New campaign seeks support for expanded Supreme Court
Areas of Focus | 2018/10/14 23:24
A couple of liberal Harvard law professors are lending their name to a new campaign to build support for expanding the Supreme Court by four justices in 2021.

The campaign, calling itself the 1.20.21 Project and being launched Wednesday, also wants to increase the size of the lower federal courts to counteract what it terms "Republican obstruction, theft and procedural abuse" of the federal judiciary. This includes the recent near party-line confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh that cemented a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

It is premised on Democratic victories in next month's elections and the 2020 presidential contest that could leave Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House in 2021, a possibility but by no means a sure thing. Additional justices nominated by a Democrat could change the court's ideological direction.

Harvard professors Mark Tushnet and Laurence Tribe are joining an effort being led by political scientist Aaron Belkin. He was a prominent advocate for repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibited LGBT people from serving openly in the military.

The Kavanaugh confirmation was the culmination of a process that started with Republicans blocking many of President Barack Obama's nominees to lower courts and then refusing to consider his Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland in 2016, Belkin said. President Donald Trump's victory in November 2016 allowed him to fill the high court vacancy with Justice Neil Gorsuch.


Kavanaugh to attend White House event, as elections loom
Areas of Focus | 2018/10/07 10:39
New Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is returning to the White House for a televised appearance Monday with President Donald Trump less

than a month before pivotal congressional elections.

Kavanaugh will take part in an entirely ceremonial swearing-in two days after he officially became a member of the high court and following a bitter

partisan fight over his nomination. The event is unusual for new justices. Only Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer participated in a White House event

after they had been sworn-in and begun work as a justice, according to the court's records on oath-taking by the current crop of justices.

Kavanaugh, along with his law clerks, already has been at the Supreme Court preparing for his first day on the bench Tuesday when the justices will

hear arguments in two cases about longer prison terms for repeat offenders. The new justice's four clerks all are women, the first time that has

happened.

The clerks are Kim Jackson, who previously worked for Kavanaugh on the federal appeals court in Washington, Shannon Grammel, Megan Lacy and

Sara Nommensen. The latter three all worked for other Republican-nominated judges. Lacy had been working at the White House in support of

Kavanaugh's nomination.

In his Senate testimony last month in which he denied allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman in high school, accusing Democrats of

orchestrating a partisan campaign against him, Kavanaugh had promised that, if he was confirmed, the four clerks working for him would be women.

"I'll be the first justice in the history of the Supreme Court to have a group of all-women law clerks. That is who I am."

On Monday, Trump kept up attacks on Democrats for opposing Kavanaugh, pressing on an issue that Republicans have used to energize their voters.


Pipeline company found guilty in 2015 California oil spill
Areas of Focus | 2018/09/10 03:01
A pipeline company was convicted of nine criminal charges Friday for causing the worst California coastal spill in 25 years, a disaster that blackened popular beaches for miles, killed wildlife and hurt tourism and fishing.

A Santa Barbara County jury found Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline guilty of a felony count of failing to properly maintain its pipeline and eight misdemeanor charges, including killing marine mammals and protected sea birds.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement that Plains’ actions were not only reckless and irresponsible but also criminal.

“Today’s verdict should send a message: if you endanger our environment and wildlife, we will hold you accountable,” he said.

Plains said in a statement that the jury didn’t find any knowing misconduct by the company and “accepts full responsibility for the impact of the accident.”

“We are committed to doing the right thing,” the company said.

The company said its operation of the pipeline met or exceeded legal and industry standards, and believes the jury erred in its verdict on one count where California law allowed a conviction under a standard of negligence.

“We intend to fully evaluate and consider all of our legal options with respect to the trial and resulting jury decision,” Plains said.

The company is set to be sentenced on Dec. 13. Because it’s a company, and not a person, Plains only faces fines, though it’s unclear how steep the penalties could be.

Plains had faced a total of 15 charges for the rupture of a corroded pipeline that sent at least 123,000 gallons (465,000 liters) of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles.


Chaos marks start of Kavanaugh confirmation hearing
Areas of Focus | 2018/09/02 20:58
Quarreling and confusion marked the start of the Senate's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Tuesday, with Democrats trying to block the proceedings because of documents being withheld by the White House. Protesters also disrupted the proceedings.

In his opening remarks released ahead of delivery, Kavanaugh sought to tamp down the controversy over his nomination, which would likely shift the closely divided court to the right. He promised to be a "team player" if confirmed, declaring that he would be a "pro-law judge" who would not decide cases based on his personal views.

But Democrats raised objections from the moment Chairman Chuck Grassley gaveled the committee to order. They want to review 100,000 documents about Kavanaugh's record being withheld by the White House as well as some 42,000 documents released to the committee on a confidential basis on the eve of the hearing, along with others not sought by Republicans on the committee.

"We have not been given an opportunity to have a meaningful hearing on this nominee," said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., made a motion to adjourn.

Grassley denied his request, but the arguments persisted.

More than a dozen protesters, shouting one by one, disrupted the hearing at several points and were removed by police. "This is a mockery and a travesty of justice," shouted one woman. "Cancel Brett Kavanaugh!"

Grassley defended the document production as the most open in history, saying there was "no reason to delay the hearing. He asked Kavanaugh, who sat before the committee with White House officials behind him, to introduce his parents, wife and children.

"I'm very honored to be here," Kavanaugh said.

With majority Republicans appearing united, it's doubtful the hearings will affect the eventual confirmation of President Donald Trump's nominee. But they will likely become a rallying cry for both parties just two months before the midterm elections.

Kavanaugh declared he would be even-handed in his approach to the law.

"A good judge must be an umpire, a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy," Kavanaugh said in prepared opening remarks. "I am not a pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant judge. I am not a pro-prosecution or pro-defense judge."

"I would always strive to be a team player on the Team of Nine," he added.

The Supreme Court is more often thought of as nine separate judges, rather than a team. And on the most contentious cases, the court tends to split into two sides, conservative and liberal. But the justices often say they seek consensus when they can, a


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.



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