Gun law in sights of US Supreme Court
Legal Topics | 2008/03/18 18:07
Advocates of gun rights and opponents of gun violence demonstrated outside the Supreme Court Tuesday while inside, justices heard arguments over the meaning of the Second Amendment's "right to keep and bear arms."

Dozens of protesters mingled with tourists and waved signs saying "Ban the Washington elitists, not our guns" or "The NRA helps criminals and terrorist buy guns."

Members of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence chanted "guns kill" as followers of the Second Amendment Sisters and Maryland Shall Issue.Org shouted "more guns, less crime."

A line to get into the court for the historic arguments began forming two days earlier and extended more than a block by early Tuesday.

The high court's first extensive examination of the Second Amendment since 1939 grew out of challenge to the District of Columbia's ban on ownership of handguns.

Anise Jenkins, president of a coalition called Stand Up for Democracy in D.C., defended the district's 32-year-old ban on handgun ownership.



Supreme Court to Hear Indecency Case
Legal Topics | 2008/03/18 08:07
The U.S. Supreme Court has stepped into one of the biggest free speech fights of the past three decades, but it's unclear how far the court will go when it rules on just how much trouble broadcasters can get into for a slip of the tongue.

On Monday, the court agreed to hear arguments over the Federal Communications Commission's policy regarding so-called "fleeting expletives" in a closely watched case that will decide whether the government can fine or revoke a broadcaster's license because someone says a bad word. The case will be argued late this year.

Both News Corp., the Fox Broadcasting parent that wanted its victory in a lower court to stand, and the FCC, which pushed the Bush administration to appeal the case, applauded the justices' decision.

"The commission, Congress and most importantly parents understand that protecting our children is our greatest responsibility," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said.

Solicitor general Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top lawyer, urged the court to take the case, arguing that the appeals court decision had placed "the commission in an untenable position," powerless to stop the airing of expletives even when children are watching.

Fox said the move would "give us the opportunity to argue that the FCC's expanded enforcement of the indecency law is unconstitutional in today's diverse media marketplace, where parents have access to a variety of tools to monitor their children's television viewing."

The case surrounds two incidents in which celebrities used profanity during the Billboard Music Awards. In 2002, Cher told the audience: "People have been telling me I'm on the way out every year? So f--- 'em." The next year, Nicole Richie said: "Have you ever tried to get cow s--- out of a Prada purse? It's not so f---ing simple." (The Nielsen Co. owns Adweek and Billboard.)

Although the case concerns those utterances, it is grounded in a policy the commission developed after a 2004 incident in which U2's Bono said on NBC that winning a Golden Globe was "really, really f---ing brilliant." After that, the commission changed its long-standing policy and decided that some words are so inherently awful that broadcasters are liable even if the words come as a surprise. (NBC challenged the decision, but that case has yet to be resolved.)

The FCC found that Fox violated the Bono doctrine for the comments made by Cher and Richie, but the panel decided against issuing a fine because the shows aired before the commission altered the policy.

Fox, CBS, NBC and other broadcasters challenged the commission's decision, arguing that it chills free speech, threatens live programming and is unduly vague.


Court upholds ban on Minnesota video game law
Legal Topics | 2008/03/17 23:59
A federal appeals court on Monday upheld an injunction against a Minnesota law that targeted at children under 17 who rent or buy violent video games.

A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with a lower-court judge that Minnesota went too far when it passed its law two years ago because the state couldn't prove that such games hurt children.

The law would have hit kids under 17 with a $25 fine if they rented or bought a video game rated "M" for mature or "AO" for adults only. It also would have required stores to put up signs warning of the fines.

Game makers and retailers swiftly challenged the law, arguing it was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum ruled in their favor in July 2006.

But the appellate opinion, written by Judge Roger l. Wollman, showed the judges weren't entirely happy about it.

"Whatever our intuitive (dare we say commonsense) feelings regarding the effect" of violent video games, precedent requires undeniable proof that such violence causes psychological dysfunction, Wollman wrote.

"The requirement of such a high level of proof may reflect a refined estrangement from reality, but apply it we must," he wrote.



Sex scandal passes but Spitzer may face legal woes
Legal Topics | 2008/03/14 16:27
Resigning won't spare Eliot Spitzer from the heat of a criminal investigation — federal prosecutors must still decide what to do with the case of the disgraced New York governor and the prostitutes.

