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Justices chide California-based appeals court
Legal Watch | 2008/12/04 02:53
The Supreme Court took aim at one of its favorite targets Tuesday, criticizing a California-based federal appeals court for its ruling in favor of a criminal defendant.

The justices threw out a decision by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Michael Robert Pulido, who was convicted for his role in robbing a gas station and killing the defendant.

A U.S. District Court judge set aside Pulido's conviction because the trial judge in the case gave the jury improper instructions.

The high court said in an unsigned opinion that the appeals court ruling affirming the federal judge's action used faulty reasoning. The justices did not reinstate Pulido's conviction.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter agreed that the appeals court made a mistake, but would have affirmed its ruling anyway because the underlying decision in favor of Pulido was correct.

Last month, the court overruled the 9th Circuit in an environmental case involving the Navy's use of sonar and its potential harm to whales.

The case is Hedgpeth v. Pulido, 07-544.



Paralyzed Calif. man loses high court appeal
Legal Watch | 2008/11/18 02:50
A paralyzed man who has sued hundreds of businesses over accommodations for the disabled lost his Supreme Court appeal Monday to get out from under a court order requiring special permission to file new lawsuits.

Jarek Molski has been labeled a "vexatious litigant" by federal courts in California because he has filed roughly 400 lawsuits alleging that restaurants and other businesses are in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Molski is paralyzed from the chest down and uses a wheelchair.

The justices rejected his case without comment.

Molski frequently complains about the lack of handicapped van parking, counters that are too high, narrow doorways and grab-bars installed too high or low in bathrooms. In addition, he often says he was injured in the course of his visit. Targeted business owners often have settled out of court rather than pay attorneys and take the time to fight the lawsuits.

A federal judge in Los Angeles described the lawsuits as extortion. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling that Molski was an abusive litigant, although it noted that many of the establishments he sued probably were violating federal law.

"On the other hand, the district court had ample basis to conclude that Molski trumped up his claims of injury," the appeals court said.

The case is Molski v. Evergreen Dynasty Corp., 08-38.



Supreme Court wrestles with TV profanity case
Legal Watch | 2008/11/04 22:07
The Supreme Court spent an hour on Tuesday talking about dirty words on television without once using any or making plain how it would decide whether the government could ban them.

The dispute between the broadcast networks and the Federal Communications Commission is the court's first major broadcast indecency case in 30 years.

At issue is the FCC's policy, adopted in 2004, that even a one-time use of profanity on live television is indecent because some words are so offensive that they always evoke sexual or excretory images. So-called fleeting expletives were not treated as indecent before then.

The words in question begin with the letters "F" and "S." The Associated Press typically does not use them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, the only justice with young children at home, suggested that the commission's policy is reasonable. The use of either word, Roberts said, "is associated with sexual or excretory activity. That's what gives it its force."

Justice John Paul Stevens, who appeared skeptical of the policy, doubted that the f-word always conveys a sexual image.



Chicago torture victims face uphill legal battle
Legal Watch | 2008/10/28 02:42
Melvin Jones says he screamed and begged for mercy as Chicago police touched metal clips to his feet and thighs, churned a hand-cranked device and sent shock waves of electricity through his body more than 25 years ago.

He says he was told the torture would stop when he confessed to murder.

Jones is among the dozens of alleged torture victims who have little hope of winning compensation, despite the arrest this week of a former police commander who officials say lied about the abuse.

Some have already completed prison terms for crimes they claim they confessed to only after police beat or electrocuted them. More than 20 remain in prison.

But the indictment of former police Lt. Jon Burge — while a moral victory — is unlikely to spring anyone from prison soon or prompt any quick settlement of claims for damages, lawyers for alleged torture victims say.

The state attorney general's office hasn't agreed to new trials for those claiming coerced confessions and the city opposes paying damages to alleged victims, they say.



Ohio top court mulls Planned Parenthood files
Legal Watch | 2008/10/08 14:19
Ohio Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical Tuesday that an abortion clinic's medical records on other patients are relevant to a lawsuit brought by parents of a 14-year-old girl who had an abortion without their consent.

