Judges hear arguments over Census’ contentious privacy tool

Legal Insight 2021/05/02 11:30   Bookmark and Share
The fight over whether the U.S. Census Bureau can use a controversial statistical technique to keep people’s information private in the numbers used for drawing political districts on Monday was going before a judicial panel which must decide if the method provides enough data accuracy.

A panel of three federal judges was hearing arguments on whether the method known as “differential privacy” meets the federal legal requirement for keeping private the personal information of people who participated in the 2020 census while still allowing the numbers to be sufficiently accurate for the highly-partisan process of redrawing congressional and legislative districts.

Because a panel of three federal judges will decide the matter, any appeal could go straight to the Supreme Court.

This first major challenge to the Census Bureau’s use of differential privacy comes in the lawsuit filed by the state of Alabama and three Alabama politicians over the statistical agency’s decision to delay the release of data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts. Normally the redistricting data are released at the end of March, but the Census Bureau pushed the deadline to sometime in August, at the earliest, because of delays caused by the pandemic.

Alabama claims the delay was caused by the bureau’s attempt to implement differential privacy, which the state’s attorneys say will result in inaccurate redistricting numbers. At least 16 other states back Alabama’s challenge, which is asking the judges for a preliminary injunction to stop the Census Bureau from implementing the statistical technique. Alabama also wants the agency to release the redistricting data by July 31.

Civil rights advocates, state lawmakers and redistricting experts have raised concerns that differential privacy will produce inaccurate data for drawing districts, and that will result in a skewed distribution of political power and federal funds. They also worry it will make it difficult to comply with sections of the Voting Rights Act requiring the drawing of majority-minority districts when racial or ethnic groups make up a majority of a community.

Differential privacy adds mathematical “noise,” or intentional errors, to the data to obscure any given individual’s identity while still providing statistically valid information. Bureau officials say the change is needed to prevent data miners from matching individuals to confidential details that have been rendered anonymous in the massive data release. In a test using 2010 census data, which was released without the obscuring technique, bureau statisticians said they were able to re-identify 17% of the U.S. population using information in commercial databases.
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Feds drop legal battle over tribe’s reservation status

Legal Insight 2021/02/20 20:09   Bookmark and Share
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe scored a legal victory Friday when the U.S. Interior Department withdrew a Trump administration appeal that aimed to revoke federal reservation designation for the tribe’s land in Massachusetts.

A federal judge in 2020 blocked the U.S. Interior Department from revoking the tribe’s reservation designation, saying the agency’s decision to do so was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.” The Trump administration appealed the decision, but the Interior Department on Friday moved to dismiss the motion.

In a filing in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., the Interior Department said it had “conferred with the parties and none opposes this motion.” A judge granted the motion and dismissed the case.

The tribe’s vice chair, Jessie Little Doe Baird, called it a triumph for the tribe and for ancestors “who have fought and died to ensure our Land and sovereign rights are respected.”

“We look forward to being able to close the book on this painful chapter in our history,” Baird said in a statement. “The decision not to pursue the appeal allows us continue fulfilling our commitment to being good stewards and protecting our Land and the future of our young ones and providing for our citizens.”

The Cape Cod-based tribe was granted more than 300 acres (1.2 square kilometers) of land in trust in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama, a move that carved out the federally protected land needed for the tribe to develop its planned $1 billion First Light casino, hotel and entertainment resort.

The tribe learned in March 2020 that the federal government was moving to reverse the reservation designation. The Trump administration decided it could not take the land into trust because the tribe was not officially recognized as of June 1, 1934. That was the year the federal Indian Reorganization Act, which laid the foundation for modern federal Indian policy, became law.

At the time, the tribe’s chair called it a “sucker punch.”  The tribe, which traces its ancestry to the Native Americans that shared a fall harvest meal with the Pilgrims in 1621, gained federal recognition in 2007.

U.S. Representative Bill Keating, D-Mass., whose district includes Cape Cod, applauded the decision to drop the appeal.
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Circuit court judge accused of altering paperwork

Legal Insight 2021/02/11 14:28   Bookmark and Share
A New Hampshire circuit court judge has been accused of altering court paperwork with white out in a 2019 family division case while she was under investigation by the judicial branch.

Julie Introcaso, a Bedford judge who was suspended in October, was charged Thursday with two felony counts of falsifying physical evidence and three misdemeanors alleging tampering with public records or information and unsworn falsification.

The attorney general’s office said Introcaso will be arraigned at a later date. It wasn’t immediately known if she had a lawyer, and a number could not be found for her.

The attorney general’s office began an investigation last fall after the state Judicial Conduct Committee released a document alleging that Introcaso violated the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

That complaint alleges that Introcaso oversaw a child custody case for about six months despite having a friendship with a lawyer who was serving as a guardian ad litem in the matter. She approved rulings on the guardian’s fees and method of payment.

She eventually recused herself, citing a conflict of interest, but a party in the case made a complaint about her to the committee, which started an investigation. The committee alleges she altered the court orders during the investigation.

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China sentences lawyer who reported on outbreak to 4 years

Legal Insight 2020/12/28 13:05   Bookmark and Share
A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a former lawyer who reported on the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in prison on charges of “picking fights and provoking trouble,” one of her lawyers said.

The Pudong New Area People’s Court in the financial hub of Shanghai gave the sentence to Zhang Zhan following accusations she spread false information, gave interviews to foreign media, disrupted public order and “maliciously manipulated” the outbreak.

Lawyer Zhang Keke confirmed the sentence but said it was “inconvenient” to provide details ? usually an indication that the court has issued a partial gag order. He said the court did not ask Zhang whether she would appeal, nor did she indicate whether she would.

