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  Court Watch - Legal News


Amid insurrection and impeachment, the Supreme Court's big news Thursday was a decision in a bankruptcy case. Wednesday brought arguments over the Federal Trade Commission's ability to recapture ill-gotten gains.

At this fraught moment in U.S. history, the court is doing its best to keep its head down, going about its regular business and putting off as many politically charged issues as it can, including whether President Donald Trump's tax returns must be turned over to prosecutors in New York.

Still, the justices have not been able to completely avoid controversy in recent days. On Tuesday, the court's conservative majority that includes three Trump appointees cleared the way for the administration to execute a woman for the first time in 67 years and also allowed the administration to reinstate a requirement that pregnant women wanting an abortion pick up a pill in person from a medical facility, despite the risks of contracting COVID-19.

The court's work continues even though the coronavirus pandemic is preventing the justices from meeting in person, either for their private conferences or argument sessions. Chief Justice John Roberts has received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but not every member of the court has, the court said.

The building itself has been closed to the public since March because of the pandemic. Since the weekend, it has been ringed by hard-to-climb fences that also surround the Capitol.

But arguments this week took place as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, although the ability to listen live to the arguments is a product of the pandemic. Justices made pop culture references to Taylor Swift and the Netflix series “Dirty Money.”

They issued a unanimous decision in a bankruptcy case from Chicago, and they are convening again in private on Friday to discuss new cases to add to their docket.

The workmanlike approach is typical of the court, but it also aligns with the repeated efforts of Roberts to keep his court out of politics as much as possible, especially during Trump's presidency.


India’s top court on Tuesday temporarily put on hold the implementation of agricultural reform laws and ordered the creation of an independent committee of experts to negotiate with farmers who have been protesting against the legislation.

The Supreme Court's ruling came a day after it heard petitions filed by the farmers challenging the legislation. It said the laws were passed without enough consultation, and that it was disappointed with the way talks were proceeding between representatives of the government and farmers.

Tens of thousands of farmers protesting against the legislation have been blocking half a dozen major highways on the outskirts of New Delhi for more than 45 days. Farmers say they won’t leave until the government repeals the laws.

They say the legislation passed by Parliament in September will lead to the cartelization and commercialization of agriculture, make farmers vulnerable to corporate greed and devastate their earnings. The government insists the laws will benefit farmers and enable them to market their produce and boost production through private investment. Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said the independent committee of four experts would “amicably resolve” the standoff between the farmers and the government.
The court, however, did not provide details as to how it selected the committee experts.

Farmer unions rejected the idea of an expert committee and said all four members have publicly favored the contentious legislation. They reiterated their demand for the total repeal of the laws. A key union said the court’s decision to suspend the implementation of the legislation was welcome but “not a solution.” “The government must withdraw. It must understand that farmers and people of India are opposed to the laws,” the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee said.

During a virtual hearing on Monday, Bobde said the impasse was causing distress to farmers and the situation at the protest sites was only getting worse. “Each one of us will be responsible if anything goes wrong,” Bobde told India's attorney general, K.K. Venugopal, who was arguing for the government. The two sides have failed to make progress in multiple rounds of talks over the farmers’ main demand that the laws be scrapped. The government has ruled out withdrawing the laws, but says it could make some amendments.


The Supreme Court on Monday formally refused to put on a fast track election challenges filed by President Donald Trump and his allies.

The court rejected pleas for quick consideration of cases involving the outcome in five states won by President-elect Joe Biden: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The orders, issued without comment, were unsurprising. The justices had previously taken no action in those cases in advance of last week’s counting of the electoral votes in Congress, which confirmed Biden’s victory.

The court still could act on appeals related to the Nov. 3 election later this winter or in the spring. Several justices had expressed interest in a Pennsylvania case involving the state Supreme Court’s decision to extend the deadline for receipt of mailed ballots by three days, over the opposition of the Republican-controlled legislature.

But even if the court were to take up an election-related case, it probably wouldn’t hear arguments until the fall.


The unprecedented Republican effort to overturn the presidential election has been condemned by an outpouring of current and former GOP officials warning the effort to sow doubt in Joe Biden's  win and keep President Donald Trump in office is undermining Americans’ faith in democracy.

Trump has enlisted support from a dozen Republican senators and up to 100 House Republicans to challenge the Electoral College  vote when Congress convenes in a joint session to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s  306-232 win.

With Biden set to be inaugurated Jan. 20, Trump is intensifying efforts to prevent the traditional transfer of power, ripping the party apart.

Despite Trump's claims of voter fraud, state officials have insisted the elections ran smoothly and there was no evidence of fraud or other problems that would change the outcome. The states have certified their results as fair and valid. Of the more than 50 lawsuits the president and his allies have filed challenging election results, nearly all have been dismissed or dropped. He’s also lost twice at the U.S. Supreme Court.

On a call disclosed Sunday, Trump can be heard pressuring Georgia officials  to “find” him more votes.

But some senior lawmakers, including prominent Republicans, are pushing back.

“The 2020 election is over,” said a statement Sunday from a bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Mitt Romney of Utah.

The senators wrote that further attempts to cast doubt on the election are “contrary to the clearly expressed will of the American people and only serve to undermine Americans’ confidence in the already determined election results.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said, “The scheme by members of Congress to reject the certification of the presidential election makes a mockery of our system and who we are as Americans.”

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said in a statement that “Biden’s victory is entirely legitimate" and that efforts to sow doubt about the election “strike at the foundation of our republic.”

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, warned in a memo to colleagues that objections to the Electoral College results “set an exceptionally dangerous precedent.”

