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High court blocks NY virus limits on houses of worship
Headline News | 2020/11/27 05:37
With coronavirus cases surging again nationwide, the Supreme Court barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus.

The justices split 5-4 late Wednesday night, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the conservative’s first publicly discernible vote as a justice. The court’s three liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

The move was a shift for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett’s liberal predecessor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was still on the court, the justices divided 5-4 to leave in place pandemic-related capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and Nevada.

The court’s action Wednesday could push New York to reevaluate its restrictions on houses of worship in areas designated virus hot spots. But the impact is also muted because the Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups that sued to challenge the restrictions are no longer subject to them.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Thursday the ruling was “more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else” and “irrelevant from any practical impact” given that the restrictions have already been removed.

“Why rule on a case that is moot and come up with a different decision than you did several months ago on the same issue?” Cuomo asked in a conference call with reporters. “You have a different court. And I think that was the statement that the court was making.”

The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America have churches and synagogues in areas of Brooklyn and Queens previously designated red and orange zones. In those red and orange zones, the state had capped attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively. But the those particular areas are now designated as yellow zones with less restrictive rules neither group challenged.

The justices acted on an emergency basis, temporarily barring New York from enforcing the restrictions against the groups while their lawsuits continue. In an unsigned opinion the court said the restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” the opinion said.


Court weighs challenge to Colorado discrimination law
Headline News | 2020/11/17 09:00
A Colorado web designer should not have to create wedding websites for same-sex couples under the state's anti-discrimination law because it would amount to forced speech that violates her religious beliefs, a lawyer told an appeals court Monday.

Kristen Waggoner, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, told a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that the issue for designer Lorie Smith, who is a Christian, is the message and not the customer.

“No one should be forced to express a message that violates their convictions,” Waggoner said during the virtual hearing. She is trying to revive a lawsuit challenging the state’s law, which her group also targeted on behalf of Colorado baker Jack Phillips in a case decided in 2018 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court decided the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had acted with anti-religious bias against Phillips after he refused to bake a cake for two men who were getting married. But it did not rule on the larger issue of whether a business can invoke religious objections to refuse service to LGBT people.

On Monday, Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich asked what Smith would do if she was approached by a straight wedding planner asking her to create four heterosexual wedding sites and one for a same-sex wedding. Waggoner said Smith would not take that job.

Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson questioned whether Smith should even be allowed to challenge the law since she has not started offering wedding websites yet.

But if she did, he said her argument would mean she would refuse to create a website for a hypothetical same-sex couple named Alex and Taylor but agree to make the same one for an opposite sex couple with the same names. He said that would be discrimination under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.


Republicans face court setbacks, Trump law firm steps down
Headline News | 2020/11/13 17:01
Republicans suffered setbacks to court challenges over the presidential election in three battleground states on Friday while a law firm that came under fire for its work for President Donald Trump’s campaign withdrew from a major Pennsylvania case.

The legal blows began when a federal appeals court rejected an effort to block about 9,300 mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day in Pennsylvania. The judges noted the “vast disruption” and “unprecedented challenges” facing the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic as they upheld the three-day extension.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith said the panel kept in mind “a proposition indisputable in our democratic process: that the lawfully cast vote of every citizen must count.”

The ruling involves a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to accept mail-in ballots through Friday, Nov. 6, citing the pandemic and concerns about postal service delays.

Republicans have also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue. However, there are not enough late-arriving ballots to change the results in Pennsylvania, given President-elect Joe Biden’s lead. The Democratic former vice president won the state by about 60,000 votes out of about 6.8 million cast.

The Trump campaign or Republican surrogates have filed more than 15 legal challenges in Pennsylvania as they seek to reclaim the state’s 20 electoral votes, but have so far offered no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.

A Philadelphia judge found none as he refused late Friday to reject about 8,300 mail-in ballots there. The campaign has pursued similar litigation in other battleground states, with little to show for it.

In Michigan, a judge Friday refused to stop the certification of Detroit-area election results, rejecting claims the city had committed fraud and tainted the count with its handling of absentee ballots. It’s the third time a judge has declined to intervene in a statewide count that shows Biden up by more than 140,000 votes.

And, in Arizona, a judge dismissed a Trump campaign lawsuit seeking the inspection of ballots in metro Phoenix after the campaign’s lawyers acknowledged the small number of ballots at issue wouldn’t change the outcome of how the state voted for president.

