Court reverses itself and restores woman's murder conviction
Court Watch | 2017/12/10 01:10
Georgia's highest court has reversed it own recent decision and restored the murder conviction of a woman whose husband shot and killed a police officer.

The Georgia Supreme Court issued a new opinion Monday that upholds Lisa Ann Lebis' felony murder conviction in the 2012 slaying of Clayton County police officer Sean Callahan.

Barely a month ago the same court had axed Lebis' conviction, saying prosecutors failed to prove she "jointly possessed" the gun that her husband, Tremaine Lebis, used to kill the officer as the couple tried to flee a Stockbridge motel.

The new decision concludes that Lisa Ann Lebis could still be held accountable for the slaying as a co-conspirator.

The opinion Monday does not say why the high court chose to revisit the case.


Cake case before Supreme Court has ties to barbecue decision
Court Watch | 2017/12/02 06:18
The upcoming Supreme Court argument about a baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple makes some civil rights lawyers think of South Carolina's Piggie Park barbecue.

When two African-Americans parked their car at a Piggie Park drive-in in August 1964 in Columbia, South Carolina, the waitress who came out to serve them turned back once she saw they were black and didn't take their order.

In the civil rights lawsuit that followed, Piggie Park owner Maurice Bessinger justified the refusal to serve black customers based on his religious belief opposing "any integration of the races whatsoever."

Federal judges had little trouble dismissing Bessinger's claim.

"Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens," U.S. District Judge Charles Earl Simons Jr. wrote in 1966.

By the time the Supreme Court heard the case in 1968, the issue was the award of fees to the lawyers representing the black South Carolinians who sued Bessinger's restaurants. But in a footnote to its unsigned 8-0 opinion, the court called the religious freedom argument and Bessinger's other defenses "patently frivolous."

Fifty years later, civil rights lawyers are pointing the Supreme Court to Bessinger's case in support of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the gay couple who were turned away by Colorado baker Jack Phillips, giving rise to the high court case that will be argued Tuesday.

"The logic of Piggie Park and other precedents overwhelmingly rejecting religious justifications for racial discrimination apply squarely to the context of LGBTQ discrimination," the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a Supreme Court brief. The fund also represented the people who sued Piggie Park.

Both cases involve laws intended to prevent discrimination by private businesses that open their doors to the public. In the case of Piggie Park, the law was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bake shop case involves the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses from refusing to sell their goods to people on the basis of sexual orientation among other things.

As the case has come to the justices, the focus is on Phillips' speech rights, not his religious beliefs. As a cake artist, he claims a right not to say something with which he disagrees.


Walker signs bill inspired by cabin-owners' court fight
Court Watch | 2017/11/28 04:50
Just five months after an adverse ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court had her in tears, Donna Murr was celebrating Monday after Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that gives Wisconsin property owners more rights.

The Murr family fought for more than a dozen years, and all the way to the Supreme Court, for the ability to sell undeveloped land next to their cottage along scenic Lake St. Croix in western Wisconsin.

One of two property rights bills Walker signed Monday will give the family the right to sell or build on substandard lots if the lots were legal when they were created.

The Supreme Court ruled against the Murrs in June, but hours later state Rep. Adam Jarchow was on the phone with Donna Murr promising her he would take the fight to the Legislature.

"It's been a long road," Murr said after she and six other family members came to Walker's Capitol office for his signing of the bill Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, introduced. "It just felt like a culmination of everything we've worked for, coming to a head today after so many years of struggling and battling."

Donna Murr's parents bought two adjacent lots in the early 1960s and built a cottage on one but left the other vacant as an investment. In 2004, Donna Murr and her siblings wanted to sell the undeveloped lot to help pay for renovations to the cottage, but county officials barred the sale because conservation rules from the 1970s treat the two lots as a single property that can't be divided.

The regulations were intended to prevent overcrowding, soil erosion and water pollution. The county argued before the Supreme Court that not enforcing the rules would undermine its ability to minimize flood damage and maintain property values in the area.

But the family claimed those rules essentially stripped the land of its value and amounted to an uncompensated seizure of the property. They sought compensation for the vacant property they were forbidden to sell. The government argued, and the Supreme Court agreed in June, that it's fair to view the property as a whole and said the family is owed nothing.

Now with the law changed in Wisconsin, the Murr family can sell the vacant section. Donna Murr said she and her siblings will take some time to decide what to do next.


Court: Colorado county wrongly OK’d asphalt plant near homes
Court Watch | 2017/11/24 18:51
A Colorado court has overturned Weld County’s approval of a $20 million concrete and asphalt plant currently under construction, saying the county had evidence the plant would violate noise standards.

The Greeley Tribune reports the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday the county commissioners improperly approved the Martin Marietta Materials plant near a residential neighborhood.

The site is also near an organic farm and a planned wedding venue along U.S. 34 between Greeley and Loveland.

Officials for Martin Marietta and Weld County said they were reviewing the decision before deciding their next steps. County commissioners approved the plant in August 2015 and neighbors filed suit a month later.

Construction began in October of 2015, and Martin Marietta regional vice president David Hagerman says the plant is nearly complete.


Michigan health chief back in court in Legionnaires' case
Court Watch | 2017/11/02 23:19
Testimony is resuming in a criminal case against Michigan's health director, who is accused of keeping the public in the dark about Legionnaires' disease during the Flint water disaster.

Nick Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office. A judge must decide whether there is enough evidence to send him to trial. The case picks up again Wednesday.

Judge David Goggins hasn't heard testimony since Oct. 6. That's when urban affairs adviser Harvey Hollins said he told Gov. Rick Snyder about a Legionnaires' outbreak a few weeks before the governor made it public in January 2016.

Hollins' testimony contradicts what Snyder has said publicly. Nonetheless, the governor is sticking to his timeline.

Lawyers for Lyons say it's all irrelevant in the case against him.


Burundi becomes 1st to leave International Criminal Court
Court Watch | 2017/10/27 15:32
Burundi has become the first country to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, but officials say the court's prosecutor will move ahead with an examination of the East African nation's deadly political turmoil.

An ICC spokesman confirmed that the pullout took effect Friday, a year after Burundi notified the United Nations secretary-general of its intention to leave the court that prosecutes the world's worst atrocities.

Burundi is the only one of three African nations to go ahead with withdrawal after they made moves last year to leave amid accusations that the court focuses too much on the continent. South Africa's withdrawal was revoked in March. Gambia's new government reversed its withdrawal in February.

On Friday, Burundi's justice minister called the ICC withdrawal "a great achievement" in reinforcing the country's independence. Aimee Laurentine Kanyana also called on police and prosecutors to respect human rights so that "white people" won't have "false proofs to rely on in accusing Burundi."

Burundi's withdrawal doesn't affect the preliminary examination of the country's situation already underway by the court's prosecutor, ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah told The Associated Press. That examination began in April 2016.

Burundi has faced deadly political turmoil since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to seek a disputed third term that he ultimately won.


Washington Supreme Court to hear education funding case
Court Watch | 2017/10/23 13:08

The Washington state Supreme Court is set to hear argument on whether the state has met its constitutional requirement to fully fund K-12 education.

Tuesday morning's hearing is on whether the state should still be held in contempt for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 ruling that found that school funding was not adequate. Lawmakers needed a funded plan in place this year ahead of a Sept. 1, 2018 deadline the court had set.

The plan approved and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year relies largely on an increase to the statewide property tax that starts next year. The tax increases from $1.89 to $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, with the increase earmarked for education. The plan — which keeps in place local property tax levies but caps them beginning in 2019 at a lower level— will ultimately raise property taxes for some districts and lower them in others.



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