Feldman, the creator of the Empirical SCOTUS blog, which tracks a variety of data about the court.

Uzuegbunam’s lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that focuses on faith-based cases, cheered the ruling. “We are pleased that the Supreme Court weighed in on the side of justice for those victims,” she said in a statement.


Arizona Supreme Court upholds election challenge dismissal
Court Center | 2021/01/15 00:58
The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court decision dismissing the last in a series of challenges that sought to decerify Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

The high court ruling is the second time the majority-Republican court has turned aside an appeal of a court loss by backers of President Donald Trump seeking to overturn the results of the election. In all, eight lawsuits challenging Biden’s Arizona win have failed. It comes the day before a divided Congress is set to certify Biden’s victory.

Tuesday’s ruling from a four-judge panel of the high court agreed with a trial court judge in Pinal County that plaintiff Staci Burk lacked the right to contest the election. That’s because she wasn’t a registered voter at the time she filed her lawsuit, as required in state election contests. Both courts also agreed that she made her legal challenge too late, after the five-day period for filing such an action had passed.

Burk said in her lawsuit that she was a qualified Arizona voter, but officials said they discovered she wasn’t registered to vote. She later said she mistakenly thought “qualified electors” were people who were merely eligible to vote, and that her voter registration was canceled because election workers were unable to verify her address.

The Supreme Court said the fact that she wasn’t a registered voter was fatal to her ability to file an election challenge and that Burk admitted she knew she wasn’t registered.

“There is nothing before the Court to indicate that Appellant timely contacted the appropriate authorities to correct any problems with her voter registration,” Chief Justice Robert Brutinel wrote. “An election challenge ... is not the proper vehicle to reinstate voter registration.”

Biden won the state over Republican President Donald Trump by more than 10,000 votes and the results were certified last month.

The lawsuit brought by Burk, who isn’t a lawyer but represented herself, is nearly identical to a lawsuit dismissed in early December in federal court in Phoenix.

Burk’s lawsuit alleged Arizona’s election systems have security flaws that let election workers and foreign countries manipulate results. Opposing attorneys said the lawsuit used conspiracy theories to make allegations against a voting equipment vendor without any proof to back up claims of widespread election fraud in Arizona.

No evidence of voter or election fraud has emerged in Arizona. Despite that, Republicans who control the Legislature are pushing to review how Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, ran its election. Two subpoenas issued by the state Senate seeking an audit and to review voting machines, ballots and other materials are being challenged by Maricopa County.

Two of the failed legal challenges focused on the use of Sharpies to complete ballots were dismissed. Another lawsuit in which the Trump campaign sought inspection of ballots was dismissed after the campaign’s lawyer acknowledged the small number of ballots at issue wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

A judge dismissed a lawsuit in which the Arizona Republican Party tried to determine whether voting machines had been hacked.

Then a separate challenge by Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward was tossed out by a judge who concluded the Republican leader failed to prove fraud and that the evidence presented at trial wouldn’t reverse Trump’s defeat. The state Supreme Court upheld that decision in an earlier ruling.

And a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by conservative lawyer Sidney Powell, who alleged widespread election fraud through the manipulation of voting equipment. Burk’s lawsuit repeated some of Powell’s allegations word-for-word.


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Court Center | 2021/01/02 06:31
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Wisconsin Supreme Court tosses Trump election lawsuit
Court Center | 2020/12/14 03:39
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday rejected President Donald Trump’s lawsuit attempting to overturn his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the battleground state, ending Trump's legal challenges in state court about an hour before the Electoral College was to meet to cast the state's 10 votes for Biden.

The ruling came after the court held arguments Saturday, the same day a federal judge dismissed another Trump lawsuit seeking to overturn his loss in the state. Trump appealed that ruling.

Trump sought to have more than 221,000 ballots disqualified in Dane and Milwaukee counties, the state's two most heavily Democratic counties. He wanted to disqualify absentee ballots cast early and in-person, saying there wasn’t a proper written request made for the ballots; absentee ballots cast by people who claimed “indefinitely confined” status; absentee ballots collected by poll workers at Madison parks; and absentee ballots where clerks filled in missing information on ballot envelopes.

Liberal Justice Jill Karofsky blasted Trumps' case during Saturday's hearing, saying it “smacks of racism” and was “un-American.” Conservative justices voiced some concerns about how certain ballots were cast, while also questioning whether they could or should disqualify votes only in two counties.

