Court filing questions innocence panel insistence on secrecy

Legal Insight 2017/06/04 10:36   Bookmark and Share
As a man convicted of murder tries to prove to the North Carolina's innocence commission that he didn't commit the crime, his attorney says the commission has misled a judge in order to keep its files secret, causing delays in the case.

Attorney Chris Mumma represents Robert Bragg, who's serving a sentence of life without parole for a 1994 slaying. Bragg contends he's innocent. Last September his case came before the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency established to investigate and evaluate post-conviction innocence claims. The commission referred it to a three-judge panel, which is scheduled to hold a hearing in July — 10 months after the original commission hearing and two months after the original May hearing date.

The delay came, in part, as Bragg's attorney fought a protective order that the commission said was necessary to shield a confidential investigative file. The commission said evidence in the file was obtained through methods that require it to be kept under a stricter level of judicial protection than other criminal investigative files.

But in a court filing, Mumma says the commission misrepresented the file's contents. In fact, only one protective order was found in the documents, and defense attorneys already had received that file, Mumma said in the court filing last month in Bragg's case.

While Mumma now has the full commission file and can use it in this appeal, the protective order means she can't use it again in the future without seeking a judge's permission.


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Ohio Supreme Court justice backs legalizing marijuana

Legal Insight 2017/05/21 00:15   Bookmark and Share
An Ohio Supreme Court justice who’s mulling a run for governor thinks it’s time for the state to decriminalize marijuana.

Justice William O’Neill, the lone Democrat holding an Ohio statewide office, said making marijuana legal is working in Colorado and doing it in Ohio would bring hundreds of millions of dollars in sales taxes.

O’Neill announced earlier this year that he’s considering stepping down and making a run for governor, but he doesn’t plan on making a decision until the end of the year.

In a speech mixed with his analysis of last year’s presidential election and thoughts about problems facing the state, O’Neill said he not only wants to legalize marijuana but also release all non-violent marijuana offenders from prison.
 
Doing those two things would generate an estimated $350 million to both combat drug addiction and create a mental health network run by the state, he told members of the Wayne County Democratic Party on Friday night.

“The time has come for new thinking,” O’Neill said in his prepared remarks. “We regulate and tax alcohol and tobacco and imprison people for smoking grass.”

He said the Democratic Party needs new ideas in 2018 if it wants to knock off Republicans who control all branches of Ohio government.

O’Neill wants to see the Ohio Department of Mental Health re-open the network of state hospitals that were closed decades ago and change how the state deals with addiction.

“Treat addiction like the disease it is in the name of compassion,” he said.

There’s already a crowded field lining up on both sides of the governor’s race.

For the Democrats, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, former state Rep. Connie Pillich and state Sen. Joe Schiavoni are making runs.

The field on the Republican side includes U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and Secretary of State Jon Husted while Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and Attorney General Mike DeWine are widely expected to seek the GOP nomination.


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Court likely to question if Trump's travel ban discriminates

Legal Insight 2017/05/15 21:36   Bookmark and Share
For the second time in a week, government lawyers will try to persuade a federal appeals court to reinstate President Donald Trump's revised travel ban — and once again, they can expect plenty of questions Monday about whether it was designed to discriminate against Muslims.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled arguments in Seattle over Hawaii's lawsuit challenging the travel ban, which would suspend the nation's refugee program and temporarily bar new visas for citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Last week, judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments over whether to affirm a Maryland judge's decision putting the ban on ice. They peppered Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall with questions about whether they could consider Trump's campaign statements calling for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., with one judge asking if there was anything other than "willful blindness" that would prevent them from doing so.

Monday's arguments mark the second time Trump's efforts to restrict immigration from certain Muslim-majority nations have reached the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit.

After Trump issued his initial travel ban on a Friday in late January, bringing chaos and protests to airports around the country, a Seattle judge blocked its enforcement nationwide — a decision that was unanimously upheld by a three-judge 9th Circuit panel.

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New Mexico Supreme Court won't restore funds to Legislature

Legal Insight 2017/05/11 21:37   Bookmark and Share
The New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request to override budget vetoes, leaving negotiations about how to solve the state's budget crisis — and restore funding to the Legislature — in the hands of the governor and lawmakers.

In a two-page order, the court said it was too soon to consider any possible constitutional violations related to Gov. Susana Martinez's vetoes of all funding for the Legislature and state universities in the coming fiscal year.

The order said the Legislature's lawsuit was "not ripe for review," siding with attorneys for the governor who cautioned justices against an abuse of their judicial power.

The Republican governor has called a special session for May 24 in an attempt to resolve the state budget crisis linked to faltering tax revenues and a weak state economy.

