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US lawmaker fears open-ended US military pact in Iraq
Headline News | 2008/03/06 20:48

A top lawmaker voiced fears Tuesday that US President George Bush's administration was negotiating deals with Iraq that would amount to an open-ended commitment to stage US combat missions there.

Administration officials say formal US-Iraqi negotiations will begin later this month on a legal framework aimed at keeping security policy options open for both countries beyond 2008, when the UN mandate for US forces ends.

David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, told a joint meeting of two congressional subcommittees Tuesday that "the agreements will not tie the hands of the next president or indeed this president.

"They will ensure that every policy option remains on the table," Satterfield told the lawmaking panels. "The size of the US presence in Iraq, the missions to be performed by such forces if forces are present, are decisions for the president and the next president to make," he added.

The so-called Strategic Framework and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), he insisted, "will not include a binding commitment to defend Iraq or any other security commitments that would warrant Senate advice and consent.



Team New Zealand take Swiss champions to court
Headline News | 2008/03/06 16:58
The New Zealand syndicate for the next America's Cup race said Thursday it is seeking "tens of millions of euros" in compensation from Swiss champions Alinghi over the event's postponement.

Team New Zealand said it had filed a case with a New York court claiming damages for breach of contract arising from an agreement covering its entry for the 33rd edition of yachting's showpiece event.

The agreement included an "understanding entered into by (Alinghi boss) Ernesto Bertarelli that the America's Cup would go ahead in 2009," it said in a statement.

"It's now probable we might not see a normal regatta until 2011," Team New Zealand's managing director Grant Dalton said in the statement.

The statement did not indicate the amount of damages it was seeking. But Dalton told AFP in a telephone interview from New York that it would be "tens of millions of euros."

"We have a duty to protect the investment in the team over many years by a wide range of loyal supporters," Dalton said.

"We also have an obligation to honour the trust shown by the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who have supported the team through the years."

Alinghi retained the America's Cup by beating Team New Zealand in a hugely successful event in the Spanish port of Valencia in July.

But the 33rd edition of the race was indefinitely postponed because of a legal dispute between Alinghi and US syndicate Oracle over the rules.

Team New Zealand said it has also filed a second case in a Federal Court under US anti-trust laws.

That suit claims Alinghi "has acted to stifle competition for the Cup and for the right that goes with it of conducting future events" by accepting the Spanish syndicate Desafio as its challenger of record, "thereby enabling it to impose rules for the next event that were competely one-sided."

Oracle last July filed a lawsuit in the US against Alinghi's decision to name Desafio as its official challenger of record, which gave it the right to negotiate the format of the America's Cup with the Swiss syndicate.

In November, a New York court ruled in favour of Oracle and said the US team should be Alinghi's challenger of record.

"Bertarelli had the chance to accept a reasonable proposal from Oracle, which was also signed by the majority of the challengers, and which would have allowed the America's Cup to be held in 2009," Dalton said. "He would not do so."

Alinghi said it was "disappointed" by the action by Team New Zealand, "given their previous public acceptance and commitment to the competition.

"These actions are totally without merit, wildly miss the target and will be defended rigorously," Lucien Masmejan, Alinghi's legal counsel, said in a statement.

"We share the sailing community's frustration in the delays affecting the America's Cup but Alinghi, as trustee, is duty bound to defend its position in the current legal action and to preserve the integrity of the America's Cup."

The format of the 33rd America's Cup challenge is still subject to an imminent ruling by the New York court, with a multihull duel between Alinghi and Oracle seen as the most likely outcome, rather than a regatta involving several teams.

The two teams have begun training in catamarans in Valencia in preparation for such an event.

"The delay in staging the next America's Cup is harming every challenging syndicate as they have to stretch budgets for a two-year campaign over three or perhaps four years," Dalton said.



Court Skeptical of Passenger Rights Law
Headline News | 2008/03/06 12:57
A federal appeals panel seemed impatient Wednesday with arguments supporting the first law in the nation requiring airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers trapped in a plane delayed on the ground.

The three judges expressed skepticism that states should be allowed to impose such a law on an industry already subject to extensive federal oversight. It was likely, they implied through their questions, that federal authority would pre-empt state laws on the issue.

New York's law requires relief for people who have been trapped in a plane on the ground for at least three hours. It was passed after passengers at Kennedy International Airport were stranded on planes for more than 10 hours with no food and overflowing toilets.

The court did not immediately rule on the constitutionality of New York's Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

The judges said they were sympathetic to the needs of passengers on planes, but they seemed to agree that only the federal government can regulate airline services.

Judge Brian M. Cogan said New York's law might lead to multiple solutions by states nationwide that would subject airlines to all kinds of requirements.

Judge Debra Ann Livingston agreed.

"There is a patchwork problem in that every state should be concerned about this and probably would write different regulations," she said.

Even though the judges had not yet ruled, Judge Richard C. Wesley defended their apparent stance.

"This is a pre-emption issue. Judges aren't heartless people in black robes. Three judges must decide whether New York stepped over the pre-emption line," Wesley said.

The law was challenged before the appeals court by the Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade group representing leading U.S. airlines.

Seth Waxman, a lawyer for the trade group, told the judges that a dozen other states were considering laws similar to New York's law. He said Congress was considering its own legislation.

"If regulation is required in this area, it must be national to avoid what otherwise is a patchwork solution," Waxman said.

Barbara Underwood, arguing in defense of the law, said it required minimal standards and protected the public.

