In Veterans Court, former service members fight new battle
Areas of Focus | 2018/08/25 09:36
Sheriff's deputies steered three handcuffed men into Veterans Court one day this summer. The backs of their red jumpsuits read "Allegheny County Jail." One prisoner had doe eyes and long hair, resembling pictures of Christ.

He wore shackles around his ankles.

When he stood before Judge John Zottola, his eyes cast down, the judge cocked his head with a "What are we going to do with you?" expression on his face.

A probation officer said the young man, an Iraq War combat veteran, had absconded -- a word that in court means fled -- while under house arrest. The judge ordered a transfer to a Bath, N.Y., treatment center for veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress and addiction.

Seeing a veteran shackled in his own country is particularly unsettling when you realize jail may be where he is most safe. But most veterans in this court are not incarcerated. They have an out, as long as they check in with the probation officer, keep their records and urine clean and show up for court. The process of getting through three phases of good behavior takes a year.

Allegheny County Veterans Treatment Court is an acknowledgement that veterans deserve special consideration when they land in the criminal justice system. They are diverted into a side stream of the larger channel. If they have post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury on top of their violations, their treatment team can work to untangle these issues.

Judge Zottola, who meets before court with the parties of each day's hearing, describes it as "a problem solving court, with positive rewards and regular sanctions."

His courtroom hums with collaborative spirit. Before he calls the room to order, people mill about, sharing information. The hearings, too, are more casual than typical court proceedings.

"We are a team and we take a team approach to assist you," Judge Zottola says as he opens his sessions. "Please take advantage of that help.


North Carolina newspaper asks court to unseal lawsuit
Areas of Focus | 2018/08/22 09:36
A North Carolina newspaper has asked a state appeals court to order the public release of a lawsuit involving a car dealership owner charged in South Carolina with molesting a 15-year-old boy during a NASCAR weekend at Darlington Raceway.

The Fayetteville Observer reports that its attorney argued Wednesday that a Superior Court judge's decision last year to keep the case sealed was overly broad and should be reversed by the state's Court of Appeals.

An appeals court panel didn't immediately rule on the newspaper's request, which was opposed by a lawyer for parties in the sealed case. That attorney, James A. "Trey" McLean III, argued that the documents should remain sealed to protect children involved in the case.

Other news organizations, including The Associated Press, have supported the Observer's appeal.


California high court rules for immigrant kids in visa fight
Areas of Focus | 2018/08/16 08:35
The California Supreme Court on Thursday made it easier for some immigrant children who are abused or abandoned by a parent to seek a U.S. visa to avoid deportation in a ruling that advocates said would help thousands of children.

State judges cannot require that children drag an absentee parent living abroad into court in their visa application process, the justices said in a unanimous decision. Immigration rights advocates had warned that such a requirement would make it nearly impossible for the children to fight deportation. That's because courts in California cannot establish authority over a foreign citizen and the parent may want nothing to do with a child claiming abuse, and would refuse to participate in a court proceeding in the U.S., immigration groups said.

The ruling overturned a lower court decision. The California Supreme Court said it was sufficient to adequately notify the absent parent of the court proceedings, but that parent did not have to be a party to the case.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in court documents that the case had implications for a "substantial portion" of the thousands of children who have fled to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico and settled in California. Kristen Jackson, an attorney for the plaintiff in the case, estimated the ruling would affect thousands of children.



Supreme Court examines Kentucky's medical review panels
Areas of Focus | 2018/08/10 03:26
After Ezra Claycomb was born with severe brain damage and cerebral palsy, his mother considered filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. But in 2017, Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature passed a law requiring all such lawsuits first be reviewed by a panel of doctors.

The law gave the panel nine months to issue an opinion on whether the lawsuit is frivolous — yet section 14 of Kentucky's Constitution says every person has access to the courts "without ... delay."

Claycomb's parents sued to block the new law, making Kentucky the latest state to have its medical review panels challenged in court.

A circuit judge agreed the law was unconstitutional. But Republican Gov. Matt Bevin appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments Wednesday.

"This is a modern day version of the poll tax," said attorney J. Guthrie True, who represents Claycomb in a lawsuit he says has class action status to represent all patients. "This has one purpose, and that is to obstruct the courthouse door."

