Court gives green light to death penalty fast-tracking
Legal Interview | 2016/03/23 15:43
A federal appeals court Wednesday cleared the way for the Department of Justice to allow states to have their inmates' death penalty appeals expedited through federal court.
 
Legal organizations that challenged the DOJ's criteria for certifying states for the fast-track program lacked standing to bring the lawsuit, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. The court also noted that the DOJ had not yet granted any certifications, and those certifications would be reviewed by a separate appeals court.

The decision threw out a lower court ruling that blocked the certification process.

The fast-track program would require inmates to file petitions in federal court within six months of a final ruling on their appeal in state court. They normally have a year. It would also require federal courts to act faster on the inmates' petitions.

At least one state, Arizona, has asked the DOJ to certify it for the fast-track program.

Opponents say it would force attorneys representing death penalty inmates to scramble to file appeals, possibly leading some cases to be neglected. Supporters say the program could take years off the death penalty appeals process, giving crime victims faster justice.

"This decision is important not only for the families of murder victims, but also for everyone in the United States who depends upon the rule of law and relies upon the courts to follow it," Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said in a statement. The Sacramento-based nonprofit organization advocates for swift punishment for guilty defendants and filed arguments in the case.

Marc Shapiro, an attorney for the legal organizations that sued — the San Francisco-based Habeas Corpus Resource Center and the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Arizona — said he will ask a larger 9th Circuit panel to review the ruling.

"We're living in a time where our system of capital punishment is being exposed for its critical flaws," he said. "There's a heightened need for assuring we're not sending innocent or otherwise undeserving people to the execution chamber."

To qualify for the fast-track program, a state has to require a court to appoint an attorney to represent an indigent capital inmate unless the inmate rejects the attorney or is not indigent, according to the 9th Circuit's ruling. Regulations finalized by the DOJ in 2013 set benchmarks for attorney competency.


California High Court Allows Gov. Jerry Brown's Prison Initiative
Legal Interview | 2016/02/27 00:29
California's Supreme Court is allowing Gov. Jerry Brown's bid to put his plan to reduce the state's prison population before voters in November.

The high court acted Friday after Brown warned that further delay could push voters' consideration to 2018.

The justices put on hold a lower court ruling that barred the state attorney general from issuing the documents that would let Brown's supporters gather the signatures needed to put his initiative on this year's ballot.

The Sacramento-based judge ruled that Brown improperly amended a juvenile justice initiative. The Democratic governor added his proposal to increase sentencing credits for adult inmates and allow earlier parole for non-violent felons.

Brown says it is too late to start over and still collect the nearly 586,000 signatures needed for a ballot measure this year.


High court seems skeptical of mandatory public union fees
Legal Interview | 2016/01/17 07:30
The Supreme Court appears ready to deliver a major setback to American unions as it considers scrapping a four-decade precedent that lets public-sector labor organizations collect fees from workers who decline to join.

During more than an hour of oral arguments Monday, the high court's conservative justices seemed likely to side with a group of California teachers who say those mandatory fees violate the free-speech rights of workers who disagree with a union's positions.

Labor officials fear unions' very existence could be threatened if workers are allowed to get all the benefits of representation without at least paying fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining. The case affects more than 5 million workers in 23 states and Washington, D.C.


But Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected arguments by lawyers for the state of California and the California Teachers Association that the current fee system is needed to prevent non-members from becoming "free riders" — workers who reap the rewards of union bargaining and grievance procedures without paying for it.

"The union basically is making these teachers compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree," Kennedy said, noting the political nature of bargaining issues like teacher salaries, merit promotions and class size.



Kansas Court of Appeals mulls state protections for abortion
Legal Interview | 2015/12/08 17:29
A lawsuit blocking Kansas’ first-in-the-nation ban on a common second-trimester method for terminating pregnancies forced an appeals court Wednesday to wrestle with whether the state constitution independently protects abortion rights.

Abortion opponents are watching the case before the full Kansas Court of Appeals closely. If the two doctors who’ve challenged the ban prevail, the state courts could find grounds to invalidate other state abortion laws — even if federal courts declare that the U.S. Constitution permits the restrictions.

During arguments from attorneys Wednesday, several judges expressed skepticism that broad language in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights about individual liberty can be interpreted as specifically protecting abortion rights. But several also questioned the state’s position that the language is only a statement of principles.

