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Unanimous Supreme Court throws out ‘Bridgegate’ convictions
Headline News | 2020/05/11 00:23
A unanimous Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the convictions of two political insiders involved in the “Bridgegate”  scandal that ultimately derailed the 2016 president bid of their ally, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The justices said there was evidence of deception, corruption, and abuse of power in the political payback saga that involved four days of traffic jams on the world’s busiest motor-vehicle bridge, the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. But “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.

In the end, the justices concluded that the government had overreached in prosecuting Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni for their roles in the scheme. Kelly was a deputy chief of staff to Christie. Baroni was a top Christie appointee to the Port Authority, the bridge’s operator.

The court’s decision to side with Kelly and Baroni continues a pattern from recent years of restricting the government’s ability to use broad federal laws to prosecute public corruption cases. In 2016, the court overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. In 2010, the court sharply curbed prosecutors’ use of an anti-fraud law in the case of ex-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

Kagan wrote for the court that Kelly and Baroni had acted for “no reason other than political payback.” In devising the traffic jam, they were seeking to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, Mark Sokolich, after he declined to support the reelection bid of Christie, the GOP governor.


Catholic schools, ex-teachers clash in Supreme Court case
U.S. Legal News | 2020/05/11 00:20
First, Kristen Biel learned she had breast cancer. Then, after she told the Catholic school where she taught that she’d need time off for treatment, she learned her teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed.

“She was devastated,” said her husband Darryl. “She came in the house just bawling uncontrollably.”

Biel died last year at age 54 after a five-year battle with breast cancer. On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a disability discrimination lawsuit she filed against her former employer, St. James Catholic School in Torrance, California.

A judge initially sided with the school and halted the lawsuit, but an appeals court disagreed and said it could go forward. The school, with the support of the Trump administration, is challenging that decision, telling the Supreme Court that the dispute doesn’t belong in court.

The case is one of 10 the high court is  hearing arguments in by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic. The justices heard arguments in four cases this week. Next week includes Biel’s case as well as high-profile fights over President Donald Trump’s financial records and whether presidential electors have to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.

Biel’s lawsuit is one of two cases being heard together that involves the same issue: the “ministerial exception” that exempts religious employers from certain employment discrimination lawsuits.

The Supreme Court recognized in a unanimous 2012 decision that the Constitution prevents ministers from suing their churches for employment discrimination. But it specifically avoided giving a rigid test for who should count as a minister.

Now the Supreme Court will decide whether Biel, and another former teacher who sued a different Catholic school for age discrimination, count as ministers barred from suing. Both Biel and the other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, taught religion, among other subjects.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for Biel and Morrissey-Berru, says if his clients lose, it could have “innumerable, cascading consequences” on employees of religious institutions. He’s argued employment law protections could be denied to nurses at religiously affiliated hospitals, counselors at religious summer camps, and cooks and administrators in social services centers.


Blind justice: No visual cues in high court phone cases
Criminal Law Updates | 2020/05/08 00:22
On the evening before he was to argue a case before the Supreme Court years ago, Jeffrey Fisher broke his glasses. That left the very nearsighted lawyer with an unappealing choice. He could wear contacts and clearly see the justices but not his notes, or skip the contacts and see only his notes.

It wasn’t hard to decide. “I couldn’t imagine doing argument without seeing their faces,” Fisher said.

He won’t have a choice next month. Because of the coronavirus pandemic the high court is, for the first time in its 230-year history, holding arguments by telephone. Beyond not being able to see the justices’ nods, frowns and hand gestures, the teleconference arguments in 10 cases over six days present a range of challenges, attorneys said, but also opportunities.

The unprecedented decision to hold arguments by phone was an effort to help slow the spread of the virus. Most of the justices are at risk because of their age; six are over 65. And hearing arguments by phone allows them to decide significant cases by the court’s traditional summer break.

The attorneys arguing  before the court include government lawyers as well as those in private practice. Three of the 25 are women. Most have made multiple Supreme Court arguments and are familiar to the justices, although seven are giving their first arguments before the court. The Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, will argue twice.

