Archive for the ‘Constitutional Law’ Category

Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Contributor

Washington Legislative BuildingThe Washington State House of Representatives have crafted House Bill 2272 titled “The Fourth Amendment protection act” with the purported purpose of protecting state citizens from unwarranted collection of data that is provided to various agencies of the United States government without a search warrant. The act includes provisions that allow for a citizen to be arrested for complying with the U.S. government and sanctions local agencies and employees with even harsher penalties. One has to wonder which is a greater threat to individual liberty, the actions of the federal agencies targeted or this potential state law.
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NSA logo smallPresident_Barack_ObamaYesterday, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board released a report concluding that the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program is “illegal and largely ineffective.” The report agrees with a prior federal court ruling that the program is facially unconstitutional. President Obama continues to defend the program and refuse to end it. What is most notable is, like the earlier federal court, the board found no evidence of the program being used to prevent a single terrorist attack despite statements from the Administration claiming the contrary. Civil libertarians are often opposed by people claiming such success of classified programs. However, now a federal judge and a board with access have debunked such claims.

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156482_223545827783750_183494050_nPresident_Barack_ObamaThe United States Secret Service has interviewed a Republican candidate for the Florida House of Representatives after he made a comment on Twitter about the need for President Obama to be tried and hanged for his crimes. It was a uniquely stupid tweet but the controversy again raises the question of the federal law making threatening language against the President a crime. For years, elementary students, journalists, and even cartoonists have found themselves being confronted by Secret Service over comments or pictures deemed threatening. The effort is chilling for the first amendment and inimical to political speech.

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Supreme CourtToday, the Supreme Court will consider a case that has not attracted national attention but remains in my view one of the most important of the term, a classic “sleeper” case where the legal issues have sweeping potential. The case involves Doyle Randall Paroline, who pleaded guilty in Texas in 2009 to possessing child pornography. He downloaded hundreds of images and two were found to be child pornography dedicating the abuse of Amy. After pleading guilty, Paroline was hit by $3.4 million in restitution damages for Amy even though he had no role in her victimization nine years earlier or any role in the production or distribution of the two photos. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the federal restitution law does not require “proximate causation” — a critical limitation in torts and criminal law that ensures that liability is confined to those parties immediately responsible for injuries. I have criticized the expansion of restitution in this area for years and I spoke with NPR’s On The Media on the case.

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Robert-Marucci-TFNJ_0We have previously discussed the increasing discipline of both students and teachers for conduct outside of the schools. Now a case in Central Florida raises a significant free speech issue after a student was kicked out of his high school, Cocoa High School, for working in the porn industry. At first glance, this might appear reasonable but the problem is that Robert Marucci is 18 and therefore allowed to work in the industry. The industry itself is legal. Thus, the school has expelled a student for engaging in lawful conduct that many feel is morally repulsive.

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200px-US-CourtOfAppeals-9thCircuit-Seal.svg-Crystal Cox Blogger -There was an important decision last week in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in which a panel ruled that bloggers are entitled to the same protections as journalists. The decision is in sharp contrast to the view of Senator Dianne Feinstein and Obama Administration officials who have fought against such protections for bloggers in a new federal shield law. The opinion was handed down on January 17, 2014 in Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox.

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davidperdue175px-CA_-_Torrance_PoliceIf you recall, Torrence Police Department was responsible for a shootout with an unarmed innocent man during their search for ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner. Surfer David Perdue only survived due to the poor marksmanship of Torrence Brian McGee. The district attorney now cleared that officers and said that they were just in a state of “panic” with a cop-killer on the loose. Of course, I thought officers were trained not to panic, but more importantly, I fail to see any reference to the termination of the officers or even discipline for the attack on Dorner. The coverage does mention that the district attorney cleared the officers without even interviewing the victim or his passenger.

