Justices: California can’t enforce indoor church service ban

Court Watch 2021/02/06 14:28   Bookmark and Share
The Supreme Court is telling California that it can’t bar indoor church services because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it can keep for now a ban on singing and chanting indoors.

The high court issued orders late Friday in two cases where churches had sued over coronavirus-related restrictions in the state. The high court said that for now, California can’t ban indoor worship as it had in almost all of the state because virus cases are high.

The justices said the state can cap indoor services at 25% of a building’s capacity. The justices also declined to stop California from enforcing a ban put in place last summer on indoor singing and chanting. California had put the restrictions in place because the virus is more easily transmitted indoors and singing releases tiny droplets that can carry the disease.

The justices were acting on emergency requests to halt the restrictions from South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, which has more than 160 churches across the state.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials” when it comes to public health restrictions, but he said deference “has its limits.”

Roberts wrote that California’s determination “that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero?appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”

In addition to Roberts, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Amy Coney Barrett also wrote to explain their views. Gorsuch and Justice Clarence Thomas would have kept California from enforcing its singing ban. Barrett, the court’s newest justice, disagreed. Writing for herself and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she said it wasn’t clear at this point whether the singing ban was being applied “across the board.”

She wrote that “if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” triggering a stricter review by courts. The justices said the churches who sued can submit new evidence to a lower court that the singing ban is not being applied generally.

The court’s three liberal justices dissented, saying they would have upheld California’s restrictions. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor that the court’s action “risks worsening the pandemic.” She said that the court was “making a special exception for worship services” rather than treating them like other activities where large groups of people come together “in close proximity for extended periods of time.” In areas of California where COVID-19 is widespread, which includes most of the state, activities including indoor dining and going to the movies are banned.

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Louisiana Supreme Court has a new chief justice, John Weimer

Court Watch 2021/01/11 14:32   Bookmark and Share
The Louisiana Supreme Court has a new chief justice. John Weimer, 66, of Thibodaux, took the oath of office this month as the state’s 26th chief justice. A ceremony marking his investiture was held in New Orleans on Thursday. Weimer fills the seat vacated by Bernette Joshua Johnson, who retired Dec. 31 after serving 26 years on the high court.

“I feel a profound sense of humility and the recognition of the obligation of service,” Weimer said. “I have served with three chief justices who have made their mark on the judiciary in special ways … I have learned much from each of them, and I promise to work hard to be dedicated to the principles of impartiality, independence and fairness while pursuing justice and acting with integrity just as my predecessors did.”

The Courier reports that Gov. John Bel Edwards, who spoke at Thursday’s ceremony, said Weimer is becoming Louisiana’s highest jurist during one of history’s most difficult periods, with a global pandemic raging.

“John Weimer is the right person to lead this court during these challenging times,” the Democratic governor said.

The new chief justice rose quickly through judicial ranks. Weimer became a state district judge for the 17th District in Thibodaux in 1995, before being elected to Louisiana’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in 1998. He was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2001 during a special election. He was re-elected to 10-year terms without opposition in 2002 and 2012.

Weimer ran as a Democrat through 2002, but without party affiliation in 2012.

His Supreme Court district includes Terrebonne, Lafourche, Assumption, Iberia, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes and part of Jefferson Parish.
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Biden to name Judge Merrick Garland as attorney general

Court Watch 2021/01/07 13:56   Bookmark and Share
President-elect Joe Biden has selected Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge who in 2016 was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court, as his attorney general, two people familiar with the selection process said Wednesday.

In picking Garland, Biden is turning to an experienced judge who held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor of the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The pick will force Senate Republicans to contend with the nomination of someone they spurned four years ago ? refusing even to hold hearings when a Supreme Court vacancy arose ? but Biden is banking on Garland’s credentials and reputation for moderation to ensure confirmation.

Biden is expected to announce Garland’s appointment on Thursday, along with other senior leaders of the department, including former homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general and former Justice Department civil rights chief Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general, the No. 3 official. He will also name an assistant attorney general for civil rights, Kristen Clarke, the president of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group.

Garland was selected over other finalists including former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. The people familiar with the process spoke on condition of anonymity. One said Biden regards Garland as an attorney general who can restore integrity to the Justice Department and as someone who, having worked as both a federal prosecutor and a high-level supervisor inside the agency, will enjoy the respect of nonpartisan career staff.

Garland’s confirmation prospects were solidified as Democrats on Wednesday scored control of the Senate majority by winning both Georgia Senate seats.

