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Supreme Court hearing case about online sales tax collection
Legal Interview | 2018/04/11 03:05
The Supreme Court is hearing arguments about whether a rule it announced decades ago in a case involving a catalog retailer should still apply in the age of the internet.

The case on Tuesday focuses on businesses' collection of sales tax on online purchases. Right now, under the decades-old Supreme Court rule, if a business is shipping a product to a state where it doesn't have an office, warehouse or other physical presence, it doesn't have to collect the state's sales tax. Customers are generally supposed to pay the tax to the state themselves, but the vast majority don't.

States say that as a result of the rule and the growth of internet shopping, they're losing billions of dollars in tax revenue every year. More than 40 states are asking the Supreme Court to abandon the rule.

Large retailers such as Apple, Macy's, Target and Walmart, which have brick-and-mortar stores nationwide, generally collect sales tax from their customers who buy online. But other online sellers that only have a physical presence in a few states can sidestep charging customers sales tax when they're shipping to addresses outside those states.

Sellers who defend the current rule say collecting sales tax nationwide is complex and costly, especially for small sellers. That complexity was a concern for the Supreme Court when it announced the physical presence rule in a case involving a catalog retailer in 1967, a rule it reaffirmed in 1992. But states say software has now made collecting sales tax easy.

The case the court is hearing has to do with a law passed by South Dakota in 2016, a law designed to challenge the Supreme Court's physical presence rule. The law requires out-of-state sellers who do more than $100,000 of business in the state or more than 200 transactions annually with state residents to collect and turn over sales tax to the state.

The state wanted out-of-state retailers to begin collecting the tax and sued Overstock.com, home goods company Wayfair and electronics retailer Newegg. The state has conceded in court, however, that it can only win by persuading the Supreme Court to do away with its current physical presence rule.



Court hears case alleging unconstitutional 6th District gerrymander
Legal Interview | 2018/03/29 02:34
U.S. Supreme Court justices expressed frustration with partisan gerrymandering on Wednesday as they heard arguments in a case challenging Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.

The case, which alleges a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland at the same time justices are considering the constitutionality of an alleged Republican gerrymander in Wisconsin, has some legal experts wondering whether the justices might be on the verge of establishing a standard that would allow judicial intervention in partisan gerrymandering cases for the first time in the court’s history.

The 6th District challenge was brought by seven Maryland residents, including three from Frederick County, who argue that the district — which includes southwestern parts of Frederick County and the city of Frederick — was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Democrats and punish Republicans during the reapportionment process after the 2010 census.

The justices heard arguments in the Wisconsin political gerrymandering case in October, but have not yet released an opinion.

The Maryland and Wisconsin cases both focus on unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, but there are some important differences. The Maryland case challenges the redrawing of a single federal district to favor Democrats, while the Wisconsin case is based on the statewide redrawing of Wisconsin State Assembly districts to favor Republicans.



Arkansas wants court to dissolve stay for death row prisoner
Legal Interview | 2018/03/19 02:31
Lawyers for the state of Arkansas argued Friday that the state prison director has long had the power to determine a death row inmate's sanity and that now isn't the time to change the way it moves the prisoners closer to their executions.

The arguments came in the case of Jack Greene, whose November execution was halted by the Arkansas Supreme Court so it could review his attorneys' arguments that the state correction director, Wendy Kelley, should not be deciding whether he is competent enough to be executed.

Greene's lawyers say doctors have found Greene delusional but Kelley has chosen to rely on outdated assessments of Greene's mental health in determining whether he's eligible to be executed. Greene's lawyers also have argued that Kelley shouldn't be making the determination because her boss, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, sets execution dates.

In papers filed at the state Supreme Court on Friday, assistant attorney general Kathryn Henry wrote that states are entitled to set the guidelines for review, as long as there is a "basic fairness." She also claims that, under the Arkansas Constitution, Greene cannot sue Kelley.

While previous court decisions didn't define "basic fairness," the presumption is that an inmate who is sane at his trial is sane until his execution, Henry wrote. "Only after 'a substantial threshold showing of insanity'" can an inmate win a review — and that review can be "far less formal than a trial," she wrote.

Against his lawyers' advice, Greene has insisted in a number of venues that he is not insane. State lawyers say that is reason enough for justices to dissolve the stay that was issued shortly before Greene's scheduled execution last Nov. 9.

A week before the execution date, a circuit judge said she couldn't hold a hearing on Greene's competence because, under state law, Kelley had the "exclusive authority" to determine whether the inmate was sane enough to be executed. The Arkansas Supreme Court later voted 5-2 to issue a stay and take Greene's case for review, rejecting state arguments.


Pennsylvania GOP take gerrymandering case to US high court
Legal Interview | 2018/01/24 02:46
Pennsylvania's top Republican lawmakers asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to stop an order by the state's highest court in a gerrymandering case brought by Democrats that threw out the boundaries of its 18 congressional districts and ordered them redrawn within three weeks.

