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Audit: 'Pervasive lack of accountability' in Kentucky courts
Attorney News | 2018/07/11 23:32
In 2016, Kentucky's Administrative Office of the Courts was looking for office space for newly-elected Supreme Court Justice Sam Wright. They got two offers: One would cost more than $59,000 a year and require extensive renovations. The other space was larger, had 15 parking spaces and would cost $21,000 a year.

State officials chose the first option, even though it cost three times as much. They did not document why they chose it, and they did not visit the site before signing the lease, as state policy requires. The selection memo, which is the sole document relied on to make the decision, also left out one key detail: The company that owned the more expensive property was owned by the justice's two sons.

That's just one finding of many in a scathing audit released Thursday of the administrative arm of Kentucky's judicial system. The audit, believed to be the first ever independent examination of judicial system's finances and policies, found a "pervasive lack of accountability" and resistance to transparency. The Supreme Court sets administrative policy for the judicial branch, but they meet in secret and won't allow the public to monitor their actions. When Auditor Mike Harmon recommended they conduct administrative business in public, they refused.

"Their dismissive attitude towards key recommendations regarding ethics and accountability quite frankly saddens me," Harmon said in a news release announcing the audit's findings. "No matter what branch of government, we owe it to the taxpayers of Kentucky to strive toward openness and transparency."



Drivers challenge license suspensions for unpaid court debt
Attorney News | 2018/07/05 04:03
It can start with a couple of traffic tickets. Unable to pay the tickets right away, a driver becomes saddled with late fees, fines and court costs. Soon, the driver may be taken off the road indefinitely.

More than 40 states allow the suspension of driver’s licenses for people with unpaid criminal or traffic court debt.

But now, advocates across the country are pushing to change that, arguing that such laws are unconstitutional because they unfairly punish poor people and violate due process by not giving drivers notice or an opportunity to show they cannot afford to pay the fees.

Lawsuits have been filed in at least five states over the past two years.

“It’s not that I don’t want to take care of what I owe. I really wish I could,” said Brianna Morgan, a single mother from Petersburg, Virginia, who hasn’t had a license in three years because she owes more than $400 in traffic fines and court costs from traffic violations and a disorderly conduct citation.

“I really don’t have a way to pay it,” said Morgan, who supports herself and her three children on a monthly disability check.

Advocates had a victory this week in Tennessee, where a federal judge ruled that a law that allows the state to revoke the licenses of low-income people with unpaid court debt from past criminal convictions is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger called the law “powerfully counterproductive” and ordered Tennessee to stop revoking licenses and to reinstate the licenses of people who had theirs revoked due solely to nonpayment of court fees.

“If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect,” Trauger wrote in her ruling Monday.

In Virginia, nearly a million people currently have suspended driver’s licenses at least in part because of unpaid court debt, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit that is challenging the practice in a federal lawsuit. A judge dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, but in a ruling in May, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave the case new life, sending it back to the lower court to allow the plaintiffs to revise the lawsuit.

Millions of drivers nationwide have lost licenses because of such laws. In a study released in September, the justice center estimated that 4.2 million people then had suspended or revoked licenses for unpaid court debt in five states alone: Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas.



McConnell touts Thapar for Supreme Court seat
Attorney News | 2018/06/29 22:57
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday he has touted fellow Kentuckian Amul Thapar to fill a looming vacancy on the Supreme Court, but acknowledged he has "no idea" who President Donald Trump will choose.

McConnell told reporters he has encouraged Trump to consider Thapar, and said he hopes the federal appeals court judge is "in the final group" as the president looks for a successor to retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Thapar is a former U.S. District Court judge in Kentucky. He has already been nominated once by Trump, for his current seat on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. McConnell has been a longtime supporter of Thapar, stretching back to the judge's tenure as a federal prosecutor.

"I think he's absolutely brilliant, with the right temperament," McConnell said of Thapar. "But others have their favorites. And I have no idea who the president may choose."

Trump has said he will announce his choice on July 9. The president has promised to draw the next justice from a list of 25 prospective candidates that was first established during the 2016 presidential campaign and updated last fall, with advice from conservatives. Thapar's name has come up among possible nominees being eyed.

In a speech Saturday to a GOP gathering in Louisville, McConnell said the goal is to have a new justice in place in time for the start of the Supreme Court's next term in October. As majority leader, McConnell sets the schedule in the narrowly divided Senate.

"There's not any doubt in my mind that we'll be able to get this new nominee confirmed, and I'm confident the president is going to send up an all-star, somebody of very high quality," McConnell told reporters later.

McConnell predicted the nominee will be similar to Trump's first Supreme Court selection, Neil Gorsuch, in terms of background and philosophy on the judiciary's role.


Georgia officer to appear in court after deadly shooting
Attorney News | 2018/06/27 22:57
A white Georgia police officer charged with voluntary manslaughter after shooting a fleeing black man is set to make his first court appearance.

Kingsland Police Officer Zechariah Presley's hearing will be at 2 p.m. Friday in Camden County, Georgia.

Presley was charged after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reviewed his body camera recording and other evidence in the death of Anthony Green in the small south Georgia town of Kingsland.