The campaign had sought a postponement of Maricopa County’s certification of election results until ballots containing overvotes ? instances in which people voted for more candidates than permitted ? were inspected.

Meanwhile, legal giant Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, which had come under fire for its work for the Trump campaign, withdrew from a lawsuit that seeks to stop Pennsylvania officials from certifying the election results.


High Court Won't Take up Ex-Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis' Case
Headline News | 2020/10/05 23:17
The Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision that allowed a lawsuit to move forward against a Kentucky clerk who was jailed in 2015 after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The high court said Monday it would not take the case involving Kim Davis, the former clerk of Rowan County, and two same-sex couples who had sued her. Soon after the 2015 Supreme Court decision in which same-sex couples won the right to marry nationwide, Davis, a Christian who has a religious objection to same-sex marriage, stopped issuing all marriage licenses.

That led to lawsuits against her, and a judge ordered Davis to issue the licenses. She spent five days in jail after refusing. Davis had argued that a legal doctrine called qualified immunity protected her from being sued for damages by couples David Ermold and David Moore as well as James Yates and Will Smith. Their case will now move forward. Davis, a Republican, ultimately lost her bid for reelection in 2018. Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr. is now the county’s clerk.

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas wrote for himself and Justice Samuel Alito that while he agreed with the decision not to hear the case, it was a "stark reminder of the consequences" of the court's 2015 decision in the same-sex marriage case. Because of that case, he wrote, “those with sincerely held religious beliefs concerning marriage will find it increasingly difficult to participate in society without running afoul" of the case “and its effect on other antidiscrimination laws.”


Trump taps ‘eminently qualified’ Barrett for Supreme Court
Headline News | 2020/10/01 16:23
President Donald Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Saturday, capping a dramatic reshaping of the federal judiciary that will resonate for a generation and that he hopes will provide a needed boost to his reelection effort.

Barrett, a former clerk to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, said she was “truly humbled” by the nomination and quickly aligned herself with Scalia’s conservative approach to the law, saying his “judicial philosophy is mine, too.”

Barrett, 48, was joined in the Rose Garden by her husband and seven children. If confirmed by the Senate, she would fill the seat vacated by liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It would be the sharpest ideological swing since Clarence Thomas replaced Justice Thurgood Marshall nearly three decades ago.

She would be the sixth justice on the nine-member court to be appointed by a Republican president, and the third of Trump’s first term in office.

Trump hailed Barrett as “a woman of remarkable intellect and character,” saying he had studied her record closely before making the pick.

Republican senators are lining up for a swift confirmation of Barrett ahead of the Nov. 3 election, as they aim to lock in conservative gains in the federal judiciary before a potential transition of power. Trump, meanwhile, is hoping the nomination will galvanize his supporters as he looks to fend off Democrat Joe Biden.

For Trump, whose 2016 victory hinged in large part on reluctant support from white evangelicals on the promise of filling Scalia’s seat with a conservative, the latest nomination in some ways brings his first term full circle. Even before Ginsburg’s death, Trump was running on having confirmed in excess of 200 federal judges, fulfilling a generational aim of conservative legal activists.

Trump joked that the confirmation process ahead “should be easy” and “extremely noncontroversial,” though it is likely to be anything but. No court nominee has been considered so close to a presidential election before, with early voting already underway. He encouraged legislators to take up her nomination swiftly and asked Democrats to “refrain from personal and partisan attacks.”

In 2016, Republicans blocked Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to fill the election-year vacancy, saying voters should have a say in the lifetime appointment. Senate Republicans say they will move ahead this time, arguing the circumstances are different now that the White House and Senate are controlled by the same party.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate will vote “in the weeks ahead” on Barrett’s confirmation. Barrett is expected to make her first appearance Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where she will meet with McConnell; Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chair of the Judiciary Committee; and others. Hearings are set to begin Oct. 12, and Graham said he hoped to have Barrett’s nomination out of the committee by Oct. 26.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that a vote to confirm Barrett to the high court would be a vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act. Schumer added that the president was once again putting “Americans’ healthcare in the crosshairs” even while the coronavirus pandemic rages.

Biden took that route of criticism, as well, framing Trump’s choice as another move in Republicans’ effort to scrap the 2010 health care law passed by his former boss, President Barack Obama. The court is expected to take up a case against it this fall.

The set design at the Rose Garden, with large American flags hung between the colonnades, appeared to be modeled on the way the White House was decorated when President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg in 1993.