She said planes in line for takeoff might, after three hours, be forced to return to the gate to pick up more food and water and empty its restrooms or need to summon a delivery service to perform those chores.

A recent federal report showed that about 24 percent of flights nationally arrived late in the first 10 months of last year, which was the industry's second-worst performance record since comparable data began being collected in 1995.

Kennedy airport had the third-worst on-time arrival record of any major U.S. airport through October, behind the New York area's other two major airports, LaGuardia and Newark, according to the report.

Wesley called it a health and safety issue.

"What it really is about is human dignity," Underwood said.

Queens Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, a Democrat, the prime sponsor of New York's Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, said after the arguments that he was not discouraged by the questions posed by the judges. He said he would welcome a national law protecting airline customers.

"I'm hopeful the judges will preserve the law," he said.



Judge at Rezko Trial Keeps Jurors Secret
Headline News | 2008/03/05 22:16
The judge in the corruption trial of a prolific fundraiser for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich (blah-GOY'-uh-vich) says she's keeping the identities of jurors secret.

Twelve jurors and six alternates are to hear opening statements Thursday in Antoin "Tony" Rezko's trial.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve says she's not releasing the jurors' names or numbers. She has left the door open to releasing some information later.

The 52-year-old Rezko is accused of shaking down companies hoping to invest teachers' pension money or build hospital expansions. He denies wrongdoing.

Rezko has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Blagojevich and sizable amounts for Obama. Neither politician has been charged with anything.



US Judge Awards $37M in Peru Massacre
Headline News | 2008/03/05 21:43
A federal judge has ordered a former Peruvian army officer to pay $37 million for his role in a 1985 massacre in Peru in which 69 civilians were slain, including elderly people and infants.

U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled Tuesday in a lawsuit filed against former Maj. Telmo Hurtado by two women — Ochoa Lizarbe and Pulido Baldeon — who were 12 at the time and survived the attack.

Jordan had previously found in the lawsuit that Hurtado was had committed torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Hurtado, 46, is in federal custody in Miami while fighting deportation to Peru, with a hearing set for March 26. He did not contest the lawsuit, did not have a lawyer and refused to testify last month when he was brought to court for a hearing on damages.

Jordan said the money can be awarded under a 1991 U.S. law allowing torture victims to collect damages in this country for violations if a foreign government refuses to do so. Neither woman has received any compensation from Peru's government.



EPA Head Unaware of Pressures on States
Headline News | 2008/03/05 20:26

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday he didn't know of behind-the-scenes efforts by EPA officials to blunt state attempts to reduce mercury emissions from power plants.

Those efforts occurred even as the Bush administration argued in court that states are free to enact tougher mercury controls from power plants, The Associated Press reported last month, based on internal EPA documents.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., questioned EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson about the report at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations environment subcommittee.

"Has anyone with EPA ever pressured any state against instituting any more restrictive mercury regulation?" asked Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I don't recall having any firsthand knowledge of that," said Johnson. "I don't know if they have, no I don't," he added.

Leahy cautioned Johnson that such pressure on states was inappropriate, and if it did occur, "then the EPA gave misleading information to the courts, which is an extremely serious matter."

A federal appeals court last month struck down the Bush administration's industry-friendly approach for mercury reduction that allowed plants with excessive smokestack emissions to buy pollution rights from other plants that foul the air less.

Internal EPA documents obtained by the advocacy group Environmental Defense show attempts over the past two years to bar state efforts to make their plants drastically cut mercury pollution instead of trading for credits that would let them continue it.

Many states did not want their power plants to be able to buy their way out of having to reduce mercury pollution.

The push to rein in uncooperative states continued until the eve of the Feb. 8 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that struck down the EPA's program. A day before that ruling, the White House Office of Management and Budget approved a draft regulation to impose a "federal implementation plan" for mercury reduction in states whose mercury control measures did not meet EPA approval.



Teen Appealing Web Blog Free Speech Decision
Headline News | 2008/03/05 20:22
A high school senior who used vulgar language in reference to her school administrators is appealing the decision of a lower federal court and fighting for her right to serve as class secretary and to speak at her graduation in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Avery Doninger, 17, was barred from running for class secretary by Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn. because administrators she had written in her personal blog that officials were “douchebags” because she thought they cancelling an event she had helped plan. She also called for others to take action against Superintendent Paula Schwartz and to “piss her off more” by writing and calling Schwartz. Officials discovered the blog two weeks after she had written and the teen was told to apologize to Schwartz, show her mother the blog and was told she could not run again for re-election as class secretary. Doninger won the position by write-in votes, but was not permitted to serve.

U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz had said that because Doninger’s blog was addressing school issues and because it was read by other students, she could be punished by the school. However, in the appeal, Doninger’s attorney argued that schools should not be able to regulate what is done on the internet if it does not create a risk of disruption and because it did not take place on school grounds or during a school activity.

"It's just a bigger soapbox," her attorney, Jon L. Schoenhorn, told the Hartford Courant.

According to the Hartford Courant, Thomas R. Gerarde, the school’s attorney, said that the Internet has increased the impact of their words by how many people they can reach and that if student leaders make offensive comments about the school on the Internet, the school should be able to punish them.

"We shouldn't be required to just swallow it," he said.

He also contended that the blog did cause school officials to receive numerous phone calls and emails and that some students had considered staging a sit-in.

However, the Harford Courant reported, Judge Sonia Sotomayor said that "pedagogical rights can't supersede the rights of students off campus to have First Amendment rights."


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