Federal court issues stay in SC execution
Legal Topics | 2008/06/20 15:53
A man scheduled to be executed on Friday was issued a stay just minutes before he was to be electrocuted, triggering a flurry of legal moves as the state sought to carry out the sentence before a midnight deadline.

James Earl Reed had been scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Friday. A federal judge in Columbia issued the stay at 5:40 p.m. after a defense attorney's last-minute request for the execution to be halted. Five hours later, the appeals court vacated the stay and defense lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution. The state was fighting that possibility.

Under the state's execution order, the death sentence had to be carried out by midnight or it would have to be rescheduled. By 11 p.m., as the high court considered the defense's request, witnesses for the execution were being brought to the death chamber.

Reed, 49, has been on death row since 1996, when he was convicted of murdering Joseph and Barbara Lafayette in their Charleston County home two years earlier. Prosecutors said he was looking for an ex-girlfriend.

During his trial, Reed fired his attorney and represented himself, denying the killings despite a confession and arguing that no physical evidence placed him at the scene. Jurors found him guilty and decided he should die.

In the request for the stay, the defense attorney cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision the day before regarding defendants' rights to represent themselves, according to the order by U.S. District Judge Henry Floyd. The high court on Thursday said a defendant can be judged competent to stand trial, yet incapable of acting as his own lawyer.

Reed would be the first person executed by electric chair in the U.S. in nearly a year and South Carolina's first since 2004.

In South Carolina, anyone sentenced to death may choose the electric chair or lethal injection. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, eight other states electrocute inmates.



Supreme court puts limits on mentally ill defendants
Legal Topics | 2008/06/19 18:30
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that criminal defendants with a history of mental illness do not always have the right to represent themselves, even if they have been judged competent to stand trial.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, said states can give trial judges discretion to prevent someone from acting as his own lawyer if they are concerned that the trial could turn into a farce.

The decision comes in the case of an Indiana man who was convicted of attempted murder and other charges in 2005 for a shooting six years earlier at an Indianapolis department store.

Ahmad Edwards was initially found to be schizophrenic and suffering from delusions and spent most of the five years after the shooting in state psychiatric facilities. But by 2005, he was judged competent to stand trial.

Edwards asked to represent himself. A judge denied the request because he was concerned that Edwards' trial would not be fair. Edwards, represented by a lawyer, was convicted anyway and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He appealed, and Indiana courts agreed that his right to represent himself had been violated, citing a U.S. high court decision from 1993. The courts overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.

Thursday's ruling probably will lead to the reinstatement of the conviction.

"The Constitution permits states to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial ... but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. "In my view, the Constitution does not permit a state to substitute its own perception of fairness for the defendant's right to make his own case before the jury," Scalia said.



Social Security Mismatch Wasn't Grounds To Fire
Areas of Focus | 2008/06/18 16:25
Thirty-three janitors at the Los Angeles Lakers' arena were wrongfully fired for not responding quickly enough to a request to provide a correct Social Security number, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Aramark Facilities Services received a "no-match" letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA) stating that information for 48 of its workers at the Staples Center did not match the numbers in the SSA database.

This caused Aramark to suspect that the janitors were in the United States illegally.

Aramark gave the employees three days to begin the process of getting a new Social Security card. Fifteen employees complied, and the other 33 were fired a week later.

The Service Employees International Union filed a grievance, and an arbitrator gave the employees their jobs back, along with back pay. The district court overturned the ruling, stating it violated public policy on immigration.

Judge Hall reversed the district court ruling.
    "This case boils down to a single issue: whether the SSA's no-match letter - and the fired employees' responses - put Aramark on constructive notice that it was employing undocumented workers," Hall wrote.

But the government agency failed to do so in the Aramark case, the court ruled, as constructive notice required positive proof of a workers' undocumented status.

"The employees' failure to meet the deadline," Hall said, "is simply not probative enough of their immigration status to indicate that public policy would be violated if they were reinstated and given back pay."


Court Overturns $101M Tax Refund To Texaco
Areas of Focus | 2008/06/17 16:13
The 9th Circuit rejected Texaco's bid for a $101 million tax refund on the $1.25 billion settlement it paid the government for selling oil and gas above the price ceilings set by federal regulations.

The judges reversed judgment for Texaco, now a subsidiary of ChevronTexaco Corp., ruing that the tax benefit on repayment applies to public utilities only, not private companies such as Texaco.

