Oregon high court keeps state virus restrictions in place
Areas of Focus | 2020/05/20 02:12
The Oregon Supreme Court has kept statewide virus restrictions in place by halting a judge’s order to end them in a lawsuit claiming the governor exceeded her authority when she shut down in-person religious services.

Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled Monday that Gov. Kate Brown erred by not seeking the Legislature’s approval to extend her stay-at-home orders beyond a 28-day limit. Brown’s lawyers appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which just hours later put a hold on Shirtcliff’s decree until the high court’s justices can review the matter.

Presiding Justice Thomas Balmer gave both sides until Friday to submit legal briefs. He did not give a timeline for a decision.

The lower court judge had issued his opinion in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by 10 churches around Oregon that argued the state’s social distancing directives were unconstitutional.

In a statement late Monday, Brown, a Democrat, praised the state Supreme Court action.


Louisiana Senate targets lawyer ads promising big payouts
Court News | 2020/05/17 20:10
A proposal striking at the proliferation of TV, radio and billboard ads blanketing Louisiana is headed to the state House for debate after winning support from senators Thursday.

Sen. Heather Cloud’s bill would declare as false or misleading those lawyer ads in which a person claims to have received the full amount of a settlement or judgment. Instead, the ads would have to disclose how much was deducted for attorney fees, expert witness fees, court costs and any other expenses related to the litigation.

Advertisements deemed to be deceptive could be prosecuted as an unfair trade practice violation.

Cloud, a Republican from Turkey Creek, said lawyers are making false promises of big payouts, encouraging people to file lawsuits against businesses. But she said people who file the lawsuits only get a small slice of the money from the judgments and settlements in most instances.


Virus whistleblower tells lawmakers US lacks vaccine plan
Legal Topics | 2020/05/14 16:45
Whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright warned on Thursday that the U.S. lacks a plan to produce and fairly distribute a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. The nation could face “the darkest winter in modern history” unless leaders act decisively, he told a congressional panel.

Bright alleges he was ousted from a high-level scientific post after warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic.

Testifying Thursday, Bright said, “We don’t have (a vaccine plan) yet, and it is a significant concern.” Asked if lawmakers should be worried, Bright responded, “absolutely.”

Bright, a vaccine expert who led a biodefense agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, said the country needs a plan to establish a supply chain for producing tens of millions of doses of a vaccine, and then allocating and distributing them fairly. He said experience so far with an antiviral drug that has been found to benefit COVID-19 patients has not given him much confidence about distribution. Hospital pharmacies have reported problems getting limited supplies.

The White House has begun what it calls “Operation Warp Speed” to quickly produce, distribute and administer a vaccine once it becomes available.

Bright testified Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Aspects of his complaint about early administration handling of the crisis were expected to be backed up by testimony from an executive of a company that manufactures respirator masks.


Supreme Court appears likely to reject Trump immunity claim
Legal Business | 2020/05/12 23:48
The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared likely to reject President Donald Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal investigation while in office. But the court seemed less clear about exactly how to handle subpoenas from Congress and the Manhattan district attorney for Trump’s tax, bank and financial records.

The court’s major clash over presidential accountability could affect the  2020 presidential campaign, especially if a high court ruling leads to the release of personal financial information before Election Day.

The justices heard arguments in two cases by telephone Tuesday that stretched into the early afternoon. The court, which includes six justices age 65 or older, has been meeting by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There was no apparent consensus about whether to ratify lower court rulings that the subpoenas to Trump’s accountant and banks are valid and should be enforced. The justices will meet by phone before the end of the week to take a preliminary vote on how those cases should come out, and decisions are expected by early summer.

On the same day Trump’s lawyers were telling the court that the subpoenas would be a distraction that no president can afford, Trump found the time to weigh in on a long string of unrelated issues on Twitter, about Elon Musk reopening Tesla’s California plant in defiance of local authorities, the credit he deserves for governors’ strong approval ratings for their handling of the virus outbreak, the anger Asian Americans feel “at what China has done to our Country,” oil prices, interest rates, his likely opponent in the November election and his critics.

The justices sounded particularly concerned in arguments over congressional subpoenas about whether a ruling validating the subpoenas would open the door to harassing future presidents.

“In your view, there is really no protection against the use of congressional subpoenas for the purpose of preventing the harassment of a president,” Justice Samuel Alito said to Douglas Letter, the lawyer for the House of Representatives.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he worried about a “future Sen. McCarthy,” a reference to the Communist-baiting Wisconsin senator from the 1950s, with subpoena power against a future president.

