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What Supreme Court? Trump's HHS pushes LGBT health rollback
Criminal Law Updates | 2020/06/17 00:14
The Trump administration Friday moved forward with a rule that rolls back health care protections for transgender people, even as the Supreme Court barred sex discrimination against LGBT individuals on the job.

The rule from the Department of Health and Human Services was published in the Federal Register, the official record of the executive branch, with an effective date of Aug. 18. That will set off a barrage of lawsuits from gay rights and women's groups. It also signals to religious and social conservatives in President Donald Trump's political base that the administration remains committed to their causes as the president pursues his reelection.

The Trump administration rule would overturn Obama-era sex discrimination protections for transgender people in health care.

Strikingly similar to the underlying issues in the job discrimination case before the Supreme Court, the Trump health care rule rests on the idea that sex is determined by biology. The Obama version relied on a broader understanding shaped by a person's inner sense of being male, female, neither, or a combination.

Writing for the majority in this week's 6-3 decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, "An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.


Arena turned court for first felony jury trial in months
Criminal Law Updates | 2020/06/06 22:44
A city-owned arena in Batesville became a courtroom this week for the first felony criminal jury trial in Mississippi since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 100 prospective jurors answered their summons to appear in court at the Civic Center on June 1, Panola County Circuit Clerk Melissa Meek-Phelps said in a news release.

Prospective jurors maintained social distancing by sitting with five empty seats between them and alternating empty rows. County personnel took temperatures of visitors as they arrived at the arena. Hand sanitizer and masks were provided for people entering the building. Anyone who was ill, had health conditions that could put them at risk for COVID-19, was over age 65, a caregiver or had recently performed jury service, was excused.

The Civic Center is a venue for concerts, motorcycle and monster truck shows, rodeos and other entertainment. The Panola County Board of Supervisors on June 1 officially adopted a resolution declaring it the courthouse for the Second Judicial District of Panola County during the coronavirus pandemic.

A jury was selected to hear the trial of Clinton Winters, 44, of Webb, who faced charges of methamphetamine possession. He was found guilty on the afternoon of June 2. Winters remains in custody and will be sentenced at a later date.




Pandemic means a silent June at the Supreme Court
Criminal Law Updates | 2020/06/04 16:56
It’s the time of the year when Supreme Court justices can get testy. They might have to find a new way to show it.

The court’s most fought-over decisions in its most consequential cases often come in June, with dueling majority and dissenting opinions. But when a justice is truly steamed to be on a decision’s losing side, the strongest form of protest is reading a summary of the dissent aloud in court. Dissenting justices exercise what a pair of scholars call the “nuclear option” just a handful of times a year, but when they do, they signal that behind the scenes, there’s frustration and even anger.

The coronavirus pandemic has kept the justices from their courtroom since March and forced them to change their ways in many respects. Now, in their season of weighty decisions, instead of the drama that can accompany the announcement of a majority decision and its biting dissent, the court’s opinions are being posted online without an opportunity for the justices to be heard.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor William Blake, who co-authored the article calling oral dissents the nuclear option, says a June without them would be a “missed opportunity.” They are “a chance to see the justices as exhibiting emotions,” not just the logic of their opinions, he said.


Oregon high court keeps state virus restrictions in place
Criminal Law Updates | 2020/05/20 04:54
The Oregon Supreme Court has kept statewide virus restrictions in place by halting a judge’s order to end them in a lawsuit claiming the governor exceeded her authority when she shut down in-person religious services.

Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled Monday that Gov. Kate Brown erred by not seeking the Legislature’s approval to extend her stay-at-home orders beyond a 28-day limit. Brown’s lawyers appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which just hours later put a hold on Shirtcliff’s decree until the high court’s justices can review the matter.

Presiding Justice Thomas Balmer gave both sides until Friday to submit legal briefs. He did not give a timeline for a decision.

The lower court judge had issued his opinion in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by 10 churches around Oregon that argued the state’s social distancing directives were unconstitutional.

