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Trump asks Supreme Court to unfreeze border wall money
Legal Watch | 2019/07/18 09:46
The Trump administration on Friday asked the Supreme Court to lift a freeze on Pentagon money it wants to use to build sections of a border wall with Mexico.

Two lower courts have ruled against the administration in a lawsuit over the funding. Last week, a divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco kept in place a lower court ruling preventing the government from tapping Defense Department counterdrug money to build high-priority sections of wall in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

At stake in the case is billions of dollars that would allow Trump to make progress on a major 2016 campaign promise heading into his race for a second term. Trump ended a 35-day government shutdown in February after Congress gave him approximately $1.4 billion in border wall funding, far less than the $5.7 billion he was seeking. Trump then declared a national emergency to take cash from other government accounts to use to construct sections of wall.

The money includes $3.6 billion from military construction funds, $2.5 billion from Defense Department counterdrug activities and $600 million from the Treasury Department's asset forfeiture fund. The Treasury Department funds have so far survived legal challenges, and the transfer of the military construction funds has not yet been approved.

At issue in the case before the Supreme Court is just the $2.5 billion in Defense Department funds, which the administration says will be used to construct more than 100 miles of fencing. The lawsuit challenging the use of those funds was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition. Late Friday, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan gave the groups until the afternoon of July 19 to respond in writing to the Trump administration's filing.


Italian court rules wrong Eritrean accused of trafficking
Legal Watch | 2019/07/12 02:48
A court in Palermo, Sicily, ruled on Friday that the wrong Eritrean man was arrested and tried as a migrant smuggling kingpin and ordered him released from jail, to the jubilation of international supporters who had championed for years the defendant's claim of mistaken identity.

Defense lawyer Michele Calantropo told The Associated Press that his client, Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, "cried for joy" when he heard the court order him released from jail, three years after he had been extradited to Italy from Sudan on a charge of human trafficking.

But while the court exonerated him of the trafficking charge, it convicted him of a lesser charge - aiding illegal immigration - for helping two cousins reach Italy, based on investigations conducted after Behre was extradited to Italy, Calantropo said.

The court sentenced him on that charge to five years in prison. But since Behre already spent three years behind bars under a warrant for the wrong man, it was likely under Italy's justice system, that, as a first offender, he won't have to do any more time in jail.

Prosecutors had argued the defendant was Medhane Yehdego Mered, an alleged human trafficking kingpin who profited as thousands of migrants were smuggled to Italy on unseaworthy boats launched from Libyan shores. They had asked the court to convict him and give a 14-year prison term.

They didn't immediately react to the ruling.

Even as the suspect set foot in Italy in 2016, escorted by Italian police, a chorus of doubts rose up about whether prosecutors actually had the man they claimed.

One of the defendant's sisters, who lives in Norway, said her brother was living a "normal" life in Sudan and had nothing to do with human smuggling. She said she recognized her brother in the images of the man being extradited to Italy.


EU court says Poland's Supreme Court reforms unlawful
Legal Watch | 2019/06/22 01:18
The European Union's top court ruled Monday that a Polish law that pushed Supreme Court judges into early retirement violates EU law, a setback for Poland's right-wing government but a move welcomed by critics who worried the measure would cause a serious erosion of democratic standards.

In its ruling, the European Court of Justice said the measures breach judicial independence. An interim decision from the Luxembourg-based court in November ordered the Polish government to reinstate judges who were forced to retire early and to amend the law to remove the provisions that took about one-third of the court off the bench.

The court said the law "undermines the principle of the irremovability of judges, that principle being essential to their independence."

There was no immediate reaction from Poland's government, but the decision is a blow to the ruling authorities, who since winning power in 2015 have increasingly taken control of the judicial system.

The government and president have said they wanted to force the early retirement of the Supreme Court judges as part of a larger effort to purge communist-era judges.

But legal experts say that argument holds no water because most communist-era judges are long gone from the judicial system 30 years after the fall of communism. Many critics believe the true aim is to destroy the independence of the Polish judiciary.

