Wisconsin Supreme Court OKs GOP-authored lame-duck laws
Court News | 2020/07/11 15:52
The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Republican-authored lame-duck laws that stripped power from the incoming Democratic attorney general just before he took office in 2019.

The justices rejected arguments  that the laws were unconstitutional, handing another win to Republicans who have scored multiple high-profile victories before the court in recent years.

The 5-2 ruling marks the second time that the court has upheld the lame-duck laws passed in December 2018, just weeks before Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats, took office. The actions in Wisconsin mirrored Republican moves after losing control of the governors’ offices in Michigan in November 2018 and in North Carolina in 2016. Democrats decried the tactics as brazen attempts to hold onto power after losing elections.

The Wisconsin laws curtailed the powers of both the governor and attorney general, but the case decided Thursday dealt primarily with powers taken from Kaul.

The attorney general said in a statement that Republican legislators have demonstrated open hostility to him and Evers and made it harder for state government to function. Evers echoed that sentiment in a statement of his own, saying Republicans have been working against him “every chance they get, regardless of the consequences.”

Thursday’s ruling involved a case filed by a coalition of labor unions led by the State Employees International Union. The coalition argued that the laws give the Legislature power over the attorney general’s office and that this violates the separation of powers doctrine in the state constitution.

The laws prohibit Evers from ordering Kaul to withdraw from lawsuits, let legislators intervene in lawsuits using their own attorneys rather than Kaul’s state Department of Justice lawyers, and force Kaul to get permission from the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee before settling lawsuits.

Republicans designed the laws to prohibit Evers from pulling Wisconsin out of a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and to ensure that they have a say in court if Kaul chooses not to defend GOP-authored laws.



No peeking, voters: Court keeps Trump taxes private for now
Headline Legal News | 2020/07/10 22:52
Rejecting President Donald Trump’s complaints that he’s being harassed, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of a New York prosecutor’s demands for the billionaire president’s tax records. But in good political news for Trump, his taxes and other financial records almost certainly will be kept out of the public eye at least until after the November election.

In a separate case, the justices kept a hold on banking and other documents about Trump, family members and his businesses that  Congress has been seeking for more than a year. The court said that while Congress has significant power to demand the president’s personal information, it is not limitless.

The court turned away the broadest arguments by Trump’s lawyers and the Justice Department that the president is immune from investigation while he holds office or that a prosecutor must show a greater need than normal to obtain the tax records. But it is unclear when a lower court judge might order the Manhattan district attorney’s subpoena to be enforced.

Trump is the only president in modern times who has refused to make his tax returns public, and before he was elected he promised to release them. He didn’t embrace Thursday’s outcome as a victory even though it is likely to prevent his opponents in Congress from obtaining potentially embarrassing personal and business records ahead of Election Day.

In fact, the increasing likelihood that a grand jury will eventually get to examine the documents drove the president into a public rage. He lashed out declaring that “It’s a pure witch hunt, it’s a hoax” and calling New York, where he has lived most of his life, “a hellhole.”

The documents have the potential to reveal details on everything from possible misdeeds to the true nature of the president’s vaunted wealth ? not to mention uncomfortable disclosures about how he’s spent his money and how much he’s given to charity.

The rejection of Trump’s claims of presidential immunity marked the latest instance where his broad assertion of executive power has been rejected.



Town court in southern Nevada closes due to coronavirus
Legal Topics | 2020/07/07 17:02
A town court in southern Nevada was closed Tuesday after officials said several workers were exposed to a person who tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The two judges in the Nye County community of Pahrump issued an order saying all staff members will be tested Wednesday for COVID-19, and no in-person hearings will be held at the courthouse.

Pahrump Justice Court will continue to conduct initial appearances, bail hearings and arraignments with detainees and attorneys appearing by telephone or video conference.

Applications for protective orders can be made by internet or at the Nye County sheriff’s office.

The court in the community about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) west of Las Vegas also closed for several days in April after an employee tested positive and other workers were exposed to the virus.

The court order said officials anticipate reopening after staff members have tested negative.

State health officials report that more than 22,000 people have tested positive for the virus statewide and at least 537 have died.


Supreme Court lifts ban on state aid to religious schooling
Legal Topics | 2020/07/05 22:22
States can’t cut religious schools out of programs that send public money to private education, a divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

By a 5-4 vote with the conservatives in the majority, the justices upheld a  Montana scholarship program that allows state tax credits for private schooling in which almost all the recipients attend religious schools.

The Montana Supreme Court had struck down the K-12 private education scholarship program that was created by the Legislature in 2015 to make donors eligible for up to $150 in state tax credits. The state court had ruled that the tax credit violated the Montana constitution’s ban on state aid to religious schools.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion that said the state ruling itself ran afoul of the religious freedom, embodied in the U.S. Constitution, of parents who want the scholarships to help pay for their children’s private education. “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Roberts wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described the ruling as “perverse.”

“Without any need or power to do so, the Court appears to require a State to reinstate a tax-credit program that the Constitution did not demand in the first place,” she said.

Parents whose children attend religious schools sued to preserve the program. The high court decision upholds families’ rights “to exercise our religion as we see fit,” said Kendra Espinoza, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit whose two daughters attend the Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana, near Glacier National Park.