One of the more outspoken conservatives in Congress, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, said he will not oppose the counting of certified electoral votes on Jan. 6. "I’m grateful for what the president accomplished over the past four years, which is why I campaigned vigorously for his reelection. But objecting to certified electoral votes won’t give him a second term—it will only embolden those Democrats who want to erode further our system of constitutional government.”

Cotton said he favors further investigation of any election problems, separate from the counting of the certified Electoral College results.


A federal appeals court has cleared the way for the only woman on federal death row to be executed before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The ruling, handed down Friday by a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, concluded that a lower court judge erred when he vacated Lisa Montgomery’s execution date in an order last week.

U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss had ruled the Justice Department unlawfully rescheduled Montgomery’s execution and he vacated an order from the director of the Bureau of Prisons scheduling her death for Jan. 12.

Montgomery had been scheduled to be put to death at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, in December, but Moss delayed the execution after her attorneys contracted coronavirus visiting their client and asked him to extend the time to file a clemency petition.

Moss concluded that the under his order the Bureau of Prisons could not even reschedule Montgomery’s execution until at least Jan. 1. But the appeals panel disagreed.

Meaghan VerGow, an attorney for Montgomery, said her legal team would ask for the full appeals court to review the case and said Montgomery should not be executed on Jan. 12.

Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in December 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby girl from the womb with a kitchen knife, authorities said. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own, prosecutors said.

Montgomery’s lawyers have argued that their client suffers from serious mental illnesses. Biden opposes the death penalty and his spokesman, TJ Ducklo, has said he would work to end its use. But Biden has not said whether he will halt federal executions after he takes office Jan. 20.


Statewide judicial races will be among Pennsylvania’s most closely watched election contests in the coming year, with lawyers and judges around the state already lining up supporters and trying to figure out if they can raise enough money to win.

The marquee race will be for Supreme Court, where the Democrats’ 5-2 majority has flexed its muscle with a series of rulings this year about mail-in balloting and coronavirus restrictions.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2021, and keeping his seat in GOP hands is critical to his party’s hopes to eventually reclaim a majority on the high court.

While a lot can change, for now at least three Superior Court judges are running — Democrats Maria McLaughlin and Carolyn Nichols, and Republican Vic Stabile. Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson, a Republican, is also considering it. Pay for appeals court judges starts at $202,000.

The two state party organizations will decide in the coming months whether to endorse a candidate in the May primary and if so, who that will be.

Endorsements would likely narrow the field. They come with financial and logistical backing that are particularly important for judicial candidates, who are generally not career politicians and face special restrictions on their role in fundraising.

Stabile contacted members of the Republican State Committee last week to say he wants the endorsement.

“I would run, of course, if I got the endorsement,” Stabile said. And if not? “In all likelihood, I would respect that, wish the other person good luck and step aside.”

Nichols plans a formal announcement next month.

“I am in it to run,” she said Monday. “I’m certainly out there attending virtual meetings and putting myself out there. I’m in an early stage.”

On Superior Court, an intermediate appeals court that handles most criminal and civil appeals from county courthouses, two judges are seeking retention in unopposed, up-or-down contests.

Superior Court terms are 10 years, but if Republican Judge John T. Bender’s retention campaign is successful he will serve briefly before reaching age 75. Party and court sources said Judge Mary Jane Bowes, a Republican, will also stand for retention. Nearly every statewide justice or judge who has ever run for retention has won.

The lone Superior Court vacancy is now held by Republican Judge Susan P. Gantman, who is retiring after 17 years. Gantman said her plans include writing children’s books on the topic of civics.


The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to block an order by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear that bars in-person K-12 education until early January in areas hard hit by COVID-19, rejecting a plea from a private religious school.

The court said in an unsigned opinion that Beshear’s order will effectively expire at the end of the week anyway because schools are about to begin their Christmas vacation and can open again in early January. A ruling against the state “would have little practical effect,” the court said.

Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented. Gorsuch noted that the governor issued a separate order allowing “virtually all other in-person activities to continue with only capacity restrictions. Movie theaters, indoor wedding venues, bowling alleys, and gaming halls remained open for business.”

The Danville Christian Academy had sued Beshear after he announced the closures in November in response to increased cases of COVID-19 around the state. His order applied to both public and private schools. The county that Danville Christian Academy is located in has one of the highest coronavirus incidence rates in the state, at 113.6 cases per 100,000 residents.

The school said it was being treated unfairly under Kentucky law and the U.S. Constitution. A district court agreed, blocking the order, but the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio, allowed Beshear’s order to remain in effect.

Beshear said all schools were treated alike. Speaking at a news conference in Kentucky around the time the court ruled, he said: “In no way were religious schools treated any differently, we asked everybody to make the same sacrifice.”

Kentucky continues to reel from the pandemic. The governor on Thursday announced a record 54 new confirmed COVID-19-related deaths and 3,349 new confirmed coronavirus cases. Hospital capacity for ICU beds is at or above 80% in four parts of the state.

Kelly Shackelford, president and chief counsel of First Liberty Institute, the law firm that represented Danville Christian Academy, vowed to take the governor to court again if the order was reinstated.

“Rest assured, if the Governor does so on Jan 4th, we will file against him immediately,” Shackelford said in a statement.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron echoed Shackleford’s warning in a statement Thursday evening, urging the governor to “carefully consider future executive action related to religious schools.”

On Monday, Beshear had announced new public health guidance for in-person learning in counties with high COVID-19 rates. Schools that comply may resume in-person learning on Jan. 11.

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