Fines, jail, probation, debt: Court policies punish the poor
Court Watch | 2019/07/08 18:32
Johnny Gibbs has been trying to get a valid driver’s license for 20 years, but he just can’t afford it.

To punish him for high school truancy in 1999, Tennessee officials told him he would not be able to legally drive until he turned 21. He drove anyway, incurring two tickets and racking up more than $1,000 in fines and fees.

Like other low-income defendants in similar situations across the country, Gibbs couldn’t pay and ended up serving jail time and probation. That incurred another cost: a monthly supervision fee to a private probation company.

Rather than risk another arrest, Gibbs, now 38, decided to quit driving, which he said makes it nearly impossible to work. He said he spent several years living in a motel room with his mother, his disabled father and his sister before they all became homeless. In August, the family found housing in a dilapidated trailer, miles from the nearest town or food source.

A growing number of legal groups and nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. are challenging these practices, but they continue — despite a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found it unconstitutional to incarcerate defendants too poor to pay fines.

In Oklahoma, for example, the Washington-based Civil Rights Corps, which has litigated more than 20 lawsuits since it was founded in 2016 to undo various aspects of “user-funded justice,” is challenging policies that it claims have led to one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Counties across the state of Oklahoma refer debt collection to a for-profit company, Aberdeen Enterprizes II, which adds an additional 30 percent fee and threatens debtors with arrest. Many of those who can’t pay are not just thrown in jail; they’re also made to pay for their incarceration, further increasing their debt.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Bivens said reforming fees, fines and bail is a priority of the Conference of Chief Justices, a nonprofit organization comprising top judicial officials from each of the 50 states.


Swedish court detains rapper A$AP Rocky on assault charge
Legal Business | 2019/07/05 22:42
U.S. rapper A$AP Rocky was ordered held by a Swedish court Friday for two weeks in pre-trial detention while police investigate a fight in downtown Stockholm.

Prosecutor Fredrik Karlsson said Friday after the hearing at the Stockholm District Court that A$AP Rocky — the stage name of Rakim Mayers — was to be held on a lesser assault charge than he initially had demanded.

"They were attacked and he made use of self-defense," said defense lawyer Henrik Olsson Lilja, adding they would appeal the ruling.

The rapper was involved in the fight Sunday before appearing at a music festival in Sweden. It was not clear who else was involved in the incident. Videos published on social media show a person being violently thrown onto the ground by A$AP Rocky. He and others punched and kicked the person on the ground.

After the video was published online, the rapper posted his own videos to his Instagram account, which purport to show the man in question following and repeatedly harassing him and his entourage.



High court keeps citizenship question off census for now
Court News | 2019/07/04 05:43
In a surprising move, the Supreme Court on Thursday kept the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census for now, and the question’s opponents say there’s no time to revisit the issue before next week’s scheduled start to the printing of census forms.

But President Donald Trump said on Twitter after the decision that he’s asked lawyers if they can “delay the Census, no matter how long” until the “United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision” on the issue. Under federal law the census must begin on April 1, 2020. A former director of the Census Bureau said he believed Congress would have to change the law for the count to be delayed.

The issue of whether to add the citizenship question to the census is a politically charged one. Democratic cities and states who oppose adding it argue that they’d get less federal money and fewer representatives in Congress if the question is asked because it would discourage the participation of minorities, primarily Hispanics, who tend to support Democrats.

During arguments in the case at the Supreme Court in April it seemed as though the Trump administration would win because Chief Justice John Roberts and other conservatives appointed by Republican presidents did not appear to see anything wrong with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add the question. Ultimately, however, Roberts joined the court’s four more liberal members in saying the administration’s current justification for the question “seems to have been contrived.”

The Trump administration had said the question was being added to aid in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters’ access to the ballot box. But the Justice Department had never previously sought a citizenship question in the 54-year history of the landmark voting rights law.



Appeals court puts Trump abortion restrictions on hold again
Court News | 2019/07/03 05:43
Trump administration rules that impose additional hurdles for low-income women seeking abortions are on hold once again.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Wednesday vacated a unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel and said a slate of 11 judges will reconsider lawsuits brought by more than 20 states and several civil rights and health organizations challenging the rules.

The rules ban taxpayer-funded clinics from making abortion referrals and prohibit clinics that receive federal money from sharing office space with abortion providers.

Critics say the rules would force many clinics to find new locations, undergo expensive remodels or shut down.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The agency previously said its position “is supported by long-standing Supreme Court precedent, and we are confident we will ultimately prevail on appeal.”

Federal judges in Washington, Oregon and California blocked the rules from taking effect. U.S. District Judge Michael McShane in Oregon called the new policy “madness” and said it was motivated by “an arrogant assumption that the government is better suited to direct women’s health care than their providers.”


Iowa Supreme Court takes a right turn under Gov. Reynolds
Attorney News | 2019/07/02 05:43
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is transforming the Iowa Supreme Court from one that leaned liberal to a solidly conservative body, prompting concerns among critics that it could erode past support for civil liberties as well as abortion and gay rights.

Through a combination of coincidence, a mandatory retirement age of 72 for judges and changes in the selection process that favor Republicans, Reynolds could make the most appointments to the seven-member court since former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack named five from 1999 to 2007.

Governor for just over two years, Reynolds already has appointed two justices — one due to illness and another a retirement . One of her appointees is a member of the conservative Federalist Society, which has been instrumental in vetting judges for President Donald Trump's aggressive push to remake the federal courts.

The current balance of the court is 5-2 Republican, although GOP appointee Chief Justice Mark Cady often sides with liberals. Reynolds will get to replace Brent Appel, a Democratic appointee, who turns 72 in 2022, the last year of her current term. If she runs and wins a second term as governor she could replace David Wiggins in 2023, the last retiring Democrat appointee and Cady in 2025 to complete the conservative transformation.


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.



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