The cases the justices are hearing include fights over subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records  and cases about whether presidential electors are required to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who won their state.

Justices have long said that the written briefs lawyers submit are vastly more important to the cases’ outcomes than what’s said in court. But the arguments also help them resolve nagging issues and occasionally can change a justice’s vote.


Wisconsin court sets argument date for stay-at-home lawsuit
Business Law Info | 2020/05/03 21:17
The Wisconsin Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear oral arguments early next week in a lawsuit seeking to block Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order.

The justices ruled 6-1 to accept the case and scheduled oral arguments for Tuesday morning via video conference. The arguments are expected to last at least 90 minutes.

The ruling said the court will consider whether the order was really an administrative rule and whether Palm was within her rights to issue it unilaterally. Even if the order doesn’t qualify as a rule, the court said it will still weigh whether Palm exceeded her authority by “closing all ‘nonessential’ businesses, ordering all Wisconsin persons to stay home, and forbidding all “nonessential’ travel.’”

Conservatives hold a 5-2 majority on the court. Liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet cast the lone dissenting vote. The ruling didn’t include any explanation from her.

Evers initially issued the stay-at-home order in March. It was supposed to expire on April 24 but state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm extended it until May 26 at Evers’ direction.

The order closed schools, shuttered nonessential businesses, limited the size of social gatherings and prohibits nonessential travel. The governor has said the order is designed to slow the virus’ spread, but Republicans have grown impatient with the prohibitions, saying they’re crushing the economy.

Republican legislators filed a lawsuit directly with the conservative-controlled Supreme Court last month challenging the extension. They have argued that the order is really an administrative rule, and Palm should have submitted it to the Legislature for approval before issuing it.


Blind justice: No visual cues in high court phone cases
Class Action News | 2020/05/02 04:18
On the evening before he was to argue a case before the Supreme Court years ago, Jeffrey Fisher broke his glasses. That left the very nearsighted lawyer with an unappealing choice. He could wear contacts and clearly see the justices but not his notes, or skip the contacts and see only his notes.

It wasn’t hard to decide. “I couldn’t imagine doing argument without seeing their faces,” Fisher said.

He won’t have a choice next month. Because of the coronavirus pandemic the high court is, for the first time in its 230-year history, holding arguments by telephone. Beyond not being able to see the justices' nods, frowns and hand gestures, the teleconference arguments in 10 cases over six days present a range of challenges, attorneys said, but also opportunities.

Roman Martinez, who will argue in a free speech case, said the lack of visual cues may change what sense is most important. “Maybe it will concentrate the mind on listening,” he said.

The unprecedented decision to hold arguments by phone was an effort to help slow the spread of the virus. Most of the justices are at risk because of their age; six are over 65. And hearing arguments by phone allows them to decide significant cases by the court’s traditional summer break.

The attorneys arguing before the court include lawyers for the federal government and states as well as those in private practice. Only a few are women. Most have made multiple arguments and are familiar to the justices, although at least one lawyer is giving his first argument before the court. The Trump administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, will argue twice.


Supreme Court sides with government in immigration case
Employment Law | 2020/04/26 20:19
The Supreme Court is making it harder for noncitizens who are authorized to live permanently in the United States to argue they should be allowed to stay in the country if they've committed crimes.

The decision Thursday split the court 5-4 along ideological lines. The decision came in the case of Andre Barton, a Jamaican national and green card holder. In 1996, when he was a teenager, he was present when a friend fired a gun at the home of Barton's ex-girlfriend in Georgia. And in 2007 and 2008, he was convicted of drug possession in the state.

His crimes made him eligible to be deported, and the government sought to remove him from the country in 2016. Barton argued he should be eligible to stay. Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in his opinion for the court's conservatives that it was important that Barton's 1996 crime took place in the first seven years he was admitted to the country.

Kavanaugh wrote that “when a lawful permanent resident has amassed a criminal record of this kind,” immigration law makes them ineligible to ask to be allowed to stay in the country.


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