Matthew Kuhn, an attorney for the governor, said the state Constitution's ban on delaying access to the courts only applies to the court system itself. It does not apply to the legislature, which he says has the power to impose rules on the court system. He noted Kentucky has other laws that limit when people can file lawsuits. For example, heirs wanting to sue the executor of an estate must wait at least six months after the executor has been appointed before they can do so. Kuhn says that law has never been challenged.

Kuhn said the medical review process is helpful because it gets the two sides talking before a lawsuit is filed, which could jumpstart settlement discussions. It also makes sure both sides have all the evidence collected before they go to a judge.



The Latest: Zimbabwe's president welcomes court challenge
Areas of Focus | 2018/08/04 23:50
Zimbabwe's president says people are free to approach the courts if they have issues with the results of Monday's election, which he carried with just over 50 percent of the vote.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa spoke to journalists shortly after opposition leader Nelson Chamisa called the election results manipulated and said they would be challenged in court. Chamisa received 44 percent of the vote but says his supporters' own count gave him 56 percent.

Mnangagwa is praising the vote as free and fair despite the opposition concerns and those of international election observers who noted the "extreme bias" of state media and the "excessive" use of force when the military cracked down on opposition protesters in the capital on Wednesday.

The president also is looking forward to his inauguration, saying that under the constitution it should happen nine days after election results are declared.

Zimbabwe's president is praising "a free, fair and credible election, as we have always promised" and "unprecedented flowering of freedom and democracy in our beloved homeland" even as the opposition loudly rejects the results.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa spoke shortly after opposition leader Nelson Chamisa said Monday's peaceful election had been manipulated and said the results would be challenged in court.

Mnangagwa, a former enforcer of longtime leader Robert Mugabe, has tried to recast himself as a voice of change. He is calling the deadly violence against opposition supporters in the capital on Wednesday "unfortunate" and says Chamisa has a crucial role to play in Zimbabwe's future.


Kavanaugh: Watergate tapes decision may have been wrong
Areas of Focus | 2018/07/21 01:26
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh suggested several years ago that the unanimous high court ruling in 1974 that forced President Richard Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes, leading to the end of his presidency, may have been wrongly decided.

Kavanaugh was taking part in a roundtable discussion with other lawyers when he said at three different points that the decision in U.S. v. Nixon, which marked limits on a president's ability to withhold information needed for a criminal prosecution, may have come out the wrong way.

A 1999 magazine article about the roundtable was part of thousands of pages of documents that Kavanaugh has provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the confirmation process. The committee released the documents on Saturday.

Kavanaugh's belief in robust executive authority already is front and center in his nomination by President Donald Trump to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. The issue could assume even greater importance if special counsel Robert Mueller seeks to force Trump to testify in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"But maybe Nixon was wrongly decided — heresy though it is to say so. Nixon took away the power of the president to control information in the executive branch by holding that the courts had power and jurisdiction to order the president to disclose information in response to a subpoena sought by a subordinate executive branch official. That was a huge step with implications to this day that most people do not appreciate sufficiently...Maybe the tension of the time led to an erroneous decision," Kavanaugh said in a transcript of the discussion that was published in the January-February 1999 issue of the Washington Lawyer.




Trump finds it 'inconceivable' lawyer would tape a client
Areas of Focus | 2018/07/19 01:27
Donald Trump said Saturday he finds it "inconceivable" that a lawyer would tape a client, as the president weighed in after the disclosure that in the weeks before the 2016 election, his then-personal attorney secretly recorded their discussion about a potential payment for a former Playboy model's account of having an affair with Trump.

The recording was part of a large collection of documents and electronic records seized by earlier this year by federal authorities from Michael Cohen, the longtime Trump fixer.

In a tweet, Trump called such taping "totally unheard of & perhaps illegal." He also asserted, without elaborating, in post: "The good news is that your favorite President did nothing wrong!"

Cohen had made a practice of recording conversations, unbeknownst to those he was speaking with. Most states, including New York, allow for recordings of conversations with only the consent of one party; other states require all parties to agree to a recording or have mixed laws on the matter. It was not immediately clear where Trump and Cohen were located at the time of the call.

Cohen's recording adds to questions about whether Trump tried to quash damaging stories before the election. Trump's campaign had said it knew nothing about any payment to ex-centerfold Karen McDougal.


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