The biggest fear is that the judiciary could become so politicized that those not favored by the ruling authorities could be unfairly charged with crimes and sentenced, essentially deprived of fair hearings. Though a separate court, the Constitutional Tribunal, and other bodies are already under the ruling party's control, many judges have continued to show independence, ruling against the authorities, even the justice minister, in recent cases.


High court halts electoral map redrawing in Michigan, Ohio
Legal Watch | 2019/05/24 22:14
The Supreme Court on Friday put on hold court orders in Michigan and Ohio to redraw electoral maps that federal judges found were too partisan.

The high court action comes as it is weighing cases from Maryland and North Carolina that raise similar issues and could affect redistricting everywhere.

The brief orders from the justices do not telegraph the outcome of the redistricting cases that are expected to be decided by the end of June. They more likely reflect that whatever the court decides probably will affect rulings that struck down legislative and congressional districts in Michigan and congressional districts in Ohio.

Ohio lawmakers faced a June 14 deadline to draw new congressional districts, or have the courts do it for them. The deadline in Michigan was Aug. 1.

Judges in both states ordered new maps for the 2020 elections after they found Republicans who controlled the redistricting process in 2011 unconstitutionally created districts that essentially guaranteed continued Republican dominance for the 10 years the political maps would be used.


Russian court extends arrest for American accused of spying
Legal Watch | 2019/05/19 05:18
A Russian court on Friday extended the arrest for a former U.S. Marine charged with espionage, who complained in court about abuse in custody.

Paul Whelan was arrested at the end of December in a hotel room in the Russian capital of Moscow where he was attending a wedding. He was charged with espionage, which carries up to 20 years in prison in Russia.

Whelan denies the charges of spying for the U.S. that his lawyers said stem from a sting operation. Whelan’s lawyer has said his client was handed a flash drive that had classified information on it that he didn’t know about.

The court ruled Friday to keep the Michigan resident, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, behind bars for three more months.

Whelan told reporters in court that he has been threatened and subjected to “abuses and harassment” in prison.

“I haven’t had a shower in two weeks. I can’t use a barber, I have to cut my own hair,” a visibly agitated Whelan said from the defendant’s dock. “This is typical prisoner of war isolation technique. They’re trying to run me down so that I will talk to them.”

Andrea Kalan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said Friday that they are disappointed with the ruling, arguing there is “no evidence of any wrongdoing.”



NC’s highest court hears arguments about Blackbeard flagship
Legal Watch | 2019/05/16 04:00
A lawsuit over the rights to photos and video from the wreckage of the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship is still winding its way through North Carolina courts, four years after the legal conflict began.

The New Bern Sun Journal reports the state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about the ownership issue. The state’s highest court will decide which lower court should hear the case next.

A Florida-based company found the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge off the North Carolina coast in 1996. Intersal contends the state breached a contract giving the company some exclusivity to images.


An Intersal attorney argued the case should be heard in Business Court, where monetary damages can be awarded. State lawyers argue the case qualifies only for administrative court, where they say it’s been settled.


Supreme Court says 1 state can’t be sued in another’s courts
Legal Watch | 2019/05/11 04:05
The Supreme Court decided Monday that one state cannot unwillingly be sued in the courts of another, overruling a 40-year precedent and perhaps, foreshadowing an argument over the viability of other high court decisions.

The outcome left one dissenting justice wondering “which cases the court will overrule next.”

The justices divided 5-4 to end a long-running dispute between California officials and Nevada inventor Gilbert Hyatt.

Hyatt is a former California resident who sued California’s tax agency for being too zealous in seeking back taxes from him. Hyatt won a judgment in Nevada courts.

But Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court’s conservative justices that the Constitution forbids states from opening the doors of their courts to a private citizen’s lawsuit against another state. In 1979, the high court concluded otherwise.

The four liberal justices dissented, saying they would have left alone the court’s decision in Nevada v. Hall. Justice Stephen Breyer said there are good reasons to overrule an earlier case, including that it is no longer workable or a vestige of an otherwise abandoned legal doctrine.

But Breyer said that justices should otherwise adhere to the principle of stare decisis, Latin for to stand by things decided.



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