Court: Student prayers OK at school board meetings
Court News | 2017/03/20 15:15
A Texas school board can open its meetings with student-led public prayers without running afoul of the Constitution's prohibition against government-established religion, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit against the Birdville Independent School District. The suit was filed by the American Humanist Association and a graduate of Birdville High School.

The panel said student-led prayers for legislative bodies differ from unconstitutional prayers in public schools.

The panel noted a 2014 Supreme Court ruling allowing prayers at a town council meeting in Greece, New York, and said the prayers at the Birdville school board fall under that "legislative prayer exception."

"It would be nonsensical to permit legislative prayers but bar the legislative officers for whom they are being primarily recited from participating in the prayers in any way," Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote for the panel. "Indeed, the Supreme Court did not take issue with the fact that Town of Greece board members bowed their heads during invocations."

The opinion noted that the Birdville school board meetings are held in an administration building — not in a school. People attending can enter and leave at any time, including during the prayer. It said the board meetings open with a student-led Pledge of Allegiance and a statement that can include a prayer, although the statements are sometimes secular.



China praises courts for punishing state security crimes
Court News | 2017/03/17 16:01
The convictions of a prominent defense attorney and his associates were among the country's top legal achievements last year, China's chief justice said Sunday, highlighting a case that has been criticized by Western governments and rights groups.

In a report to the national legislature, Zhou Qiang also said that China, which is believed to execute more people than the rest of the world combined, gave the death penalty "to an extremely small number of criminals for extremely serious offenses" in the past 10 years.

The actual number of executions in China is a state secret. A 2007 decision that all death sentences must be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court is believed to have reduced the number of executions dramatically.

Zhou praised courts for severely punishing crimes against state security and violent terrorism, and said the trend will continue in order "to resolutely safeguard the country's political security."

The only case of subverting state power he highlighted was that of Zhou Shifeng, director of a law firm that used to be one of the country's best-known advocates for human rights. He was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in August for attempting to manipulate public opinion and harm national security.

Rights groups and Western governments including the U.S. had urged China to release Zhou and other activists and lawyers detained in a sweeping crackdown that began in 2015. Critics say it's about the ruling Communist Party silencing opponents.

The chief justice's report didn't say how many people were prosecuted or convicted of such offences, or how many cases were handled.

Hundreds of people have been killed in recent years in attacks in the northwestern Xinjiang region, which Beijing blames on Islamic militants and separatists from the Uighur minority. Activists say repressive government policies have exacerbated tensions and radicalized local youth.



Kansas Supreme Court receptive to protecting abortion rights
Court News | 2017/03/17 15:59
Kansas’ highest court appeared receptive Thursday to declaring for the first time that the state constitution recognizes abortion rights, with a majority of the justices skeptical of the state’s argument against the idea as it defended a ban on a common second-trimester procedure.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by Kansas City-area father-daughter physicians against a 2015 first-in-the-nation law that has become a model for abortion opponents in other states. The key issue is whether the Kansas Constitution protects abortion rights independently of the U.S. Constitution, which would allow state courts to invalidate restrictions that have been upheld by the federal courts.

Abortion opponents fear that such a decision by state courts could block new laws — or invalidate existing ones — even if President Donald Trump’s appointments result in a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Janet Crepps, an attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the doctors, argued that it’s important for Kansas residents to know what rights their constitution protects.

“The federal constitutional protection seems to ebb and flow with the political tide,” Crepps said.

Abortion-rights supporters contend broad language in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights protects a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. The Bill of Rights says residents have “natural rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that “free governments” were created for their “equal protection and benefit.”

The state argues there’s no evidence that when the constitution was written in 1859, its drafters contemplated the issue in a legal environment in which abortion generally was illegal.



Alleged jewel thief arrested after missing court hearing
Court News | 2017/03/13 23:00
A noted jewel thief who discussed her six-decade criminal career in a documentary has been arrested after authorities said she failed to appear in court.

The DeKalb County Sheriff's Office says 86-year-old Doris Marie Payne Monday was arrested at her Atlanta home. She was taken to the DeKalb County Jail.

It was not immediately clear whether she has an attorney who could speak for her.

Payne was sought after missing an arraignment March 6 in an alleged 2016 jewelry theft at Perimeter Mall, about 13 miles north of downtown Atlanta.

A judge deemed her too ill to stand trial Feb. 21 in the 2015 theft of a pair of designer earrings from a Saks Fifth Avenue.

Payne, her family and friends discuss her life in the 2013 documentary "The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne."



Airport shooting suspect in court on mental health issues
Court News | 2017/03/12 00:05
An Alaska man charged in a Florida airport shooting rampage is due in court for a hearing on his mental health problems.

Attorneys for 26-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, Alaska, say he's been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, but they say he is competent to stand trial. The hearing Wednesday will delve into that.

Santiago is accused in the Jan. 6 shooting that killed five and wounded six at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Santiago's lawyers say he is taking an anti-psychotic drug and can communicate clearly, understand legal issues and is cooperative with jail staff. They say he is not disoriented or delusional.

Santiago previously told the FBI he acted under government mind control, then claimed inspiration by the Islamic State extremist group. Trial is scheduled for Oct. 2.



Immigration courts: record number of cases, many problems
Court News | 2017/03/06 16:19
Everyone was in place for the hearing in Atlanta immigration court: the Guinean man hoping to stay in the U.S., his attorney, a prosecutor, a translator and the judge. But because of some missing paperwork, it was all for nothing.

When the government attorney said he hadn't received the case file, Judge J. Dan Pelletier rescheduled the proceeding. Everybody would have to come back another day.

The sudden delay was just one example of the inefficiency witnessed by an Associated Press writer who observed hearings over two days in one of the nation's busiest immigration courts. And that case is one of more than half a million weighing down court dockets across the country as President Donald Trump steps up enforcement of immigration laws.

Even before Trump became president, the nation's immigration courts were burdened with a record number of pending cases, a shortage of judges and frequent bureaucratic breakdowns. Cases involving immigrants not in custody commonly take two years to resolve and sometimes as many as five.

The backlog and insufficient resources are problems stretching back at least a decade, said San Francisco Immigration Judge Dana Marks, speaking as the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.



Florida Legislature at "Open War" with State Supreme Court
Court News | 2017/03/02 08:46
The Republican-dominated Legislature's tense relationship with the state Supreme Court is hanging over this year's legislative session as lawmakers take up two bills to deal with the aftermath of court rulings that Republicans don't like.

One of them is a fix to the state's death penalty rules and the other a revision of the "stand your ground" law to better protect defendants claiming self-defense.

It's no surprise that two other bills are seen as a shot back at the court - a proposal to limit justices' terms to 12 years and a bill that would require them to file reports to the governor and Legislature on the timeliness of their decisions.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran says one of his highest priorities is to "reign in" the Supreme Court.

Former Supreme Court Justice James Perry said the Legislature is at "open war" with the judiciary, but he said the Legislature can't control the court.



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