Biden won Wisconsin by about 20,600 votes, a margin of 0.6% that withstood a Trump-requested recount in Milwaukee and Dane counties, the two with the most Democratic votes. Trump did not challenge any ballots cast in the counties he won.

Trump and his allies have suffered dozens of defeats in Wisconsin and across the country in lawsuits that rely on unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud and election abuse. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Texas lawsuit that sought to invalidate Biden’s win by throwing out millions of votes in four battleground states, including Wisconsin.


Trump's legal team cried vote fraud, but courts found none
Court Center | 2020/11/23 08:53
As they frantically searched for ways to salvage President Donald Trump's failed reelection bid, his campaign pursued a dizzying game of legal hopscotch across six states that centered on the biggest prize of all: Pennsylvania.

The strategy may have played well in front of television cameras and on talk radio. But it has proved a disaster in court, where judges uniformly rejected their claims of vote fraud and found the campaign's legal work amateurish.

In a ruling late Saturday, U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann ? a Republican and Federalist Society member in central Pennsylvania ? compared the campaign's legal arguments to “Frankenstein's Monster,” concluding that Trump's team offered only “speculative accusations," not proof of rampant corruption.

Now, as the legal doors close on Trump's attempts to have courts do what voters would not do on Election Day and deliver him a second term, his efforts in Pennsylvania show how far he is willing to push baseless theories of widespread voter fraud.

It was led by Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, who descended on the state the Saturday after the Nov. 3 election as the count dragged on and the president played golf. Summoning reporters to a scruffy, far-flung corner of Philadelphia on Nov. 7, he held forth at a site that would soon become legendary: Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

Just heating up was Trump’s plan to subvert the election through litigation and howls of fraud ? the same tactic he had used to stave off losses in the business world. And it would soon spread far beyond Pennsylvania.

“Some of the ballots looked suspicious,” Giuliani, 76, said of the vote count in Philadelphia as he stood behind a chain link fence, next to a sex shop. He maligned the city as being run by a “decrepit Democratic machine.”

“Those mail-in ballots could have been written the day before, by the Democratic Party hacks that were all over the convention center,” Giuliani said. He promised to file a new round of lawsuits. He rambled.

“This is a very, very strong case,” he asserted. Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in election law, called the Trump lawsuits dangerous.

“It is a sideshow, but it’s a harmful sideshow," Levitt said. “It’s a toxic sideshow. The continuing baseless, evidence-free claims of alternative facts are actually having an effect on a substantial number of Americans. They are creating the conditions for elections not to work in the future.”


Supreme Court to hear case about juvenile life sentences
Court Center | 2020/11/03 16:50
The Supreme Court is to hear arguments in a case that could put the brakes on what has been a gradual move toward more leniency for children who are convicted of murder. The court has concluded over the last two decades that children should be treated differently from adults, in part because of their lack of maturity. But a court that is even more conservative, particularly following the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, could move in the other direction.

Barrett is expected to participate in arguments Tuesday, the second day she is hearing arguments following her confirmation last week. The case before the justices, who are continuing to hear arguments by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic, has to do with what courts must conclude before sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The question stems from the court’s previous rulings on juvenile offenders. In 2005, the court eliminated the death penalty for offenders who were under 18 when they committed crimes. And in 2010 the court eliminated life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, except in cases where a juvenile has killed someone.

Then, in 2012, the justices in a 5-4 decision said juveniles who killed couldn’t automatically get life sentences with no chance of parole. And four years later, the justices said those sentences should be reserved “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

The justices are now being asked whether a juvenile has to be found to be “permanently incorrigible” before being sentenced to life without parole. No longer on the court are Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy, who were key to the 2012 decision limiting the use of life sentences. More conservative justices have replaced them.

The specific case before the justices involves Mississippi inmate Brett Jones, who was 15 and living with his grandparents when he fatally stabbed his grandfather. The two had a fight in the home’s kitchen after Bertis Jones found his grandson’s girlfriend in his grandson’s bedroom. Brett Jones, who was using a knife to make a sandwich before the fight, stabbed his grandfather first with that knife and then, when it broke, with a different knife.

He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is now 31.

The Supreme Court last year heard arguments in a different case about juvenile life sentences. That case involved Lee Boyd Malvo, who is serving life in prison for his role in the 2002 sniper spree that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area. But the case was dropped after Virginia passed legislation that gives those who were under 18 when they committed their crime an opportunity to seek parole after serving 20 years. Malvo, who was 17 when he committed his crimes, will be eligible for parole in 2024.


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