Garland would confront immediate challenges if confirmed, including an ongoing criminal tax investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter, as well as calls from many Democrats to pursue inquiries into President Donald Trump after he leaves office. A special counsel investigation into the origins of the Russia probe also remains open, forcing a new attorney general to decide how to handle it and what to make public.

Garland would also inherit a Justice Department that has endured a tumultuous four years and abundant criticism from Democrats over what they see as the overpoliticization of law enforcement. The department is expected to dramatically change course under new leadership, including through a different approach to civil rights issues and national policing policies, especially after months of mass protests over the deaths of Black Americans at the hand of law enforcement.
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Trump wants Supreme Court to overturn Pa. election results

Court Watch 2020/12/21 18:14   Bookmark and Share
Undeterred by dismissals and admonitions from judges, President Donald Trump’s campaign continued with its unprecedented efforts to overturn the results of the Nov 3. election Sunday, saying it had filed a new petition with the Supreme Court.

The petition seeks to reverse a trio of Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases having to do with mail-in ballots and asks the court to reject voters’ will and allow the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pick its own slate of electors.

While the prospect of the highest court in the land throwing out the results of a democratic election based on unfounded charges of voter fraud is extraordinary unlikely, it wouldn’t change the outcome. President-elect Joe Biden would still be the winner even without Pennsylvania because of his wide margin of victory in the Electoral College.

“The petition seeks all appropriate remedies, including vacating the appointment of electors committed to Joseph Biden and allowing the Pennsylvania General Assembly to select their replacements,” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said in a statement.

He is asking the court to move swiftly so it can rule before Congress meets on Jan. 6 to tally the vote of the Electoral College, which decisively confirmed Biden’s win  with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. But the justices are not scheduled to meet again, even privately, until Jan 8, two days after Congress counts votes.

Pennsylvania last month certified Biden as the winner of the state’s 20 Electoral College votes after three weeks of vote counting and a string of failed legal challenges.

Trump’s campaign and his allies have now filed roughly 50 lawsuits alleging widespread voting fraud. Almost all have been dismissed or dropped because there is no evidence to support their allegations.

Trump has lost before judges of both political parties, including some he appointed. And some of his strongest rebukes have come from conservative Republicans. The Supreme Court has also refused to take up two cases ? decisions that Trump has scorned.

The new case is at least the fourth involving Pennsylvania that Trump’s campaign or Republican allies have taken to the Supreme Court in a bid to overturn Biden’s victory in the state or at least reverse court decisions involving mail-in balloting. Many more cases were filed in state and federal courts. Roughly 10,000 mail-in ballots that arrived after polls closed but before a state court-ordered deadline remain in limbo, awaiting the highest court’s decision on whether they should be counted.

The Trump campaign’s filing Sunday appears to target three decisions of Pennsylvania’s Democratic-majority state Supreme Court. In November, the state’s highest court upheld a Philadelphia judge’s ruling that state law only required election officials to allow partisan observers to be able to see mail-in ballots being processed, not stand close enough to election workers to see the writing on individual envelopes.

It also ruled that more than 8,300 mail-in ballots in Philadelphia that had been challenged by the Trump campaign because of minor technical errors ? such as a voter’s failure to write their name, address or date on the outer ballot envelope ? should be counted. In October, the court ruled unanimously that counties are prohibited from rejecting mail-in ballots simply because a voter’s signature does not resemble the signature on the person’s voter registration form.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party has a pending petition on the state’s mail-in-ballot deadline in which the party specifically says in its appeal that it recognizes the issue will not affect the outcome of the 2020 election.
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High court rules challenge to Trump census plan is premature

Court Watch 2020/12/17 18:15   Bookmark and Share
A divided Supreme Court has dismissed as premature a challenge to President Donald Trump’s plan to exclude people living in the country illegally from the population count used to allot states seats in the House of Representatives.

The court’s decision Friday, led by its conservative justices, is not a final ruling on the matter and, while it allows Trump to pursue the plan for now, it’s not clear whether he will receive final numbers from the Census Bureau before he leaves office next month.

If the president still has not received final census numbers by the time Joe Biden takes office Jan. 20, Trump’s plan will be effectively dead because Biden is extremely unlikely to pursue it. It’s also possible the Biden administration would take steps to try to reverse decisions made under Trump.

For now, though, the high court said it was too soon to rule on the legality of Trump’s plan because it’s not yet clear how many people he would seek to exclude and whether the division of House seats would be affected.