Lawyers for the girl's family argued that the information they seek is necessary to prove that Planned Parenthood of Cincinnati had a pattern of violating Ohio's parental consent law and failing to report abuse. The unusual case pits a single plaintiff against the privacy interests of a decade's worth of patients.

Planned Parenthood attorney Daniel Buckley says the clinic has a legal obligation to protect the privacy of its clients' records.

Charles Miller, an attorney for the parents, told the justices the plaintiffs seek only three facts about other minors treated at the clinic: the girl's age, whether she had a sexually transmitted disease, and whether she entered the clinic pregnant. He said about 200 cases a year would be involved.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer questioned how any of those three details would advance the family's case for damages.

"Where's the linkage?" he asked.

The court did not indicate when it would rule.

The case involves a girl who was 14 at the time of her abortion in 2004, when the state's parental consent law had not been completely settled by the courts. She had been impregnated by her 21-year-old youth soccer coach, John Haller.

The family's lawsuit accuses the Planned Parenthood clinic of failing to get parental consent, report suspected abuse or to inform the girl of risks and alternatives. It seeks unspecified damages.

Court records say the girl gave Haller's cell phone number as her father's, and clinic officials thought they had reached the father when they called inquiring about parental consent. Haller was later convicted on seven counts of sexual battery.

An appeals court ruled last year that records on other patients weren't necessary for the family's lawsuit.



High court could block 'light' cigarettes lawsuit
Legal Watch | 2008/10/07 14:12
The Supreme Court picked up Monday where it left off last term, signaling support for efforts to block lawsuits against tobacco companies over deceptive marketing of "light" cigarettes.

The first day of the court's new term, which is set in law as the first Monday in October, included denials of hundreds of appeals. Chief Justice John Roberts opened the new session in a crowded courtroom that included retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Last term, the justices handed down several opinions that limited state regulation of business in favor of federal power. Several justices posed skeptical questions in this term's first case, whether federal law prevents smokers from using consumer protection laws to go after tobacco companies for their marketing of "light" and "low tar" cigarettes.

The companies are facing dozens of such lawsuits across the country.

The federal cigarette labeling law bars states from regulating any aspect of cigarette advertising that involves smoking and health.

"How do you tell it's deceptive or not if you don't look at what the relationship is between smoking and health?," Chief Justice John Roberts said during oral arguments on the case.

Three Maine residents sued Altria Group Inc. and its Philip Morris USA Inc. subsidiary under the state's law against unfair marketing practices. The class-action claim represents all smokers of Marlboro Lights or Cambridge Lights cigarettes, both made by Philip Morris.

The lawsuit argues that the company knew for decades that smokers of light cigarettes compensate for the lower levels of tar and nicotine by taking longer puffs and compensating in other ways.

A federal district court threw out the lawsuit, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it could go forward.

The role of the Federal Trade Commission could be important in the outcome. The FTC is only now proposing to change rules that for years condoned the use of "light" and "low tar" in advertising the cigarettes, despite evidence that smokers were getting a product as dangerous as regular cigarettes.



J.K. Rowling Smites Copyright Violator
Legal Watch | 2008/09/09 14:02
J.K. Rowling vanquished the forces of darkness Monday when a federaljudge permanently enjoined RDR Books from publishing "The Harry PotterLexicon," a guidebook to Rowling's best-selling series. U.S. DistrictJudge Robert Patterson Jr. blocked also ordered RDR to pay $6,750 instatutory damages.

Steven Jan Vander Ark, a librarian andHarry Potter fan, thus cannot publish his guide to Rowling's series,for which he said there was a considerable demand. Warner Bros., whichmade the Harry Potter movies, joined Rowling in suing for copyrightviolations.

The ruling came 5 months after a 4-day trial,during which Rowling described the "Lexicon" as "wholesale theft of 17years of my hard work."

The next day at trial, Vander Ark sobbed on the stand, clearly upset that he had annoyed Rowling.

Judge Patterson found that RDR Books "failed to establish its affirmative defense of fair use."


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