Supreme Court sends Florida cross case back to lower court
Court News | 2019/06/28 18:32
Court decisions directing the removal of a cross from a public park in Florida should get another look, after a Supreme Court ruling that upheld a different cross in Maryland, the high court said Friday.

The justices sent the Florida case back to a lower court to decide whether previous decisions that the cross should be removed were correct or if the cross should stay given the Supreme Court’s latest opinion.

In the Maryland case decided last week, the justices let stand a war memorial in the shape of a cross that is located on a public highway median and maintained by public officials. The approximately 40-foot-tall cross was completed in 1925 and honors soldiers who died in World War I. Seven of the court’s nine justices sided with supporters of the cross in ruling it should stand.

A majority of justices signed on to an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that said “when time’s passage imbues a religiously expressive monument, symbol or practice with this kind of familiarly and historical significance, removing it may no longer appear neutral.” Alito also wrote that the Maryland cross’ connection to World War I was important in upholding it because crosses, which marked the graves of American soldiers, became a symbol closely linked to the war.

The Florida case involves a cross that was first put up in Pensacola’s Bayview Park in 1941 for a community Easter service. It has been the site of annual Easter services since. The cross was at first made of wood but was replaced in 1969 by a 34-foot-tall concrete cross.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Washington-based American Humanist Association sued over the cross on behalf of four current or former residents, arguing that it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others. A trial court and appeals court agreed.

Luke Goodrich, an attorney at the Washington-based Becket Fund For Religious Liberty, which is representing the city of Pensacola and defending the cross, said he believes the Supreme Court’s recent Maryland case is “very helpful” to their case. He pointed to a line in Alito’s opinion that suggests a “presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols and practices.” And he said the cross is “part of the history and culture of the city of Pensacola.” While the Pensacola cross was not, like the Maryland cross, put up to memorialize World War I veterans, it was put up on the eve of World War II and has become a gathering place, Goodrich said.


Supreme Court to review Montana school choice program
Areas of Focus | 2019/06/27 08:32
The Supreme Court will consider reviving a Montana program that gives tax credits to people who donate to private-school scholarships. The state’s highest court had struck down the program because it violated the Montana constitution’s ban on state aid to religious organizations.

The justices say Friday that they will review the state court ruling, which Montana parents are challenging as a violation of their religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the program giving tax credits of up to $150 for donations to organizations that give scholarships to private-school students amounts to indirect aid to schools controlled by churches.

The Republican-led Legislature passed the law in 2015 as an alternative to a school voucher program designed to give students who want to attend private schools the means to do so. Most private schools in Montana have religious affiliations, and more than 90 percent of the private schools that have signed up with scholarship organizations under the program are religious.

The state court ruling invalidated the entire program, for religious and secular schools alike. In urging the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, Montana said it can’t be compelled to offer a scholarship program for private education. The state told the justices that the Montana court decision did not single out students at religious schools because the state court ruling struck down the entire program.

Montana is one of 18 states that offer scholarship tax-credit programs, according to EdChoice, an organization that promotes school-choice programs. Tax credits are one of several ways states have created programs to boost private schools or defray their tuition costs, with others including vouchers, individual tax credits or deductions and education savings accounts.



High court strikes down ‘scandalous’ part of trademark law
Court News | 2019/06/25 17:30
The Supreme Court struck down a section of federal law Monday that prevented businesses from registering trademarks seen as scandalous or immoral, handing a victory to California fashion brand FUCT.

The high court ruled that the century-old provision is an unconstitutional restriction on speech. Between 2005 and 2015, the United States Patent and Trademark Office ultimately refused about 150 trademark applications a year as a result of the provision. Those who were turned away could still use the words they were seeking to register, but they didn’t get the benefits that come with trademark registration. Going after counterfeiters was also difficult as a result.

The Trump administration had defended the provision, arguing that it encouraged trademarks that are appropriate for all audiences.

The high court’s ruling means that the people and companies behind applications that previously failed as a result of the scandalous or immoral provision can re-submit them for approval. And new trademark applications cannot be refused on the grounds they are scandalous or immoral.