Republicans who control Pennsylvania's Legislature wrote that state Supreme Court justices unconstitutionally usurped the authority of lawmakers to create congressional districts and they asked the nation's high court to put the decision on hold while it considers their claims.

The 22-page argument acknowledged that "judicial activism" by a state supreme court is ordinarily beyond the U.S. Supreme Court's purview. But, it said, "the question of what does and does not constitute a 'legislative function' under the Elections Clause is a question of federal, not state, law, and this Court is the arbiter of that distinction."

Justice Samuel Alito, who handles emergency appeals from Pennsylvania, could ask the registered Democratic voters on the other side of the case to respond. Alito could act on his own, though the full court generally gets involved in cases involving elections. An order could come in a matter of days, although there is no deadline for the justices to act.

Pennsylvania's congressional districts are criticized as among the nation's most gerrymandered. Its case is happening amid a national tide of gerrymandering cases from various states, including some already under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Election law scholars call the Republicans' request for the U.S. Supreme Court's intervention a long shot.

They say they know of no other state court decision throwing out a congressional map because of partisan gerrymandering, and the nation's high court has never struck down an electoral map as a partisan gerrymander.


Steve Mostyn, Houston attorney and major Dem donor, dies
Legal Interview | 2017/11/20 19:53
Steve Mostyn, a prominent Houston trial attorney and a top Democratic Party donor, has died. He was 46.

In a statement, his family confirmed Thursday his death on Wednesday "after a sudden onset and battle with a mental health issue."

"Steve was a beloved husband and devoted father who adored his children and never missed any of their sporting events," the statement reads. "He was a true friend, and a faithful fighter for those who did not have a voice."

"Steve touched countless lives. Many friends and colleagues in Texas and throughout the country have reached out during this painful time. Our family is requesting privacy . . . The details of a celebration of Steve's life will be announced at a later date."

"In honor of Steve's life and legacy,  please consider supporting the important work of the Mostyn Moreno Foundation or the Special Olympics of Texas. If you or a loved one are thinking about suicide, or experiencing a health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right now."

Born John Steven Mostyn  in Whitehouse, a small town in East Texas, just southeast of Tyler, Mostyn graduated from the South Texas College of Law in 1996 and joined a Houston firm. Soon, he went on his own to create what he called "a uniquely different Texas law firm" -- Mostyn Law -- that focused on corporate negligence and wrongdoing.


Human rights group accuses Guatemalan courts of delays
Legal Interview | 2017/11/13 03:51
An international human rights group says Guatemalan courts are foot- dragging on high-profile cases and threatening the work of the country's prosecutors and a U.N. anti-corruption commission.

Human Rights Watch analyzed eight major cases that have bogged down and concluded the courts are undermining the anticorruption work by taking too long to process appeals and pretrial motions. In a report released Sunday, the group accuses the courts of trying to run out the clock on prosecutions by keeping defendants from ever making it to trial.

Among the cases is a customs fraud scandal that allegedly sent kickbacks to then President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti. They resigned and were jailed to await trial, but more than 100 defense filings have delayed the trial.

Perez Molina and Baldetti, who resigned in 2015, both deny the charges against them.

Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, said Guatemala has made progress on holding officials accountable for abuses of power, but still needs to "move forward and close those circles with trials." "The strategic defense (of those accused) was always to delay the cases," Wilkinson said.

The report notes a pattern in which pretrial proceedings drag on as defense lawyers appeal court decisions and file petitions seeking the recusal of judges.

"The repeated filing of such petitions has brought many key prosecutions to a standstill, and lawyers are not effectively sanctioned even when filing petitions that are manifestly frivolous," Wilkinson said.


Lawyers want Supreme Court to block Texas from executing man
Legal Interview | 2017/10/20 14:00
Attorneys for an inmate convicted in a prison guard's death are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his Thursday evening execution.

Robert Pruett's lawyers want justices to review whether lower courts properly denied a federal civil rights lawsuit that sought additional DNA testing in the case. They are also questioning whether a prisoner who claims actual innocence, as Pruett does, can be put to death.

If the execution is carried out Thursday, Pruett would be the sixth prisoner executed this year in Texas, which carries out the death penalty more than any other state. Texas put seven inmates to death last year. His execution would be the 20th nationally, matching the U.S. total for all of 2016.

Pruett avoided execution in April 2015, when a state judge halted his punishment just hours before he could have been taken to the death chamber. His lawyers had convinced the judge that new DNA tests needed to be conducted on the steel rod used to stab the 37-year-old Nagle.

The new tests showed no DNA on the tape but uncovered DNA on the rod from an unknown female who authorities said likely handled the shank during the appeals process after the original tests in 2002.

In June, Pruett's execution was rescheduled for October. Pruett's attorneys then unsuccessfully sought more DNA testing and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in August, arguing Pruett had been denied due process. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit last week, and Pruett's attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.


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