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Justices deny fast, new look at Pennsylvania ballot deadline
Legal Watch | 2020/10/30 19:25
The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it would not grant a quick, pre-election review to a new Republican appeal to exclude absentee ballots received after Election Day in the presidential battleground state of Pennsylvania, although it remained unclear whether those ballots will ultimately be counted. The court’s order left open the possibility that the justices could take up and decide after the election whether a three-day extension to receive and count absentee ballots ordered by Pennsylvania’s high court was proper.

The issue would take on enormous importance if Pennsylvania turns out to be the crucial state in next week’s election and the votes received between Nov. 3 and Nov. 6 are potentially decisive. The Supreme Court ruled hours after Pennsylvania’s Department of State agreed to segregate ballots received in the mail after polls close on Tuesday and before 5 p.m. on Nov. 6. President Donald Trump’s campaign suggested that those ballots will never be counted.

“We secured a huge victory when the Pennsylvania Secretary of State saw the writing on the wall and voluntarily complied with our injunction request, segregating ballots received after the Nov. 3 deadline to ensure they will not be counted until the Supreme Court rules on our petition,” Justin Clark, a deputy campaign manager, said in an interview. The court, Clark said, deferred “the most important issue in the case, which is whether state courts can change the time, place and manner of elections, contrary to the rules adopted by the Legislature.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of State could not immediately say Wednesday night whether it would revise its guidance to the counties about whether to count those ballots. The Alliance for Retired Americans, which had sued in Pennsylvania state courts for an extended deadline, said the ruling means that ballots arriving during the three-day period after Election Day will be counted. “This is an enormous victory for all Pennsylvania voters, especially seniors who should not have to put their health at risk during the pandemic in order to cast a ballot that will be counted,” Richard Fiesta, the alliance’s executive director, said in a statement.

New Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the vote “because of the need for a prompt resolution of it and because she has not had time to fully review the parties’ filings,” court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in an email. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for three justices, indicated he would support the high court’s eventual review of the issue. But, he wrote, “I reluctantly conclude that there is simply not enough time at this late date to decide the question before the election.” Last week, the justices divided 4-4, a tie vote that allowed the three-day extension ordered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to remain in effect.



German arrest order for Panama Papers lawyers faces hurdle
Legal Watch | 2020/10/25 04:39
A German arrest order for two Panamanian lawyers whose firm was at the center of an international tax evasion scandal faces a substantial obstacle: Panama’s constitution prohibits the extradition of its citizens.

Juergen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca are sought by Cologne prosecutors on charges of being an accessory to tax evasion and forming a criminal organization.  “They have constitutional protection,” Alvin Weeden, a lawyer in Panama, said Wednesday. “Technically, there’s no possibility.”

Mossack and Fonseca already face prosecution in Panama and are prohibited from leaving the country while out on bond after spending two months in jail. That case stems from allegations they helped create a corporation to hide money used for bribes by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht as well as fallout from the so-called Panama Papers scandal.

The Panama Papers include a collection of 11 million secret financial documents leaked in 2016 that illustrated how some of the world’s richest people hide their money. It brought scrutiny to a number of world leaders and was a hit to Panama’s reputation.

Interpol’s office in Panama did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether it had received an alert from German authorities about the case in Germany against Mossack and Fonseca.

In a statement, Mossack and Fonseca said their firm had sold corporations to a German bank that later resold them to clients. They said they had nothing to do with subsequent transactions.

“If one these ultimate beneficiaries evaded taxes in their country or committed some other crime using a corporation created by us, that is totally out of our control and knowledge,” said the statement issued by their lawyer in Panama, Guillermina McDonald. “We follow all of the processes required by regulators of our industry in their moment.”

Mossack and Fonseca announced the closure of their offices in Panama and elsewhere in the world in March 2018.

In the statement Tuesday night, they said they were willing to continue collaborating with investigations in any part of the world. McDonald said she did not know if they would be willing to appear before German authorities. Mossack and Fonseca maintain the German case is part of continuing efforts by the European Union to discredit them. In February, the European Union again included Panama on a list of countries that are tax havens.



Pennsylvania high court to settle voter signatures fight
Legal Watch | 2020/10/17 13:53
Pennsylvania’s highest court granted a request Wednesday to wade into a fight over whether counties should count mail-in ballots when a voter’s signature doesn’t necessarily match the one on their registration. In its brief order, the state Supreme Court said it will decide the matter after a filings deadline in the case on Friday.