The court said in an unsigned opinion that “we express no view on the merits of the constitutional and related statutory claims presented. We hold only that they are not suitable for adjudication at this time.” At least five of the court’s six conservative justices had to join the opinion to make a majority on the nine-member court.

The three liberal justices dissented, saying the effort to exclude people in the country from the population for divvying up House seats is unlawful.

“I believe this Court should say so,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

It’s not clear that Friday’s decision will have much practical effect. Documents leaked to the House committee that oversees the Census Bureau suggest the apportionment numbers won’t be ready until after Jan. 20, when Trump leaves office and Biden becomes president. The Census Bureau has acknowledged the discovery of data irregularities in recent weeks that put the Dec. 31 deadline in federal law for transmitting numbers to the president in jeopardy.

Dale Ho, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who argued the case for the challengers, said the decision was about the timing of the case, not whether the plan complies with federal law.

“This ruling does not authorize President Trump’s goal of excluding undocumented immigrants from the census count used to apportion the House of Representatives. The legal mandate is clear ? every single person counts in the census, and every single person is represented in Congress. If this policy is ever actually implemented, we’ll be right back in court challenging it,” Ho said.

No president has tried to do what Trump outlined in a memo in July ? remove millions of noncitizens from the once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population that determines how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, as well as the allocation of some federal funding.

States with large populations of people who are in the country illegally could lose seats in the House under Trump’s plan, and the president signaled in his memo that punishing states that “encourage illegal aliens” is one reason he issued it.

By the administration’s estimate, California could lose two to three House seats if people living in the country illegally were excluded based on what the administration said are more than 2 million such California residents.

His administration has defended his authority to exclude at least some people living in the country illegally, including perhaps people who are in immigration detention or those who have been ordered to leave the country.

But during arguments last month, acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, Trump’s top Supreme Court lawyer, would not rule out larger categories of immigrants, including those who have protection from deportation under the DACA program.
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Trump faces tough road in getting Supreme Court to intervene

Court Watch 2020/11/07 10:18   Bookmark and Share
President Donald Trump has repeatedly said there’s one place he wants to determine the outcome of the presidential election: the U.S. Supreme Court. But he may have a difficult time ever getting there.

Over the last two days, Trump has leaned in to the idea that the high court should get involved in the election as it did in 2000. Then, the court effectively settled the contested election for President George W. Bush in a 5-4 decision that split the court’s liberals and conservatives.

Today, six members of the court are conservatives, including three nominated by Trump. But the outcome of this year’s election seemed to be shaping up very differently from 2000, when Florida’s electoral votes delivered the presidency to George W. Bush.

Then, Bush led in Florida and went to court to stop a recount. Trump, for his part, has suggested a strategy that would focus on multiple states where the winning margins appear to be slim. But he might have to persuade the Supreme Court to set aside votes in two or more states to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.

Chief Justice John Roberts, for his part, is not likely to want the election to come down to himself and his colleagues. Roberts, who was not on the court for Bush v. Gore in 2000 but was a lawyer for Bush, has often tried to distance the court from the political branches of government and the politics he thinks could hurt the court’s reputation.

It’s also not clear what legal issues might cause the justices to step in. Trump has made repeated, unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. Lawsuits filed by his campaign so far have been small-scale efforts unlikely to affect many votes, and some already have been dismissed.

Still, Trump has focused on the high court. In the early morning hours following Election Day he said: “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court — we want all voting to stop.” And on Thursday, as Biden inched closer to the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House, Trump again told Americans, “It’s going to end up, perhaps, at the highest court in the land, we’ll see.” On Twitter too he urged, “U.S. Supreme Court should decide!”

There is currently one election case at the Supreme Court and it involves a Republican appeal to exclude ballots that arrived after Election Day in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. But whether or not those ballots ultimately are counted seems unlikely to affect who gets the state’s electoral votes.

Biden opened a narrow lead over Trump on Friday, and any additional mail-in votes probably would help Biden, not the president.

Still, Trump’s campaign is currently trying to intervene in the case, an appeal of a decision by Pennsylvania’s highest court to allow three extra days for the receipt and counting of mailed ballots. Because the case is ongoing, the state’s top election official has directed that the small number of ballots that arrived in that window, before 5 p.m. Friday, be separated but counted. Republicans on Friday asked for a high court order ensuring the ballots are separated, and Justice Samuel Alito, acting on his own, agreed, saying he was motivated in part by the Republicans’ assertion that they can’t be sure elections officials are complying with guidance.
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