In a statement late Monday, Brown, a Democrat, praised the state Supreme Court action.

“There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic. Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced ourselves for hospitals to be overfilled,” she said.

Kevin Mannix, an attorney representing businesses in the case, said Tuesday that he was encouraged that the state Supreme Court seemed to be taking the case seriously. Normally, briefings in cases before the court wouldn’t be due until June 1, he said.

“Every day that the governor’s order remains in effect, people are prevented from being able to assemble peaceably, their free expression rights are limited … and most significantly, their freedom of religion rights are restricted,” he said. “This extraordinary power that she’s been exercising has a time limit on it.”

In his opinion, Shirtcliff wrote that the damage to Oregonians and their livelihood was greater than the dangers presented by the coronavirus. He also noted that other businesses deemed essential, such as grocery stores, had been allowed to remain open even with large numbers of people present and have relied on masks, social distancing and other measures to protect the public.


Virus whistleblower tells lawmakers US lacks vaccine plan
Criminal Law Updates | 2020/05/14 17:19
Whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright warned on Thursday that the U.S. lacks a plan to produce and fairly distribute a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. The nation could face “the darkest winter in modern history” unless leaders act decisively, he told a congressional panel.

Bright alleges he was ousted from a high-level scientific post after warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic.

Testifying Thursday, Bright said, “We don’t have (a vaccine plan) yet, and it is a significant concern.” Asked if lawmakers should be worried, Bright responded, “absolutely.”

Bright, a vaccine expert who led a biodefense agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, said the country needs a plan to establish a supply chain for producing tens of millions of doses of a vaccine, and then allocating and distributing them fairly. He said experience so far with an antiviral drug that has been found to benefit COVID-19 patients has not given him much confidence about distribution. Hospital pharmacies have reported problems getting limited supplies.

The White House has begun what it calls “Operation Warp Speed” to quickly produce, distribute and administer a vaccine once it becomes available.

Bright testified Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Aspects of his complaint about early administration handling of the crisis were expected to be backed up by testimony from an executive of a company that manufactures respirator masks.



Supreme Court appears likely to reject Trump immunity claim
Criminal Law Updates | 2020/05/14 00:19
The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared likely to reject President Donald Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal investigation while in office. But the court seemed less clear about exactly how to handle subpoenas from Congress and the Manhattan district attorney for Trump’s tax, bank and financial records.

The court’s major clash over presidential accountability could affect the  2020 presidential campaign, especially if a high court ruling leads to the release of personal financial information before Election Day.

The justices heard arguments in two cases by telephone Tuesday that stretched into the early afternoon. The court, which includes six justices age 65 or older, has been meeting by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There was no apparent consensus about whether to ratify lower court rulings that the subpoenas to Trump’s accountant and banks are valid and should be enforced. The justices will meet by phone before the end of the week to take a preliminary vote on how those cases should come out, and decisions are expected by early summer.

On the same day Trump’s lawyers were telling the court that the subpoenas would be a distraction that no president can afford, Trump found the time to weigh in on a long string of unrelated issues on Twitter, about Elon Musk reopening Tesla’s California plant in defiance of local authorities, the credit he deserves for governors’ strong approval ratings for their handling of the virus outbreak, the anger Asian Americans feel “at what China has done to our Country,” oil prices, interest rates, his likely opponent in the November election and his critics.

The justices sounded particularly concerned in arguments over congressional subpoenas about whether a ruling validating the subpoenas would open the door to harassing future presidents.

“In your view, there is really no protection against the use of congressional subpoenas for the purpose of preventing the harassment of a president,” Justice Samuel Alito said to Douglas Letter, the lawyer for the House of Representatives.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he worried about a “future Sen. McCarthy,” a reference to the Communist-baiting Wisconsin senator from the 1950s, with subpoena power against a future president.

But in the case involving Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s subpoena for Trump’s taxes, the justices showed little interest in the broadest argument made by Jay Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, that a president can’t be investigated while he holds office.


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