In Supreme Court loss, death penalty foes see an opening
Legal Topics | 2015/07/01 13:21
A strongly worded dissent in the U.S. Supreme Court's narrow decision this week upholding the use of an execution drug offered a glimmer of hope to death penalty opponents in what they considered otherwise a gloomy ruling. One advocate went so far Tuesday as to call it a blueprint for a fresh attack on the legality of capital punishment itself.

But even those who see Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent as a silver lining think it will take time to mount a viable challenge.

And Breyer's words don't change the fact that the Supreme Court has consistently upheld capital punishment for nearly four decades. The five justices forming the majority in Monday's decision made it clear they feel that states must somehow be able to carry out the death penalty.

In disagreeing with the 5-4 ruling that approved Oklahoma's use of an execution drug, Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called it "highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment," which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

"It was a sweeping and powerful dissent that issues an invitation that we should accept, which is to make the case for why today the death penalty itself is no longer constitutional," said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.


Decisions in last 3 Supreme Court cases expected Monday
Attorney News | 2015/06/29 09:03
The Supreme Court is meeting for the final time until the fall to decide three remaining cases and add some new ones for the term that starts in October.

The court decided its two blockbuster cases last week by declaring the right of same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states and upholding a critical part of the health care overhaul.

The three remaining cases that are expected to be decided Monday raise important questions about a controversial drug that was implicated in botched executions, state efforts to reduce partisan influence in congressional redistricting and costly Environmental Protection Agency limits on the emission of mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plants.

The justices also could add important cases for next term on abortion, affirmative action and the power of unions that represent government workers.

Here are more details about the three undecided cases:

—Lethal injection: Death-row inmates in Oklahoma are objecting to the use of the sedative midazolam in lethal-injection executions after the drug was implicated in several botched executions. Their argument is that the drug does not reliably induce a coma-like sleep that would prevent them from experiencing the searing pain of the paralytic and heart-stopping drugs that follow sedation.

—Independent redistricting commissions: Roughly a dozen states have adopted independent commissions to reduce partisan politics in drawing congressional districts. The case from Arizona involves a challenge from Republican state lawmakers who complain that they can't be completely cut out of the process without violating the Constitution.



Supreme Court will re-hear Texas affirmative action
Court News | 2015/06/29 08:56
The Supreme Court said Monday it will dive back into the fight over the use of race in admissions at the University of Texas, a decision that presages tighter limits on affirmative action in higher education.

The justices said they will hear for a second time the case of a white woman who was denied admission to the university's flagship Austin campus.

The conservative-leaning federal appeals court in New Orleans has twice upheld the university's admissions process, including in a ruling last year that followed a Supreme Court order to reconsider the woman's case.

The case began in 2008 when Abigail Fisher, who is white, was denied admission to the University of Texas's flagship Austin campus because she did not graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class — the criterion for 75 percent of the school's admissions. The university also passed her over for a position among the remaining 25 percent, which is reserved for special scholarships and people who meet a formula for personal achievement that includes race as a factor.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013. But rather than issue a landmark decision on affirmative action, it voted 7-1 to tell a lower appeals court to take another look at Fisher's lawsuit. That meant the university's admissions policies remained unchanged.

Last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again upheld the university's admissions policy. Fisher is a graduate of Louisiana State University.

Justice Elena Kagan is not taking part in the case. She sat out the first round as well, presumably because of her work on the case when she served in the Justice Department before joining the court.



Kansas court rules against parts of state school funding law
Court Watch | 2015/06/28 09:00
A district court panel in Kansas declared Friday that key parts of a new state law for funding public schools violate the state constitution and ordered an immediate increase in aid.

State officials and an attorney for four school districts challenging the law said the decision from the three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court would force the state to provide between $46 million and $54 million in extra aid next week, distributing the money under an old formula that legislators junked.

The same panel ruled in December that the state must boost its annual spending by at least $548 million to fulfill its duty under the Kansas Constitution to provide a suitable education to every child. In its latest ruling, the panel of judges said school funding changes this year make the distribution of more than $4 billion a year less fair.

The new law scrapped a per-student formula for distributing aid to Kansas' 286 school districts. Gov. Sam Brownback and other conservative Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature disliked the old formula partly because it automatically left the state on the hook for additional spending if schools gained students, if more students had special needs or even if districts had major building projects.



Pennsylvania court rejects law that aided NRA gun challenges
Headline Legal News | 2015/06/26 08:48
A Pennsylvania state court on Thursday struck down a law designed to make it easier for gun owners and organizations like the National Rifle Association to challenge local firearms ordinances in court.
 
The Commonwealth Court said the procedure the Republican-controlled Legislature used to enact the law in the final days of last year's session violated the state constitution. The ruling came after dozens of municipalities had already repealed their gun laws.

Under the law, gun owners no longer had to show they were harmed by a local ordinance to challenge it, and it let "membership organizations" like the NRA sue on behalf of any Pennsylvania member. The law also allowed successful challengers to seek damages.

The NRA's lobbying arm had called the measure "the strongest firearms pre-emption statute in the country."

Five Democratic legislators and the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster sued to block the law, saying it was passed improperly. The GOP defendants included House Speaker Mike Turzai and then-Gov. Tom Corbett, who lost his bid for re-election last year.

Thursday's ruling sends "a very strong message to the General Assembly that the old way of doing business just isn't acceptable anymore," said Mark McDonald, press secretary to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. "The law requires and the public expects transparency, deliberation and public debate."



Supreme Court extends gay marriage nationwide
Court Watch | 2015/06/26 08:48
The Supreme Court declared Friday that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States, a historic culmination of decades of litigation over gay marriage and gay rights generally.

Gay and lesbian couples already could marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The court's 5-4 ruling means the remaining 14 states, in the South and Midwest, will have to stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage.

Gay rights supporters cheered, danced and wept outside the court after the decision, which put an exclamation point on breathtaking changes in the nation's social norms.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court's previous three major gay rights cases dating back to 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions.

"No union is more profound than marriage," Kennedy wrote, joined by the court's four more liberal justices.

The stories of the people asking for the right to marry "reveal that they seek not to denigrate marriage but rather to live their lives, or honor their spouses' memory, joined by its bond," Kennedy said.

As he read his opinion, spectators in the courtroom wiped away tears after the import of the decision became clear. One of those in the audience was James Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court fight.



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