A law enforcement official said Spitzer's high-powered defense team was believed to be negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors over his connection to a high-end prostitution ring, but attorneys would not comment Thursday about the discussions.

"Corruption cases often pose a dilemma for the prosecutor," said Evan Barr, a private practice lawyer who once handled such cases for the same Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office that is now weighing how to proceed with Spitzer.

"If you charge a public figure under an obscure or rarely used legal theory, the critics will say the prosecution is politically motivated; if you decline to charge under the same circumstances, the critics will say the prosecutor is going easy on the would-be defendant because he or she is a prominent person," Barr said.



French court unfreezes Iranian funds
Legal Topics | 2008/03/12 21:38

In a setback for terror victims, a French court lifted a freeze on Iranian state funds.

Victims of Iranian-sponsored attacks in Israel in 1995 and 1997 are suing Iran for compensation.

While the Paris Court of Appeal this week released the $117 million held in the Natexis Banques Populaire, it did not seek interest and court fees from the plaintiffs, their Paris-based attorney Christoph Martin Radtke told the JTA in a telephone interview.

The court told the attorneys to reapply for the Iranian funds once a decision is made on whether funds in the Iranian Central Bank may be confiscated to pay the damages in a U.S. court decision.

Federal judges in Washington ordered Iran to pay damages and interest of $87.5 million to 12 U.S. citizens injured in the two terrorist attacks in Israel. The U.S. courts determined that Iran was liable for the damages due to its sponsorship of Hamas, which orchestrated the attacks.

Radtke said the French court decided to release the Iranian funds because "the law that protects state accounts does not allow an exception for provisional seizure measures."

In January, Radtke in another Paris court sought the enforcement of the U.S. court judgments. He told JTA he hoped for a decision within a few months.

In an e-mail to the JTA, the plaintfffs' U.S.-based attorney, David Strachman of Rhode Island, said they "are really disappointed with the outcome" in the French court.



Miami appraiser pleads guilty to fraud scheme
Legal Topics | 2008/03/11 16:59

A Miami real estate appraiser has pleaded guilty to wire fraud for her involvement in the Southwest Ranches-area fraud scheme in Broward County, the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida said.

Martine Yanisse Castrillon is one of 15 defendants charged with buying homes through straw buyers at an inflated price, and then getting cash back at the closings. So far, nine defendants have pleaded guilty to various federal charges in the indictment.

Castrillon admitted that she did fraudulent appraisals -- valuing the properties at the amount requested by another defendant, not the true market price -- and forged the name of the certified appraiser who was to review her work.

According to the indictment, co-defendants Lazara Villalba and Henry Quintero-Lopez would offer the owner's full asking price and then inflate the contract purchase price to allow their companies, New World International and D&H Investments of South Florida, to receive a finder's fee, assignment fee or additional funds to allegedly construct improvements to the properties. They would then recruit individuals, who, for a fee, acted as straw buyers of the properties. Villalba and a co-defendant would obtain fraudulent pay stubs, IRS documents, verification of employment and verification of deposit forms; documents would be submitted to cooperating mortgage brokers and the loans were approved to purchase the properties.

Castrillon faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the wire fraud counts and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count. Sentencing is scheduled for May 22.



Judge delights Moraga Movers lunch event
Legal Topics | 2008/03/09 03:27
Moragan Judge John Minney educated and entertained a full house at the Moraga Movers lunch at St. Mary's College Soda Center.

Born and raised in the East Bay, he went on from Castlewood High to Yale, then to Cal Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. Admitted to the California Bar in 1958, he served as attorney for the Franchise Tax Board in Sacramento before private practice in Oakland until January 1975.

That's when Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Walnut Creek-Danville Municipal Court where he became chairman of the County Municipal Court Judges' Association and an officer of the California Judges' Association. In August 1987, Judge Minney was appointed to the Contra Costa Superior Court by Gov. George Deukmejian, where he'd advanced to presiding judge in 1996, and Supervising Criminal Judge from 1998-2005.

He retired in May 2005 (sort of), as he's been working since then as part of the statewide retired judges' program on assignment to courts in need of assistance due to vacations or illness.

"A hundred years ago we had Justice Courts in California: you didn't have to be a lawyer and the court justice's wages were a percent of the fines," the speaker revealed. "When a city reached 40,000 population, you could convert to Municipal Court."



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