In guidance last month to counties, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, told them that state law does not require or permit them to reject a mail-in ballot solely over a perceived signature inconsistency. After President Donald Trump’s campaign contested that guidance in a federal court case, Boockvar asked the court to back up her guidance.

Rejection of ballots over signatures poses “a grave risk of disenfranchisement on an arbitrary and wholly subjective basis,” Boockvar’s court filing said. Trump’s campaign asked a federal judge to declare that Boockvar’s guidance is unconstitutional and to block counties from following that guidance. The judge dismissed the case on Saturday.

However, state Republican lawmakers oppose Boockvar’s guidance to counties, saying in court filings that it would “rewrite existing law,” while disrupting Pennsylvania’s “clear and unambiguously crafted procedures for determining and challenging the validity” of a mail-in or absentee ballot. Boockvar’s guidance to counties comes amid a surge in mail-in voting and rising concerns that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots will be discarded in the presidential election over a variety of technicalities.

The fight over signatures is one of many partisan battles  being fought in the state Legislature and the courts over mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, amid warnings that a presidential election result will hang in limbo for days on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania. After President Donald Trump’s campaign contested that guidance in a federal court case, Boockvar asked the court to back up her guidance.

Rejection of ballots over signatures poses “a grave risk of disenfranchisement on an arbitrary and wholly subjective basis,” Boockvar’s court filing said. Trump’s campaign asked a federal judge to declare that Boockvar’s guidance is unconstitutional and to block counties from following that guidance. The judge dismissed the case on Saturday. However, state Republican lawmakers oppose Boockvar’s guidance to counties, saying in court filings that it would “rewrite existing law,” while disrupting Pennsylvania’s “clear and unambiguously crafted procedures for determining and challenging the validity” of a mail-in or absentee ballot.

Boockvar’s guidance to counties comes amid a surge in mail-in voting and rising concerns that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots will be discarded in the presidential election over a variety of technicalities. The fight over signatures is one of many partisan battles  being fought in the state Legislature and the courts over mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, amid warnings that a presidential election result will hang in limbo for days on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania.


Barrett bats away tough Democratic confirmation probing
Legal Watch | 2020/10/14 20:53
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett batted away Democrats’ skeptical questions Tuesday on abortion, health care and a possible disputed-election fight over transferring presidential power, insisting in a long and lively confirmation hearing she would bring no personal agenda to the court but decide cases “as they come.”

The 48-year-old appellate court judge declared her conservative views with often colloquial language, but refused many specifics. She declined to say whether she would recuse herself from any election-related cases involving President Donald Trump, who nominated her to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is pressing to have her confirmed before the the Nov. 3 election.

“Judges can’t just wake up one day and say I have an agenda ? I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion ? and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world,” Barrett told the Senate Judiciary Committee during its second day of hearings.

“It’s not the law of Amy,” she said. “It’s the law of the American people.”

Barrett returned to a Capitol Hill mostly shut down by COVID-19 protocols, the mood quickly shifting to a more confrontational tone  from opening day. She was grilled by Democrats strongly opposed to Trump’s nominee yet unable to stop her. Excited by the prospect of a judge aligned with the late Antonin Scalia, Trump’s Republican allies are rushing ahead to install a 6-3 conservative court majority for years to come.

The president seemed pleased with her performance. “I think Amy’s doing incredibly well,” he said at the White House departing for a campaign rally.

Trump has said he wants a justice seated for any disputes arising from his heated election with Democrat Joe Biden, but Barrett testified she has not spoken to Trump or his team about election cases. Pressed by panel Democrats, she skipped past questions about ensuring the date of the election or preventing voter intimidation, both set in federal law, and the peaceful transfer of presidential power. She declined to commit to recusing herself from any post-election cases without first consulting the other justices.

“I can’t offer an opinion on recusal without short-circuiting that entire process,” she said.

A frustrated Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, all but implored the nominee to be more specific about how she would handle landmark abortion cases, including Roe v. Wade and the follow-up Pennsylvania case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which confirmed it in large part.


