Mexico president blasts 'stratospheric' supreme court wages
Court Watch | 2018/12/09 02:48
The Mexican president is butting heads with the Supreme Court just one week into office after judges suspended a law that would cap public sector salaries, one of his key campaign promises.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accused the judges of looking after their own pocketbooks and of failing to grasp the "new reality" that his administration represents. The salary cuts are part of a rebalance in government that aims to raise wages for lower income workers while chopping those of top officials.

"They themselves decide that they are going to keep receiving exaggerated, stratospheric salaries - salaries of up to 600,000 pesos ($29,000) a month - those who impart justice," Lopez Obrador complained to reporters Saturday, before repeating one of his favorite mantras: "There can't be a rich government with a poor people."

The freeze throws into question the government's 2019 budget plans, which are due on Dec. 15. The suspension is pending a definitive ruling by the court.

The Mexican Congress decreed in November that, with few exceptions, no public employee should earn more than the president. Lopez Obrador's Morena party has a majority in both houses of Congress. The National Human Rights Commission then asked the court to review the law, saying it appeared to violate the constitution.


'Magic' campaign lands 17 black women on Houston courts
Court Watch | 2018/11/10 22:46
The Houston area's courts are going to be a lot more diverse thanks to a group of 17 African-American women and their "magic."

The women, who were part of an effort dubbed the "Black Girl Magic" campaign, all won races Tuesday to be judges in various Harris County courts in an election that featured more black women on the county's ballot than any other.

The "Black Girl Magic" campaign debuted over the summer with a viral photo that featured the 17 women and two other sitting Harris County judges inside a courtroom. Although those two judges lost their bids Tuesday for seats on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, they will retain their local judgeships.

Those behind the campaign say it was part of an effort to broaden the diversity of the Houston area's judiciary and ensure that more African-Americans and other minorities can bring their backgrounds and life experiences to the bench and better reflect the diversity of the nation's fourth largest city.

"I think that while Houston itself is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, our elected officials have not always reflected that," said Lillie Schechter, chair of the Harris County Democratic Party, which put together the "Black Girl Magic" campaign. "Having a government that reflects the people, the population is something that is incredibly important."

Lori Chambers Gray, a Houston defense attorney who won election to be a judge on a criminal district court, said the photo and the "Black Girls Magic" campaign provided her with a source of strength and motivation as she proceeded to Election Day.

"I hope that it's an example for women that we do have opportunities to run and to win a campaign," Gray said.

The "Black Girl Magic" moniker has been used as a hashtag in recent years to highlight the accomplishments of African-American girls and women. In politics, it's been used to highlight the role African-American women have played in helping decide various races, including the highly contested Senate race in Alabama last year in which Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore.

The victory by the 17 black women on Tuesday was part of a Harris County rout by the Democrats, who won almost all of the nearly 70 local judicial races and ousted a popular Republican from the county's top elected office.


Synagogue suspect at courthouse; survivors recall ordeal
Court Watch | 2018/10/27 12:24
The man accused in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was released from a hospital and turned over to federal authorities for a court appearance Monday on charges he killed 11 people in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, who was shot and wounded in a gun battle with police, arrived at the federal courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh less than two hours after his release from Allegheny General Hospital, according to U.S. marshals. A government car with a wheelchair visible inside could be seen arriving earlier.

Federal prosecutors set in motion plans to seek the death penalty against Bowers, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police that "I just want to kill Jews" and that "all these Jews need to die."

The first funeral — for Cecil Rosenthal and his younger brother, David — was set for Tuesday. Survivors, meanwhile, began offering harrowing accounts of the mass shooting Saturday inside Tree of Life Synagogue. Barry Werber said he found himself hiding in a dark storage closet as the gunman tore through the building and opened fire.


Colorado Supreme Court hears high-stakes oil and gas lawsuit
Court Watch | 2018/10/15 23:24
An attorney for six young people who want the state to impose tougher safeguards on the energy industry told the Colorado Supreme Court on Tuesday that the law requires regulators to protect public health from the hazards of drilling.

A lawyer for the state countered that regulators acted properly when they rejected a request for stronger health protections on the grounds that they did not have the authority to impose them.

The justices heard oral arguments in the high-stakes case but did not say when they would rule.

The case revolves around how much weight energy regulators should give public health and the environment — a contentious issue in Colorado, where cities often overlap lucrative oil and gas fields and drilling rigs sit within sight of homes and schools.

The six young plaintiffs in the case asked the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, which regulates the industry, to enact a rule that would require energy companies to show they would not harm human health or the environment before regulators issued a drilling permit.

The commission responded that it did not have that authority. Commission members said Colorado law required them to balance public safety with responsible oil and gas production.

Colorado Solicitor General Frederick R. Yarger, representing the attorney general's office, told the Supreme Court that the commission correctly interpreted state law to mean it must consider other factors in addition to public health.


Kavanaugh to hear his 1st arguments as Supreme Court justice
Court Watch | 2018/10/09 10:38
A Supreme Court with a new conservative majority takes the bench as Brett Kavanaugh, narrowly confirmed after a bitter Senate battle, joins his new colleagues to hear his first arguments as a justice.

