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Ethics reform bill approved by Senate
Legal Career News | 2007/01/19 22:16

The US Senate passed the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 by a 96-2 vote Thursday, but declined to create a Senate Office of Public Integrity to investigate ethics breaches. The bill was the first major initiative taken by the Senate in the new Democrat-dominated session of Congress. The measure regulates lobbying activities by preventing lawmakers from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists, requiring stricter reporting of lobbying activity, preventing spouses of lawmakers from lobbying the Senate and extending the period a former senator must wait before undertaking lobbying activities to two years. The final text passed by the Senate, however, did not include a provision which would have required disclosure of grass-roots lobbying. Senators voted 55-43 not to include that provision in the bill.

The bill also requires clearer reporting of home state projects, denies pension benefits to those convicted of serious crimes and requires lawmakers to pay the full price fare when traveling on chartered planes. Opponents of the bill complained the measure discouraged free speech by deterring petition drives, but majority leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) called the measure "the most significant legislation in ethics and lobbying reform we've had in the history of this country."



Bush´s domestic spy program under court review
Court Feed News | 2007/01/19 16:30
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales rapped federal judges Wednesday for ruling on cases that affect national security policy. Judges, he contended, are unqualified to decide terrorism issues that he said are best settled by Congress or the president.

In a sharply worded speech directed at the third, and equal, branch of the government, Gonzales outlined some of the qualities the Bush administration looks for when selecting candidates for the federal bench. He condemned what he termed activist judges with lifetime appointments who "undermine the right of the people to govern themselves."

In nominating a judge, "we want to determine whether he understands the inherent limits that make an unelected judiciary inferior to Congress or the president in making policy judgments," Gonzales said in the 20-minute speech to American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "That, for example, a judge will never be in the best position to know what is in the national security interests of our country."

Gonzales did not cite any specific activist jurists or give examples of national security cases.

Pressed later for examples, he noted that Congress approved the Military Commissions Act, which authorizes military trials for terrorism suspects, four months after the Supreme Court ruled the trials would violate U.S. and international law.

"I don't think the judiciary is equipped at all to make decisions about what's in the national security interests of our country," Gonzales said. "How would they go about doing that? They don't have embassies around the world to give them that information. They don't have intelligence agencies gathering up intelligence information. ... It was never intended that they would have that role."

Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said it is inevitable that courts would decide some of the most contentious questions involving national security.

"Some of the most difficult issues are about national security, how to balance national security and civil liberties - especially in the context of domestic surveillance and enemy combatants," Tobias said. "Those are critically important issues that the courts are being asked to resolve."

Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, also characterized efforts to retaliate against unpopular rulings as misguided. He mentioned a failed South Dakota proposal to sue or jail judges for making unpopular court decisions.

He also urged Congress to consider increasing the number of federal judges to handle heavy workloads and to offer them higher salaries to lure and keep the best ones on the bench.



Ethics reform bill approved by Senate
Legal Career News | 2007/01/19 16:28

The US Senate passed the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 by a 96-2 vote Thursday, but declined to create a Senate Office of Public Integrity to investigate ethics breaches. The bill was the first major initiative taken by the Senate in the new Democrat-dominated session of Congress. The measure regulates lobbying activities by preventing lawmakers from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists, requiring stricter reporting of lobbying activity, preventing spouses of lawmakers from lobbying the Senate and extending the period a former senator must wait before undertaking lobbying activities to two years. The final text passed by the Senate, however, did not include a provision which would have required disclosure of grass-roots lobbying. Senators voted 55-43 not to include that provision in the bill.

The bill also requires clearer reporting of home state projects, denies pension benefits to those convicted of serious crimes and requires lawmakers to pay the full price fare when traveling on chartered planes. Opponents of the bill complained the measure discouraged free speech by deterring petition drives, but majority leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) called the measure "the most significant legislation in ethics and lobbying reform we've had in the history of this country."



Court upholds killing of 'Wal-Mart bill'
Court Feed News | 2007/01/18 16:52

A federal appeals court on Wednesday said the State of Maryland may not require large retailers (Wal-Mart was the target) to spend 8 percent of their payrolls on health care for employees. In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that said Maryland's law violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. (That federal labor law says companies may offer uniform health benefits across the country rather than deal with a variety of state requirements.)

"Hopefully this will send a message to other states," said the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that represents the interests of state lawmakers and advocates free-market policies. According to ALEC, five other states - Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi and New York -- have all filed "Fair Share" bills like the one that became law in Maryland. A Wal-Mart defense group -- Working Families for Wal-Mart -- applauded the appeals court ruling.



UN SG Ban concerned over stalled Hariri tribunal
Legal World News | 2007/01/18 14:54

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that he is concerned about the status of ongoing discussions between the UN and Lebanon on the proposed UN-supported international tribunal to try suspects accused of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Ban said:

It is important that the Security Council has decided to establish a special tribunal. The United Nations has concluded agreement with the Lebanese Government. It is a source of concern for me, as Secretary-General, that we are not being able to establish a special tribunal, as was mandated by the Security Council. At the same time, I was encouraged by the willingness of the Lebanese Government to work together for the establishment of a special tribunal, including President Lahoud and Speaker of the Parliament Berri. I will discuss again this matter with the Lebanese leaders when I meet them in Paris.

The Lebanese cabinet approved a draft plan for the tribunal in November despite the resignation of all six pro-Syrian members. In December, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud formally refused to endorse the document, calling on the cabinet to take up the proposal again "when there is a legitimate and constitutional government."

The measure has been approved by the UN but requires backing by both Lahoud and the Lebanese parliament before the tribunal can said to have been formally accepted. 



Iraqi leaders agree on draft oil law
Legal World News | 2007/01/18 13:18
Iraqi officials have agreed a final draft of a law that sets rules for sharing Iraq’s oil wealth and aims to bring in billions of dollars of foreign investment to rebuild the mainstay of the economy.

But crucially, international oil firms waiting for access to the world’s third biggest oil reserves will find little detail in the draft about the form future deals will take. They are likely to hold off major commitments until there is clarity. The draft calls for a federal committee headed by the prime minister to oversee future contracts and review deals signed under Saddam Hussein or by the Kurdish regional government, oil ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said.

Passing an oil law to help settle potentially explosive disputes among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities over the division of oil reserves has been a key demand of the United States in providing further military support to the government.

Iraq’s Oil Committee of senior national and regional leaders has been drawing and redrawing the document for months and missed its own deadline of finalising it by the end of 2006.

The Oil Committee, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, will send the draft to cabinet next week for approval. After that it will go to parliament. Officials hope that the broad base of the negotiating team means it will pass easily. The final draft was in line with earlier versions described last month after a previous round of talks.

A national oil company will be set up to develop production and exports and the law is intended to ensure development of the oil industry across Iraq’s regions, Jihad said. It establishes a mechanism for centralising oil revenues and distributing them to the regions. Jihad refused to say who will negotiate with the international firms but explained a federal council will have the final word on approving the contracts.

The division of oil is a key factor in communal tensions in Iraq. The southern oil fields around Basra lie in territory controlled by competing factions of the dominant Shi’ite Islamist political forces, The northern fields lie on the edge of Iraqi Kurdistan around the city of Kirkuk. Kurds want to annexe the city as their regional capital. The Sunni minority is concentrated in Baghdad and regions immediately to the north and west where there are few known hydrocarbon reserves.



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