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Court blocks planned executions, prompting state challenge
Court News | 2017/04/09 16:36
On the eve of what Arkansas officials hoped will be the state's first executions in more than a decade, they faced off with death-row inmates in multiple legal battles over whether these lethal injections would take place as scheduled.

At the heart of the fight is an unprecedented flurry of executions that have pushed Arkansas to the forefront of the American death penalty at a time when states are increasingly retreating from the practice. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) scheduled eight lethal injections to take place over an 11-day window, a pace unmatched in the modern era, which he defended as needed because one of the state's drugs is expiring this month and no replacement could be guaranteed amid an ongoing shortage.

Hours before the first execution was scheduled to begin, fights continued on several fronts in state and federal court, and Arkansas and death-row inmates both notched legal victories Monday -- one halting the executions, another removing a roadblock to carrying them out at a later time.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday afternoon narrowly stayed the two executions scheduled to take place later that night, which came after a federal judge had previously issued an order over Easter weekend staying all the executions. Other court orders had also blocked individual executions and barred the state from using one of its lethal-injection drugs.

After the Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday afternoon stayed two scheduled executions without explanation, Leslie Rutledge (R), the state's attorney general, promised to quickly seek a review of what she described as a flawed decision.

Rutledge filed a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to vacate one of the two stays. Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge, said she decided not to appeal the other lethal injection, which the Arkansas Supreme Court had previously stayed last week, because the state rejected her appeal against that first stay and then handed down a second one.


Raw power in North Carolina: governor, legislature in court
Court News | 2017/03/07 15:54
Lawyers for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the state's legislative leaders face off in court Tuesday over whether a series of new laws diminishing the governor's powers are constitutional.

A state panel of three trial judges will determine the outcome, though its decision can be appealed in a process that could last months.

The challenged laws require Cooper's picks to run 10 state agencies be approved by the GOP-led Senate, strip the governor's control over running elections, slash his hiring options and give civil service protections to hundreds of political appointees of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

GOP lawmakers adopted the provisions reducing Cooper's powers during a surprise special legislative session two weeks before the Democrat took office Jan. 1.

The key argument raised by attorneys for state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger is that North Carolina's legislature is — and should be — dominant in a state government where the three branches of government were designed to be separate, but not equal.

Cooper's attorneys contend that even if North Carolina's governor was established in the state constitution to be weak compared with most state executives across the country, the new laws encroach on the governor's powers and upset the balance of powers that have developed.

The determination of Republican lawmakers to shift Cooper's authority to legislative leaders continued last week in party-line votes. The House bills would eliminate Cooper's ability to choose board members at more than a dozen community colleges, and to fill vacancies on the state District Court, where most criminal and civil cases get heard.


Oklahoma tribe sues oil companies in tribal court over quake
Court News | 2017/03/06 15:55
An Oklahoma-based Native American tribe filed a lawsuit in its own tribal court system Friday accusing several oil companies of triggering the state's largest earthquake that caused extensive damage to some near-century-old tribal buildings.

The Pawnee Nation alleges in the suit that wastewater injected into wells operated by the defendants caused the 5.8-magnitude quake in September and is seeking physical damages to real and personal property, market value losses, as well as punitive damages.

The case will be heard in the tribe's district court with a jury composed of Pawnee Nation members.
"We are a sovereign nation and we have the rule of law here," said Andrew Knife Chief, the Pawnee Nation's executive director. "We're using our tribal laws, our tribal processes to hold these guys accountable."

Attorneys representing the 3,2 00-member tribe in north-central Oklahoma say the lawsuit is the first earthquake-related litigation filed in a tribal court. If an appeal were filed in a jury decision, it could be heard by a five-member tribal Supreme Court, and that decision would be final.

"Usually tribes have their own appellate process, and then, and this surprises a lot of people, there is no appeal from a tribal supreme court," said Lindsay Robertson, a University of Oklahoma law professor who specializes in Federal Indian Law.



High court ruling could reshape Virginia political map
Court News | 2017/03/04 15:56
A U.S. Supreme Court decision reviving a challenge to several Virginia legislative districts could send lawmakers back to the drawing board, but Republicans say they are confident the state's current electoral map will withstand further scrutiny.

The justices on Wednesday tossed out a ruling that upheld 11 districts in which African-Americans made up at least 55 percent of eligible voters and ordered the lower court to re-examine the boundaries. The lawsuit accused lawmakers of illegally packing black voters into certain districts to make surrounding districts whiter and more Republican.

Democrats say they're certain the lower court will find the districts unconstitutional and force lawmakers to redraw them. Marc Elias, an attorney for the Virginia voters who brought the case, said they will push for that to happen before the November elections.

"It's important that the people of the Commonwealth don't have to have another election using unconstitutional district lines, and we will move forward as quickly as possible to make sure we have constitutional and fair lines in place for the 2017 elections," Elias said.

The top Republican in the Virginia House, however, said he's confident that the current boundaries will stand.


Supreme Court Hears Case on Fatal Border Shooting
Court News | 2017/02/24 14:16
How a U.S. Border Patrol argent’s use of lethal force at the U.S-Mexican border implicates constitutional rights and foreign affairs dominated arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday in Hernandez v. Mesa. The lawyer arguing that the agent should be held liable had a rough day in front of the justices.

Both sides agree that while standing on American soil at the border on June 7, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa fatally shot Sergio Hernandez, a 15-year-old Mexican national standing on the Mexican side. But then the factual accounts diverge.

According to Hernandez’s family, the teenager was playing with his friends near the border opposite El Paso, Texas, where the border runs through the middle of a concrete culvert. There is a fence on the U.S. side of the culvert.

According to Mesa and the federal government, Mesa was detaining one of Hernandez’s companions on the U.S. side of the border, when Hernandez and the other teenagers started throwing rocks at Hernandez. Mesa claims that the rocks posed a danger to his safety. He repeatedly ordered then to stop and back away, but they persisted. Finally Mesa fired in what he claims is self-defense, fatally striking Hernandez.

Hernandez’s family sued, and Mesa filed a motion to dismiss. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, when considering a motion to dismiss, a federal court must consider the plaintiff’s allegations as true when deciding whether to throw out the lawsuit versus letting it continue. The parties later present evidence to prove their version of the facts if the lawsuit goes forward, but when deciding whether to end the case before it gets started, judges must consider only plaintiff’s version.


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