Zhang, 37, traveled to Wuhan in February and posted on various social media platforms about the outbreak that is believed to have emerged in the central Chinese city late last year.

She was arrested in May amid tough nationwide measures aimed at curbing the outbreak and heavy censorship to deflect criticism of the government’s initial response. Zhang reportedly went on a prolonged hunger strike while in detention, prompting authorities to forcibly feed her, and is said to be in poor health.

China has been accused of covering up the initial outbreak and delaying the release of crucial information, allowing the virus to spread and contributing to the pandemic that has sickened more than 80 million people worldwide and killed almost 1.8 million. Beijing vigorously denies the accusations, saying it took swift action that bought time for the rest of the world to prepare.

China’s ruling Communist Party tightly controls the media and seeks to block dissemination of information it hasn’t approved for release. In the early days of the outbreak, authorities reprimanded several Wuhan doctors for “rumor-mongering” after they alerted friends on social media. The best known of the doctors, Li Wenliang, later succumbed to COVID-19.
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High court blocks NY virus limits on houses of worship

Legal Insight 2020/11/26 21:35   Bookmark and Share
With coronavirus cases surging again nationwide, the Supreme Court barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus.

The justices split 5-4 late Wednesday night, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the conservative’s first publicly discernible vote as a justice. The court’s three liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

The move was a shift for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett’s liberal predecessor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was still on the court, the justices divided 5-4 to leave in place pandemic-related capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and Nevada.

The court’s action Wednesday could push New York to reevaluate its restrictions on houses of worship in areas designated virus hot spots. But the impact is also muted because the Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups that sued to challenge the restrictions are no longer subject to them.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Thursday the ruling was “more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else” and “irrelevant from any practical impact” given that the restrictions have already been removed.

“Why rule on a case that is moot and come up with a different decision than you did several months ago on the same issue?” Cuomo asked in a conference call with reporters. “You have a different court. And I think that was the statement that the court was making.”

The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America have churches and synagogues in areas of Brooklyn and Queens previously designated red and orange zones. In those red and orange zones, the state had capped attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively. But the those particular areas are now designated as yellow zones with less restrictive rules neither group challenged.

The justices acted on an emergency basis, temporarily barring New York from enforcing the restrictions against the groups while their lawsuits continue. In an unsigned opinion the court said the restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” the opinion said.
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In court, Giuliani argues to block Biden win in Pennsylvania

Legal Insight 2020/11/18 21:18   Bookmark and Share
Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, returned to federal court Tuesday after a long hiatus to accuse Democrats in control of big cities of hatching a nationwide conspiracy to steal the election, even though no such evidence has emerged in the two weeks since Election Day. The court case is over the Trump campaign’s federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the battleground state of Pennsylvania from certifying its election. Withering questions from the judge gave Trump’s opponents hope that the lawsuit will be one of many filed by the Trump campaign around the country to be tossed out of court.

During several hours of arguments, U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann told Giuliani that agreeing with him would disenfranchise the more than 6.8 million Pennsylvanians who voted.  “Can you tell me how this result could possibly be justified?” Brann questioned. Giuliani responded, “the scope of the remedy is because of the scope of the injury.” Meanwhile, lawyers defending the Democratic secretary of state, Philadelphia and several counties said the Trump campaign’s arguments lack any constitutional basis or were rendered irrelevant by a state Supreme Court decision Tuesday.

They asked Brann to throw out the case, calling the evidence cited “at best, garden-variety irregularities” that would not warrant undoing Pennsylvania’s election results, which delivered a victory for President-elect Joe Biden. The Trump campaign’s lawsuit is based on a complaint that Philadelphia and six Democratic-controlled counties in Pennsylvania let voters make corrections to mail-in ballots that were otherwise going to be disqualified for a technicality, like lacking a secrecy envelope or a signature.

It is not clear how many ballots that could involve, although some opposing lawyers say it is far too few to overturn the election result. But Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, spent most of his time in court claiming baselessly that a wide-ranging scheme in Pennsylvania and elsewhere stole the election from Trump in battleground states won by Biden.

Democrats in control in major cities in those states ? Giuliani name-checked Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Detroit ? prevented Republican observers from watching election workers process mail-in ballots so the workers could falsify enough ballots to ensure Trump lost, Giuliani claimed, without evidence to back it up. “The best description of this situation is widespread, nationwide voter fraud, of which this is a part. ... This is not an isolated case, this is a case that is repeated in at least 10 other jurisdictions,” Giuliani said, without citing any evidence. Later, he claimed, “they stole the election.”

The dozens of affidavits Trump’s lawyers filed in the case, however, do not assert widespread fraud, but rather the potential for something fishy to occur because partisan poll watchers weren’t given an opportunity to view the results. Brann did not rule Tuesday. He canceled a Thursday hearing to air the Trump campaign’s evidence and instead gave the parties three more days to file arguments in the case. Next Tuesday is the deadline for Pennsylvania’s counties to certify their election results.

Trump’s campaign has not been shy in previous weeks about publicizing what they say is evidence of election fraud. But there is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and officials of both political parties have stated publicly that the election went well. The Trump campaign argues that Republican-controlled counties in Pennsylvania did not allow voters to correct ballots and claims the inconsistent practice in Democratic-controlled counties violated constitutional rights of due process and equal protection under the law.

Two of the Trump campaign’s co-plaintiffs are voters whose ballots were disqualified by counties that did not notify them about the problems. If no county allowed voters to correct problems with mail-in ballots “it’s very likely that the results would have been very, very different,” argued Linda Kerns, a Philadelphia lawyer working alongside Giuliani.
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