The state is appealing a Shawnee County judge’s ruling in July that blocked the law from being enforced while the doctors’ lawsuit is heard. The judge said the ban imposes an unconstitutional burden on women seeking abortions. He also said the state constitution protects abortion rights at least as much as the federal constitution — something higher courts haven’t previously declared.

“It’s important to have the Kansas courts recognize these rights under the Kansas Constitution,” said Janet Crepps, a senior attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the doctors.


US appeals court upholds gun laws after Newtown massacre
Legal Interview | 2015/10/19 17:31
A federal appeals court has upheld key provisions of New York and Connecticut laws banning possession of semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
 
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday, finding that the core parts of the laws do not violate the Second Amendment.

The laws were passed after the December 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut killed 20 first-graders and six educators.

The three-judge panel did, however, agree with a lower court that a seven-round load limit in New York could not be imposed. And it found a Connecticut ban on a non-semi-automatic

Remington 7615 unconstitutional.

The laws were opposed by groups supporting gun rights, pistol permit holders and gun sellers.

Lawyers did not immediately return messages seeking comment.



OJ Simpson appeal rejected by Nevada Supreme Court
Legal Interview | 2015/09/11 18:07
Imprisoned former football star O.J. Simpson lost his latest appeal of his 2008 kidnapping and armed robbery conviction in Las Vegas.

A three-member Nevada Supreme Court panel rejected Simpson's request for a new trial, ruling in a 16-page order Thursday that there was no reason to overturn a lower court judge's decisions in the case.

"We ... conclude the district court did not err in denying these claims," justices Ron Parraguire, Michael Douglas and Michael Cherry said.

Simpson lawyers filed the appeal last October, arguing that Clark County District Court Judge Linda Marie Bell was wrong to deny Simpson a new trial on charges that got Simpson sentenced to 9 to 33 years in a botched hotel room heist.

Simpson lawyers Patricia Palm, Ozzie Fumo and Tom Pitaro argued that his trial attorney mishandled his case and had conflicts of interests. The three attorneys didn't immediately respond to messages late Thursday, and it wasn't immediately known if Simpson was aware of the ruling.

Simpson, 68, is serving his sentence in a northern Nevada prison after a jury found him guilty of multiple felonies for leading five other men in a September 2007 confrontation with two sports memorabilia dealers at a Las Vegas hotel. Two of the men with Simpson testified they brought guns, at Simpson's request.

The Heisman Trophy winner, NFL Hall of Fame member and former television and movie star didn't testify at his robbery trial in Las Vegas. His attorneys, Yale Galanter and Gabriel Grasso, claimed Simpson was just trying to retrieve items stolen from him after his 1995 acquittal in Los Angeles in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

The Supreme Court in September 2010 rejected a previous Simpson appeal, filed by Galanter.

Simpson's appeal argued that his multiple convictions and sentences for assault with a deadly weapon and robbery with use of a deadly weapon constitute double-jeopardy; that Galanter should have challenged his multiple convictions and punishments; and that the jury should have been given a chance to consider lesser kidnapping and theft offenses.




Texas turns away from criminal truancy courts for students
Legal Interview | 2015/06/20 18:32
A long-standing Texas law that has sent about 100,000 students a year to criminal court — and some to jail — for missing school is off the books, though a Justice Department investigation into one county's truancy courts continues.

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law a measure to decriminalize unexcused absences and require school districts to implement preventive measures. It will take effect Sept. 1.

Reform advocates say the threat of a heavy fine — up to $500 plus court costs — and a criminal record wasn't keeping children in school and was sending those who couldn't pay into a criminal justice system spiral. Under the old law, students as young as 12 could be ordered to court for three unexcused absences in four weeks. Schools were required to file a misdemeanor failure to attend school charge against students with more than 10 unexcused absences in six months. And unpaid fines landed some students behind bars when they turned 17.

"Most of the truancy issues involve hardships," state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said. "To criminalize the hardships just doesn't solve anything. It costs largely low-income families. It doesn't address the root causes."

Only two states in the U.S. — Texas and Wyoming — send truants to adult criminal court. In 2013, Texas prosecuted about 115,000 cases, more than twice the number of truancy cases filed in juvenile courts of all other states, according to a report from the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Appleseed. An estimated $10 million was collected from court costs and fines from students for truancy in fiscal year 2014 alone, the Texas Office of Court Administration said.



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