The Democratic-led Legislature had argued that Martinez overstepped her authority by defunding the legislative branch of government and all state institutions of higher education.

Martinez had urged the state Supreme Court to stay out of budget negotiations and said her vetoes were made in pursuit of reductions to state spending and never sought to abolish the Legislature.

Thursday's ruling sent lawmakers and the governor back to the negotiating table with no signs of agreement on how to shore up wobbly state finances.

"We need to have a little love, and there is not much love going around right now," said Republican Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, describing distrust that stands in the way of a budget deal and related tax reforms.

For the upcoming special session, Martinez has outlined rough proposals to restore most vetoed funding for the fiscal year starting July 1. Democratic lawmakers say the proposals are linked to untenable tax revenue increases on nonprofits and food.

The governor's office issued a statement praising the court decision and prodding legislative leaders to abandon a proposed tax increase on gasoline sales designed to shore up state finances.

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9 life sentences in state case on Charleston church slayings

Legal Insight 2017/04/10 09:04   Bookmark and Share
With Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof getting nine life sentences in state court on top of a federal death sentence, his prosecutions are finally over - and some relatives of the nine parishioners he killed at a historically black church say they can finally begin to heal.

Nadine Collier, daughter of the slain 70-year-old Ethel Lance, wore a white suit to Roof's sentencing Monday; a color she said lets the world know a chapter in her life had closed.

"I will not open that book again," she said to Roof, before he was sentenced. "I just want to say, have mercy on your soul."

The 23-year-old avowed white supremacist said nothing in his own defense as he was sentenced Monday on nine counts of murder, along with three charges of attempted murder and a weapons charge. He was taken from court back to the Charleston County jail, where he'll await transfer to a federal prison and, ultimately, the federal system's death row in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Roof's plea deal came in exchange for an agreement that state prosecutors would drop their own pursuit of the death penalty against him for the June 2015 slaughter at Emanuel AME Church. Judge J.C. Nicholson handed down nine consecutive life sentences.

Roof stood at the defense table with his attorneys, clad in a gray and white striped jail jumpsuit and handcuffed to a chain at his waist.

The deal, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said, serves as an "insurance policy" in the event that Roof's federal conviction falls apart. But it also means the families of the nine people he killed don't have to endure a second grueling trial.

Roof was 21 when he walked into a Wednesday night Bible study session at the historic church known as Mother Emanuel. As witnesses testified in his federal trial last year, Roof waited until the session's closing minutes to unload 77 shots into his victims as they shut their eyes in a final prayer.

Survivors testified during the federal trial, evoking chilling images of the bloody Wednesday night tableau. Jennifer Pinckney, widow of slain pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, brought some jurors to tears as she told how she shielded her young daughter in her husband's office while the bullets rang out in the nearby fellowship hall.

At Roof's first court appearance on the day after his arrest, his victims' relatives spoke of forgiveness, with some saying they mourned their loved ones but would pray for his lost soul. The families of what have become known as the Emanuel Nine have been widely lauded for their willingness to forgive in the face of sorrow but also, in embrace of their strong faith, to pray the man who drastically altered their lives would find peace himself.
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Senate GOP 'goes nuclear,' clearing way for Trump court pick

Legal Insight 2017/04/09 09:03   Bookmark and Share
Republicans invoked the "nuclear option" in the Senate Thursday, unilaterally rewriting the chamber's rules to allow President Donald Trump's nominee to ascend to the Supreme Court.

Furious Democrats objected until the end, but their efforts to block Judge Neil Gorsuch failed as expected. Lawmakers of both parties bemoaned the long-term implications for the Senate, the court and the country.

"We will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court," said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

The maneuvering played out in an atmosphere of tension in the Senate chamber with most senators in their seats, a rare and theatrical occurrence.

First Democrats mounted a filibuster in an effort to block Gorsuch by denying him the 60 votes needed to advance to a final vote. Then Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky raised a point of order, suggesting that Supreme Court nominees should not be subjected to a 60-vote threshold but instead a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.

McConnell was overruled, but appealed the ruling. And on that he prevailed on a 52-48 party line vote. The 60-vote filibuster requirement on Supreme Court nominees was effectively gone, and with it the last vestige of bipartisanship on presidential nominees in an increasingly polarized Senate.

A final confirmation vote on Gorsuch is expected Friday and he could then be sworn in in time to take his seat on the court later this month and hear the final cases of the term.

The maneuvering played out with much hand-wringing from all sides about the future of the Senate, as well as unusually bitter accusations and counter-accusations as each side blamed the other. The rules change is known as the "nuclear option" because of its far-reaching implications.
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