Barrett, recognizing that flags were still lowered in recognition of Ginsburg’s death, said she would be “mindful of who came before me.” Although they have different judicial philosophies, Barrett praised Ginsburg as a trailblazer for women and for her friendship with Scalia, saying, “She has won the admiration of women across the country and indeed all across the world.”

Within hours of Ginsburg’s death, Trump made clear he would nominate a woman for the seat. Barrett was the early favorite and the only one to meet with Trump.

Barrett has been a judge since 2017, when Trump nominated her to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But as a longtime University of Notre Dame law professor, she had already established herself as a reliable conservative in the mold of Scalia, for whom she clerked in the late 1990s.




Court OK’s $800M settlement for MGM Resorts, Vegas victims
Headline News | 2020/10/01 16:22
A court on Wednesday approved a settlement totaling $800 million from casino company MGM Resorts International and its insurers to more than 4,400 relatives and victims of the Las Vegas Strip shooting that was the deadliest in recent U.S. history.  The action makes final a deal settling dozens of lawsuits on the eve of the third anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 58 people and injured more than 850 at an open-air concert near the Mandalay Bay resort.

“By the grace of God, myself and my family are going to be OK,” said Stephanie Fraser, a plaintiff in the lawsuit from La Palma, California. “I needed to be able to protect our kids.” Clark County District Court Judge Linda Bell, in her brief order, cited “near-unanimous participation in the settlement among potential claimants.”  Authorities said more than 22,000 people were attending an outdoor music festival when a gunman firing military-style weapons from windows on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay rained rapid-fire bullets into the crowd.  Fraser’s husband of 13 years, Brian Fraser, a vice president at a mortgage company, died after being shot in the chest as they danced while country music singer Jason Aldean performed.

“Brian is missed beyond words by all of us — all of our family and all of our friends,” Stephanie Fraser told The Associated Press. The couple had four children and stepchildren. She and her attorney, Dan Robinson, declined to say how much they’ll receive in the settlement. “With this coming to an end, it brings closure and allows us to put pieces back together,” Fraser said. “Brian would want that for us.” MGM Resorts, owner of the hotel and the concert venue, acknowledged no liability. It will pay $49 million, while its insurance companies will pay $751 million.

“We are grateful that the decision brings families, victims and the community closer to closure,” the company said in a statement. It noted the anniversary of the Oct. 1, 2017, event, calling it “a time of great sadness and reflection.” Memorial ceremonies are scheduled Thursday at several venues in Las Vegas, including a reading of the names of the slain beginning at 10:05 p.m. — the time the first shots rang out. Attorney Robert Eglet, the plaintiffs’ lawyer who spent a year arranging the settlement with clients, legal firms and attorneys in at least 10 states, said the amounts to be disbursed will be determined by two retired judges and he’s hopeful that payments will begin going out by the end of the year.

“There’ve been no objections and we expect no appeals,” Eglet told The Associated Press. “We’ll send out notices of the order. After 30 days the $800 million will be deposited.” The case will be dismissed at that time, he added.  “Our firm and the other leadership firms hope it helps victims and their families find some sense of closure and healing,” said Mark Robinson Jr., a California attorney representing Fraser and more than one-third of the shooting victims.

Eglet previously said that everyone involved “recognized there are no winners in long, drawn-out litigation with multiple trials where people and the community are reliving the event every time we try a case.”  A line-by-line list of victims, identified by their initials only, runs for more than 170 pages of a 225-page civil complaint filed Sept. 9 seeking compensation and punitive damages from MGM Resorts. It accused the casino company of negligence, wrongful death and liability in the 2017 shooting.

Plaintiffs came from nearly every state in the U.S., at least eight Canadian provinces, the United Kingdom, Iran and Ireland. In various lawsuits, victims and families accused MGM Resorts of failing to protect people at the concert venue or stop the shooter from amassing an arsenal of weapons and ammunition over several days before he opened fire.

Millions of dollars could go to the most severely and permanently injured, Eglet said, depending on factors including age, number of dependents, type of injuries, previous and future medical treatment, and ability to work.  A minimum $5,000 would go to each person who filed a claim for unseen injuries and did not seek medical attention or therapy. Court filings in the case don’t mention the gunman, Stephen Paddock, who killed himself before police closed in.  Las Vegas police and the FBI determined the 64-year-old retired accountant and high-stakes poker player meticulously planned the attack and acted alone. They theorized he may have sought notoriety, but said they never determined a clear motive for the attack.



'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.


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