Court blocks extension of Wisconsin absentee ballot deadline
Legal Watch | 2020/10/09 03:37
A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked a decision to extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots by six days in battleground Wisconsin, in a win for Republicans who have fought attempts to expand voting across the country. If the ruling stands, absentee ballots will have to be delivered to Wisconsin election clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day if they are to be counted.

The ruling makes it more likely that results of the presidential race in the pivotal swing state will be known within hours of poll closing.  Democrats almost certainly will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. A spokesman and an attorney didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Under state law, absentee ballots are due in local clerks’ offices by 8 p.m. on election night. But Democrats and allied groups sued to extend the deadline after the April presidential primary saw long lines, fewer polling places, a shortage of poll workers and thousands of ballots mailed days after the election. Wisconsin, like much of the rest of the country, is already seeing massive absentee voting for November and the state expects as many as 2 million people to vote absentee.

U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled last month that any ballots that arrive in clerk’s offices by Nov. 9 will be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3. In that ruling, Conley noted the heavy absentee load and the possibility it could overwhelm election officials and the postal service.

The 7th Circuit Court judges initially upheld Conley’s ruling  on Sept. 29, rejecting the Republicans’ standing to intervene. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed that standing, the same three-judge panel delivered Thursday’s ruling. Justices Frank Easterbrook and Amy St. Eve voted to stay the order and Ilana Rovner opposed.


Ginsburg makes history at Capitol amid replacement turmoil
Legal Watch | 2020/09/27 16:42
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg  lay in state Friday at the U.S. Capitol as the first woman ever so honored, making history again as she had throughout her extraordinary life while an intensifying election-year battle swirled over her replacement.

The flag-draped casket of Ginsburg, who died last week at 87, drew members of Congress, top military officials, friends and family, some with children in tow, to the Capitol’s grand Statuary Hall, paying respect to the cultural icon who changed American law and perceptions of women’s power.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, joined other invited guests. His vice presidential running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris said that “RBG,” as she is known by many, cleared a path for women like her in civic life.

“She, first of all, made America see what leadership looks like -- in the law, in terms of public service -- and she broke so many barriers,” Harris told reporters at the Capitol. “And I know that she did it intentionally knowing that people like me could follow.”

Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Ginsburg was confirmed 27 years ago this month, said he was brought back to when he met her back then. “Wonderful memories,” he said.

Mourners gathered to honor Ginsburg under coronavirus distancing restrictions with the nation in political turmoil.

President Donald Trump is to announce a conservative nominee to replace her on Saturday, just weeks before the election. White House officials have indicated to congressional Republicans and outside allies that the nominee will be Indiana’s Amy Coney Barrett  but are maintaining a semblance of suspense to let Trump announce her.

His third justice, if confirmed, would be sure to move the court rightward on health care, abortion and other pivotal issues. A Senate confirmation vote would be expected in late October.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was with “profound sorrow” that she welcomed Ginsburg and opened the private service.

She and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer stood under gray skies as Ginsburg’s casket made the short procession from the court’s steps where it had been on public view for several days to the East Front of the Capitol.


Lawyer: Case of Black inmate set to die reveals racial bias
Legal Watch | 2020/09/25 05:01
The lawyer for the first Black inmate scheduled to die this year as part of the Trump administration’s resumption of federal executions says race played a central role in landing her client on death row for slaying a young white Iowa couple and burning them in the trunk of their car.

One Black juror and 11 white jurors heard the 2000 federal case in Texas against Christopher Vialva, who is now 40 but was 19 at the time of the killings. Prosecutors portrayed Vialva as the leader of a Black street-gang faction and alleged he killed the deeply religious husband and wife, Todd and Stacie Bagley, to boost his status within the gang, attorney Susan Otto said.

But Otto contends there was no evidence Vialva, scheduled to be put to death Thursday, was even a full-fledged member ? let alone a leader ? of the 212 PIRU Bloods gang in his Killeen, Texas, hometown. She said the false claim only served to conjure up menacing stereotypes to prejudice the nearly all-white jury.

“It played right into the narrative that he was a dangerous Black thug who killed these lovely white people. And they were lovely,” Otto said in a recent phone interview. She added: “Race was a very strong component of this case.”

Questions about racial bias in the criminal justice system have been front and center since protests erupted across the country following the  death of George Floyd after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on the handcuffed Black man’s neck for several minutes.



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