Presley's lawyer, Adrienne Browning, said her client is looking forward to his day in court and declined further comment. The killing has enraged Green's family and friends. They plan to hold a news conference with their lawyers at 11:30 a.m. Friday.



Gamers in court for first time after Kansas 'swatting' death
Attorney News | 2018/06/14 16:19
Two online gamers whose alleged dispute over a $1.50 Call of Duty WWII video game bet ultimately led police to fatally shoot a Kansas man not involved in the argument will make their first appearances in court Wednesday in a case of "swatting" that has drawn national attention.

Casey Viner, 18, of North College Hill, Ohio, and Shane Gaskill, 19, of Wichita, are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice, wire fraud and other counts.

Viner allegedly became upset at Gaskill while playing the popular online game. Authorities say he then asked 25-year-old Tyler Barriss of Los Angeles to "swat" Gaskill, a form of retaliation sometimes used by gamers, who call police and make a false report to send first responders to an online opponent's address.

Barriss is accused of calling Wichita police from Los Angeles on Dec. 28 to report a shooting and kidnapping at a Wichita address. Authorities say Gaskill had provided the address to Viner and later to Barriss in a direct electronic message. But the location Gaskill gave was his old address and a police officer responding to the call fatally shot the new resident Andrew Finch, 28, after he opened the door.

Viner's defense attorney, Jim Pratt, declined comment. The attorneys for Gaskill and Barriss did not immediately respond to an email.

Viner and Gaskill have not been arrested and both were instead issued a summons to appear at Wednesday's hearing where a judge will decide whether they can remain free on bond. Both men are also likely to enter pleas, although at this stage of the proceedings the only plea a federal magistrate can accept is not guilty.

Barriss and Viner face federal charges of conspiracy to make false reports. Barriss also is charged with making false reports and hoaxes, cyberstalking, making interstate threats, making interstate threats to harm by fire and wire fraud. He will not be in court Wednesday.

A first court appearance on the federal charges has not been set for Barriss because the Sedgwick County district attorney is going forward first with his case on the state charges, said Jim Cross, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas.


Court: Compliance reached in education funding case
Attorney News | 2018/06/10 18:57
A long-running court case over the adequacy of education funding in Washington state has ended, with the state Supreme Court on Thursday lifting its jurisdiction over the case and dropping daily sanctions after the Legislature funneled billions more dollars into public schools.

The court's unanimous order came in response to lawmakers passing a supplemental budget earlier this year that the justices said was the final step needed to reach compliance with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that found that K-12 school funding was inadequate. Washington's Constitution states that it is the Legislature's "paramount duty" to fully fund the education system. The resolution of the landmark case in Washington state comes as other states like Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky are now responding to calls for more money to be allocated to education.

The state had been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on that ruling, and daily sanctions of $100,000 — allocated specifically for education spending— had been accruing since August 2015.

"Reversing decades of underfunding has been among the heaviest lifts we've faced in recent years and required difficult and complex decisions, but I'm incredibly proud and grateful for all those who came together on a bipartisan basis to get this job done," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a written statement.

Over the past few years, lawmakers had put significantly more money toward education costs like student transportation and classroom supplies, but the biggest piece they needed to tackle to reach full compliance was figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts had paid a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies, something the court said had to be remedied.

In November, the court said a plan passed by the Legislature last year — which included a statewide property tax increase earmarked for education — satisfied its earlier ruling, but justices took issue with the fact that the teacher salary component of the plan wasn't fully funded until September 2019. This year, lawmakers expedited that timeframe to Sept. 1, 2018.

Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said that the court's order was a relief, though he noted that legislative debates over education funding aren't over. Sullivan said there is more work to be done on areas like special education, as well as recruiting and retaining teachers.



UK Supreme Court criticizes Northern Ireland abortion laws
Attorney News | 2018/06/07 16:00
Britain's Supreme Court on Thursday criticized Northern Ireland's strict anti-abortion laws but dismissed a legal challenge.

A majority of the court decided that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which initiated the case, did not have the standing to bring the challenge to the abortion law. The court dismissed the case without taking action.

The justices went on to say, however, that a majority finds Northern Ireland's abortion prohibitions "disproportionate" and that they violate European human rights laws.

That part of the ruling gave hope to abortion rights activists seeking to liberalize Northern Ireland's laws. Strict Northern Ireland laws that prohibit abortions in cases of pregnancy as a result of incest or rape, and in cases when the fetus has a likely fatal abnormality, have drawn scrutiny since the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in May to repeal its own strict laws.

When Ireland replaces the constitutional ban with more liberal legislation after a debate in parliament, Northern Ireland will be the only remaining region in Britain and Ireland to outlaw the procedure.

Rosa Curling, from the law firm Leigh Day that helped bring the legal challenge, called the court's ruling "a momentous day for women in Northern Ireland" and said it is now up to British Prime Minister Theresa May to take action to ease the laws.

She said May has an obligation to make sure the U.K. government is "now longer acting unlawfully by breaching the human rights of women across Northern Ireland."

However, the fact that the Supreme Court dismissed the case because of doubts about the Human Rights Commission's right to bring it means the judges' views on the anti-abortion laws do not have legal force, which is reassuring for abortion foes.



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