Kavanaugh will emerge Tuesday morning from behind the courtroom's red velvet curtains and take his seat alongside his eight colleagues. It will be a moment that conservatives have dreamed of for decades, with five solidly conservative justices on the bench.

Kavanaugh's predecessor, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in June, was a more moderate conservative and sometimes sided with the court's four liberal justices. Kavanaugh, in contrast, is expected to be a more decidedly conservative vote, tilting the court right for decades and leaving Chief Justice John Roberts as the justice closest to the ideological middle.

With justices seated by seniority, President Donald Trump's two appointees will flank the Supreme Court bench, Justice Neil Gorsuch at one end and Kavanaugh at the other. Court watchers will be looking to see whether the new justice asks questions at arguments and, if so, what he asks. There will also be those looking for any lingering signs of Kavanaugh's heated, partisan confirmation fight. But the justices, who often highlight their efforts to work together as a collegial body, are likely to focus on the cases before them.

Republicans had hoped to confirm Kavanaugh in time for him to join the court on Oct. 1, the start of the new term. Instead, the former D.C. Circuit judge missed the first week of arguments as the Senate considered an allegation that he had sexually assaulted a woman in high school, an allegation he adamantly denied.

Kavanaugh was confirmed 50-48 Saturday, the closest vote to confirm a justice since 1881, and has had a busy three days since then. On Saturday evening, Kavanaugh took his oaths of office in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court while protesters chanted outside the court building.


Texas Supreme Court to hear sex offender law challenge
Court Watch | 2018/10/08 13:38
The Texas Supreme Court will consider a challenge to the state's retroactive sex offender laws that some say unfairly stack new punishments on those convicted in plea deals.

More than 2,800 sex offenders remain on the Texas registry despite being no longer required to register under terms of their probation, according to an Austin-American Statesman analysis of the list.

Every qualifying sex offender was ordered onto the registry in 2005 after Texas expanded its sex offense laws. But that included some defendants who were promised in deals with prosecutors that they wouldn't have to be on the list after a certain amount of time.

Donnie Miller struck a deal with Travis County prosecutors after he was charged with sexual assault against a woman outside an Austin gentleman's club in 1993. A jury couldn't agree on a verdict at his trial, forcing Miller to face a second trial and more than $20,000 in legal fees.

He made a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty and in exchange, his record would be cleaned if he stayed out of trouble for 10 years. But Miller received a call a year after successfully completing his probation telling him that Texas had changed the rules and that he'd be on the sex offender registry for life, contrary to the terms of his plea deal.

"If I'd known, why would I have taken a plea deal?" said Miller, 48. "I would have borrowed the money for the retrial."

In a lawsuit before the Texas Supreme Court regarding another similar case, San Antonio attorney Angela Moore argues that undoing plea bargains makes the agreements worthless. About 94 percent of criminal convictions are disposed of with pleas, she said.

Texas Department of Public Safety attorneys warn that the lawsuit could relieve many "other sex offenders of their duty to register."

Texas was among several states to expand state law to include offenders from old cases. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 2003 that Alaska's law retroactively requiring old sex offenders with completed sentences to register was legal because the registry wasn't intended to be punitive.

But recent studies show that public lists can have severe consequences, such as public shaming and limiting job opportunities. Since the Alaska decision, new research has emerged that disproves what policymakers previously thought to be true about sex offenders and the effectiveness of such laws.

The updated findings are appearing in court cases across the country. Rulings in Maryland, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Alaska eliminated their retroactive sex offender clauses.


Supreme Court could limit execution of people with dementia
Court Watch | 2018/10/02 12:18
The Supreme Court appeared willing Tuesday to extend protection from capital punishment to people with dementia who can't recall their crime or understand the circumstances of their execution.

The eight justices heard arguments in the case of Alabama death row inmate Vernon Madison, who killed a police officer in 1985 but has suffered strokes that his lawyers say have left him with severe dementia.

The high court has previously said the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment means that people who are insane, delusional or psychotic cannot be executed.

A ruling for Madison probably would mean a new hearing in state court over whether his condition renders him ineligible for execution.

Chief Justice John Roberts and the court's four liberal justices seemed most willing to rule for Madison. The other three justices, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, are unlikely to side with Madison because they voted to allow his execution to proceed when their colleagues blocked it in January, setting up the current case.

In a reflection of the changed dynamics on the court, Roberts' vote would appear to be decisive since a 4-4 split would leave in place a state court ruling against Madison and allow Alabama to try again to execute him. The high court is down one justice, following Anthony Kennedy's retirement in July and a delay in a vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh so that the FBI can investigate allegations against him of sexual misconduct.

Kennedy had been the conservative justice most likely to vote with the liberals on death penalty cases. The court agreed to hear the appeal while Kennedy was on the bench. He had been a key voice in limiting capital punishment, having voted to bar the execution of people under 18, the intellectually disabled and those who lack a rational understanding of why they are to be put to death.


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