But in the case involving Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s subpoena for Trump’s taxes, the justices showed little interest in the broadest argument made by Jay Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, that a president can’t be investigated while he holds office.


Catholic schools, ex-teachers clash in Supreme Court case
Court News | 2020/05/11 23:49
First, Kristen Biel learned she had breast cancer. Then, after she told the Catholic school where she taught that she’d need time off for treatment, she learned her teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed.

“She was devastated,” said her husband Darryl. “She came in the house just bawling uncontrollably.”

Biel died last year at age 54 after a five-year battle with breast cancer. On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a disability discrimination lawsuit she filed against her former employer, St. James Catholic School in Torrance, California.

A judge initially sided with the school and halted the lawsuit, but an appeals court disagreed and said it could go forward. The school, with the support of the Trump administration, is challenging that decision, telling the Supreme Court that the dispute doesn’t belong in court.

The case is one of 10 the high court is  hearing arguments in by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic. The justices heard arguments in four cases this week. Next week includes Biel’s case as well as high-profile fights over President Donald Trump’s financial records and whether presidential electors have to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.

Biel’s lawsuit is one of two cases being heard together that involves the same issue: the “ministerial exception” that exempts religious employers from certain employment discrimination lawsuits.

The Supreme Court recognized in a unanimous 2012 decision that the Constitution prevents ministers from suing their churches for employment discrimination. But it specifically avoided giving a rigid test for who should count as a minister.

Now the Supreme Court will decide whether Biel, and another former teacher who sued a different Catholic school for age discrimination, count as ministers barred from suing. Both Biel and the other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, taught religion, among other subjects.


Blind justice: No visual cues in high court phone cases
Attorney News | 2020/05/09 23:51
On the evening before he was to argue a case before the Supreme Court years ago, Jeffrey Fisher broke his glasses. That left the very nearsighted lawyer with an unappealing choice. He could wear contacts and clearly see the justices but not his notes, or skip the contacts and see only his notes.

It wasn’t hard to decide. “I couldn’t imagine doing argument without seeing their faces,” Fisher said.

He won’t have a choice next month. Because of the coronavirus pandemic the high court is, for the first time in its 230-year history, holding arguments by telephone. Beyond not being able to see the justices’ nods, frowns and hand gestures, the teleconference arguments in 10 cases over six days present a range of challenges, attorneys said, but also opportunities.

The unprecedented decision to hold arguments by phone was an effort to help slow the spread of the virus. Most of the justices are at risk because of their age; six are over 65. And hearing arguments by phone allows them to decide significant cases by the court’s traditional summer break.

The attorneys arguing  before the court include government lawyers as well as those in private practice. Three of the 25 are women. Most have made multiple Supreme Court arguments and are familiar to the justices, although seven are giving their first arguments before the court. The Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, will argue twice.

The cases the justices are hearing include fights over subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records  and cases about whether presidential electors are required to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who won their state.

Justices have long said that the written briefs lawyers submit are vastly more important to the cases’ outcomes than what’s said in court. But the arguments also help them resolve nagging issues and occasionally can change a justice’s vote.


Ginsburg, from hospital, joins in on 'Obamacare' arguments
Legal Business | 2020/05/07 23:52
The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a dispute involving Trump administration rules that would allow more employers who cite a religious or moral objection to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women.

With arguments conducted by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in from the Maryland hospital where she was being treated for an infection caused by a gallstone. The court said she expected to be in the hospital for a day or two.

Justice Clarence Thomas kept up his streak of asking questions, a rarity for him, during the third day of phone arguments, with live audio available to the public.

The case stems from the Obama-era health law, under which most employers must cover birth control as a preventive service, at no charge to women in their insurance plans.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration exempted houses of worship, such as churches, synagogues and mosques, from the requirement. It created a way by which religiously affiliated organizations including hospitals, universities and charities could opt out of paying for contraception, but women on their health plans would still get no-cost birth control. Some groups complained the opt-out process violated their religious beliefs.

Trump administration officials in 2017 announced a rule change that allows many companies and organization with religious or moral objections to opt out of covering birth control without providing an alternate avenue for coverage. The rules were finalized in 2018. The government has estimated that the change would impact approximately 70,500 women who would lose contraception coverage in one year as a result.


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