High court won't hear abortion clinic 'buffer zone' cases
Legal Business | 2020/07/03 04:38
The Supreme Court on Thursday turned away pleas from anti-abortion activists to make it easier for them to protest outside clinics, declining to wade back into the abortion debate just days after striking down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics.

The justices said in a written order that they would not hear cases from Chicago and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where anti-abortion activists had challenged ordinances that restrict their behavior outside clinics.

As is usual, the justices did not comment in turning away the cases. The order from the court noted Justice Clarence Thomas would have heard the Chicago case.

The Supreme Court has since the late 1990s heard several cases involving demonstration-free zones, called buffer zones, outside abortion clinics. Most recently, in 2014, the justices unanimously struck down a law that created a 35-foot protest-free zone outside Massachusetts abortion clinics. The court said Massachusetts’ law, which made it a crime to stand in the protest-free zone for most people not entering or exiting the clinic or passing by, was an unconstitutional restraint on the free-speech rights of protesters.

On Thursday, one of the two cases the court declined to take up involved an ordinance passed by the city counsel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital, in 2012 that made it illegal to “congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” in a zone 20 feet from a health care facility. Anti-abortion activists sued, arguing that the ordinance violates their free speech rights. Lower courts have upheld the ordinance, however, ruling it doesn't apply to “sidewalk counseling,” where individuals who oppose abortion offer assistance and information about alternatives to abortion to those entering a clinic.

Roberts a pivotal vote in the Supreme Court's big opinions

The biggest cases of the Supreme Court term so far have a surprising common thread. On a court with five Republican appointees, the liberal justices have been in the majority in rulings that make workplace discrimination against gay and transgender people illegal, protect young immigrants from deportation and, as of Monday, struck down a Louisiana law that restricted abortion providers.

As surprising, Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative nominated by President George W. Bush who has led the court for nearly 15 years, has joined his liberal colleagues in all three. Since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018, Roberts has played a pivotal role in determining how far the court will go in cases where the court's four liberals and four conservatives are closely divided.

Here's a look at where Roberts stood in the abortion, immigration and LGBT cases, his history on the court and what's at stake in coming decisions in which Roberts could play a key role:

On Monday, Roberts joined liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in striking down Louisiana's Act 620. The justices ruled that the law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates the abortion rights the court first announced in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

But Roberts' reason for siding with the liberals had less to do with his feelings on abortion than with his feelings on whether the court should do an abrupt about-face. Four years ago the court's four liberal members and Justice Kennedy struck down a Texas law nearly identical to Louisiana's. At the time, Roberts was a vote in dissent. But with Kennedy's retirement and replacement by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, many conservatives had hoped the result in the Louisiana case would be different. Not so, Roberts wrote: “The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago."



Supreme Court doesn’t wade into Texas mail-in voting battle
Court News | 2020/06/27 16:51
The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request by Texas Democrats to allow all of the state’s 16 million registered voters to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The denial is not the end of the ongoing battle over mail-in voting in Texas, but it remains a loss for Democrats who made the emergency ruling request while the original case is tied up at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor urged the lower court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election.” Voting by mail in Texas is generally limited to those 65 or older or those with a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents voting in person.

For months, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has fought expanding mail-in balloting during the pandemic, saying fear of contracting the virus is an insufficient reason. A federal judge in Texas sided with Democrats in May, but that decision is on hold pending appeal.

Early voting in Texas begins Monday for primary runoff elections that had been postponed to July over coronavirus fears, but Texas is now one of the nation’s coronavirus hotspots as confirmed cases reach record levels and Gov. Greg Abbott reimposes restrictions.


Ohio to U.S. Supreme Court: Keep signature rules in place
Court News | 2020/06/23 16:00
The state of Ohio continued Monday to defend its right to impose normal signature requirements on ballot issue campaigns amid the global pandemic.

Uncertainty over the question prompted a voting-rights campaign to suspend its ballot effort last week, but minimum wage and marijuana decriminalization issues remain.

In a filing with the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican Attorney General Dave Yost’s attorneys argued that a lower court judge who had temporarily relaxed the rules effectively “rewrote Ohio’s Constitution and Revised Code.”

The state also argued that changing signature-gathering rules now would lead to “last-minute confusion” and the possible wrongful passage of issues this fall. The argument has an ironic twist, since some of the delay pushing the campaigns closer to the signature deadline has been caused by the litigation itself.

U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. set up the more flexible rules in a May 19 decision. They would have allowed campaigns promoting minimum wage, voting rights and marijuana issues to collect signatures electronically. Sargus had also extended the deadline for submitting signatures by about a month, to July 31.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked those less restrictive rules from kicking in. Justices have been asked to decide whether failing to accommodate ballot campaigns during the time of COVID-19 violates their constitutional right to access Ohio’s ballot.

A decision by the justices will no longer help what was the most high-profile of Ohio’s fall ballot campaigns. Ohioans for Safe and Secure Elections, which advanced election-law changes aiming to make voting easier, suspended its campaign last week as its protracted fight to proceed with the effort neared the June 30 filing deadline.


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