Justice Elena Kagan said in reading her majority opinion that the most fundamental principle of free speech law is that the government can’t penalize or discriminate against expression based on the ideas or viewpoints they convey. She said Lanham Act’s ban on “immoral or scandalous” trademarks does just that.

In an opinion for herself and five colleagues, both conservatives and liberals, Kagan called the law’s immoral or scandalous provision “substantially overbroad.”

“There are a great many immoral and scandalous ideas in the world (even more than there are swearwords), and the Lanham Act covers them all. It therefore violates the First Amendment,” she wrote.

Kagan’s opinion suggested that a narrower law covering just lewd, sexually explicit or profane trademarks might be acceptable.

The justices’ ruling was in some ways expected because of one the court made two years ago . In 2017, the justices unanimously invalidated a related provision of federal law that told officials not to register disparaging trademarks, finding that restriction violated the First Amendment. In that case, an Asian-American rock band sued after the government refused to register its band name, “The Slants,” because it was seen as offensive to Asians.


Census, redistricting top remaining Supreme Court cases
Areas of Focus | 2019/06/25 00:30
The Supreme Court enters its final week of decisions with two politically charged issues unresolved, whether to rein in political line-drawing for partisan gain and allow a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

Both decisions could affect the distribution of political power for the next decade, and both also may test Chief Justice John Roberts’ professed desire to keep his court of five conservatives appointed by Republican presidents and four liberals appointed by Democrats from looking like the other, elected branches of government. Decisions that break along the court’s political and ideological divide are more likely to generate criticism of the court as yet another political institution.

In addition, the justices could say as early as Monday whether they will add to their election-year calendar a test of President Donald Trump’s effort to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation. The court’s new term begins in October.

Twelve cases that were argued between November and April remain to be decided. They include disputes over: a trademark sought by the FUCT clothing line, control of a large swatch of eastern Oklahoma that once belonged to Indian tribes and when courts should defer to decisions made by executive branch agencies.

But the biggest cases by far involve the citizenship question the Trump administration wants to add to the census and two cases in which lower courts found that Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland went too far in drawing congressional districts to benefit their party at the expense of the other party’s voters.

The Supreme Court has never invalidated districts on partisan grounds, but the court has kept the door open to these claims. The court has struck down districts predominantly based on race.


EU court says Poland's Supreme Court reforms unlawful
Court Watch | 2019/06/24 00:30
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.



Court tosses black man's murder conviction over racial bias
Attorney News | 2019/06/23 18:31
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the court's majority opinion. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

In Flowers' sixth trial, the jury was made up of 11 whites and one African American. District Attorney Doug Evans struck five black prospective jurors.

In the earlier trials, three convictions were tossed out, including one when the prosecutor improperly excluded African Americans from the jury. In the second trial, the judge chided Evans for striking a juror based on race. Two other trials ended when jurors couldn't reach unanimous verdicts.

"The numbers speak loudly," Kavanaugh said in a summary of his opinion that he read in the courtroom, noting that Evans had removed 41 of the 42 prospective black jurors over the six trials. "We cannot ignore that history."

In dissent, Thomas called Kavanaugh's opinion "manifestly incorrect" and wrote that Flowers presented no evidence whatsoever of purposeful race discrimination."

Flowers has been in jail more than 22 years, since his arrest after four people were found shot to death in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, in July 1996.

Flowers was arrested several months later, described by prosecutors as a disgruntled former employee who sought revenge against the store's owner because she fired him and withheld most of his pay to cover the cost of merchandise he damaged. Nearly $300 was found missing after the killings.


Supreme Court upholds cross on public land in Maryland
Legal Business | 2019/06/20 15:46
A World War I memorial in the shape of a 40-foot-tall cross can continue to stand on public land in Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The justices, in ruling 7-2 in favor of the cross' backers, concluded that the nearly 100-year-old memorial's presence on a grassy highway median doesn't violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others.

The case had been closely watched because it involves the place of religious symbols in public life. Defenders of the cross in Bladensburg had argued that a ruling against them could doom of hundreds of war memorials that use crosses to commemorate soldiers who died.


"The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent," Justice Samuel Alito wrote.

"For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices to our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark. For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. For all these reasons, the Cross does not offend the Constitution," he wrote.


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