Texaco had overcharged for crude oil and oil products from 1973 to 1981. After a series of administrative actions, the Department of Energy agreed to the settlement. Texaco made the payments and deducted the settlement amount on its federal income tax returns for those years, then filed refund claims for 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1992.

The appellate judges reinstated the government's denial of the refund claims on the grounds that federal tax law "plainly precludes" Texaco from recouping some of the money.


City Evicts Boy Scouts For Anti-Gay Bias
Legal Topics | 2008/06/16 16:07

The City of Philadelphia wants to evict the Boy Scouts of America from the rent-free property that has been its headquarters since 1928, for violating the city's anti-discrimination policy. The city says the Scouts' Cradle of Liberty openly discriminates against homosexuals.

The city owns the property on Spring Street and under the 1928 agreement the Scouts must surrender it within one year after being given notice by the City Council, according to the claim in state court.

The city gave notice in July 2006, asking the Scouts to leave or pay fair market rent, because of the organization's discriminatory policies.



Supreme Court Re: US Citizens detained abroad by US
Legal Topics | 2008/06/13 15:46

The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday in the consolidated cases of Munaf v. Geren and Geren v. Omar that federal courts have jurisdiction over habeas corpus petitions filed by American citizens detained abroad by US military personnel, even if the military is operating under a multinational force. Although the Court found such a right exists, it rejected the appeals of two Americans held in US custody in Iraq who had sought to use US courts to challenge their foreign convictions, holding that:

Munaf and Omar are alleged to have committed hostile and warlike acts within the sovereign territory of Iraq during ongoing hostilities there. Pending their criminal prosecution for those offenses, Munaf and Omar are being held in Iraq by American forces operating pursuant to a UN Mandate and at the request of the Iraqi Government. Petitioners concede that Iraq has a sovereign right to prosecute them for alleged violations of its law. Yet they went to federal court seeking an order that would allow them to defeat precisely that sovereign authority. Habeas corpus does not require the United States to shelter such fugitives from the criminal justice system of the sovereign with authority to prosecute them.

For all the reasons given above, petitioners state no claim in their habeas petitions for which relief can be granted, and those petitions should have been promptly dismissed.
Read the Court's opinion per Chief Justice Roberts, and a concurrence by Justice Souter.

Mohammad Munaf was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2005 kidnapping of three Romanian journalists in Baghdad, and the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in April 2007 that it lacked authority to interfere with the Iraqi court case. Two months earlier, however, the same court had ruled that Shawqi Omar, arrested for allegedly harboring insurgents in Iraq, had a right to argue his case in US courts. The appeals court blocked Omar's transfer to Iraqi courts. In March, Munaf's conviction was overturned by an Iraqi appeals court. Lawyers for the detainees argued that because they are in US custody, they should have access to US courts.

Mohammad Munaf was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2005 kidnapping of three Romanian journalists in Baghdad, and the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in April 2007 that it lacked authority to interfere with the Iraqi court case. Two months earlier, however, the same court had ruled that Shawqi Omar, arrested for allegedly harboring insurgents in Iraq, had a right to argue his case in US courts. The appeals court blocked Omar's transfer to Iraqi courts. In March, Munaf's conviction was overturned by an Iraqi appeals court. Lawyers for the detainees argued that because they are in US custody, they should have access to US courts.



Court OK's Discrimination Suit Against Restaurant
Areas of Focus | 2008/06/12 15:55
A California appeals court reinstated the discrimination claims of a disabled customer who was ridiculed and denied service at a restaurant.

Ron Wilson followed his occasional visits to Murillo's Mexican Food with letters to owner Frances Murillo, suggesting ways the restaurant could become more accessible.

Murillo spent about $130,000 to bring the restaurant into compliance with disability law.

But in March 2005, Murillo asked Wilson and a friend to leave, saying, "You guys are not welcome here, and you know that ... You're only here to harass me. You're not here for the food."

When Wilson refused, the bartender allegedly took his food while another employee took pictures of him, sarcastically telling him to "smile for the camera."

Wilson sued Murillo for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The district court ruled that the behavior was too trivial to be actionable, but Justice Ruvolo disagreed, stating that Wilson should be allowed to make his case.

Ruvolo said restaurants may not refuse to serve customers because the patrons filed ADA complaints against them.  

The alleged intimidation and harassment would also constitute a violation of disability law, Ruvolo wrote.


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