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By Mike Appleton, Weekend Blogger

In 1882 a man named John Kirchbaum submitted a patent application for a device which, when properly attached to a coffin, permitted the presumed deceased person to communicate to those on the surface that the burial had been premature. That someone would consider the erroneous pronouncement of death sufficiently common to support a market for such products strikes one as peculiar today, but the fear of possibly being buried alive was genuine in the 18th and 19th centuries. Until quite recently, after all, a determination of death was made solely by observation. Was the subject breathing? Did he have a heart beat? Under the common law, death was in fact defined as the irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions.

But in the 20th century two revolutions in medical technology changed attitudes and definitions. The first was the invention of the mechanical ventilator, originally intended to help patients breathe during surgery. The second was the development of anti-rejection drugs and their impact on the science of organ transplantation. The medical community quickly came to realize that continuing to provide oxygen to a deceased person greatly improved the viability of organs needed for transplant purposes. These advances created an obvious ethical and legal dilemma. A living person may agree to donate a kidney to save another’s life because we have two of them. However, other vital organs may only be removed upon the donor’s death. And if respiration is maintained to preserve organs after the donor has “died,” what has happened to our traditional definition of death? How can a person be deemed deceased if his or her breathing is being mechanically maintained?

The answer to the dilemma was the concept of “brain death,” the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain. In 1968 a study committee at the Harvard Medical School created a set of guidelines indicative of what was termed “irreversible coma”: the persistence over a period of 24 hours of a set of conditions including absence of spontaneous breathing or movement, fixed and dilated pupils, unresponsiveness and the absence of reflexes. Twelve years later the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws proposed the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which defines death as either “(1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.”

The Uniform Determination of Death Act was approved by the AMA in the fall of 1980 and by the ABA early the following year. Since then it has been adopted by 37 states and the District of Columbia. Of the remaining states that have not formally adopted the UDDA, most have incorporated its definition of brain death into their statutes. It is clearly the prevailing law on the issue in this country.

And that brings us to the case of Marlise Munoz.

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Entreating the Godfather

Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Blogger

In another chapter in the switch of Washington State from waging a war on drugs to marijuana “regulator” the legislature has introduced a bill to punish cities or counties that ban recreational marijuana retailers and another bill rewarding them if they fall in line and allow it. Does this represent an overstepping of the ordinance making authority of local governments?

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Last available picture of David from 2012

Last available picture of David from 2012

It is with the greatest personal sadness that I have to report the death of a cherished member of our blog family. David Blair Drumm passed away on December 18, 2013 in Austin, Texas. David was there at the very beginning of this blog and remained one of its staunchest supporters. Through the years, David was a rock who not only brought reasoned and calm analysis to posts but also to the management of the blog. He started as a regular commentator under the name “Nal” and I then invited him to write on the weekends. He played the role of editor as well as writer. (Indeed, I am worried about this memorial since David often caught the many typos that I would leave in early morning postings). I came to trust him absolutely in his judgment and analysis. I considered him a good friend and one of the most important influences on this blog. David wrote as a Weekend Blogger for years, sharing his insights into religion, politics, and his always popular “Find the Kitteh” contest. Our success is due in no small part to David Drumm and this blog, I hope, will remain a testament to his work and his memory. To that end, we are dedicating the entire blog today to David and his work. He was a brilliant electrical engineer, a profound writer, a passionate civil libertarian, and most importantly a fierce and loyal friend to our blogging community. (more…)

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President_Barack_ObamaNSA logo smallI just listened to the NSA speech by President Obama and as expected there is precious little in terms of real change. For civil libertarians, it is a nothing burger served hot and with a sympathetic smile. It is much of the same. Another review board composed of government officials. Another promise for the Executive Branch to review itself. I am in Salt Lake City today on the Sister Wives case, but I am struck by the absence of civil libertarians on the coverage by the networks. I will have to run to court but I was underwhelmed. It seemed like another attempt to reinvent privacy in a new surveillance friendly image.

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pearlpearson_KFORPolice in Oklahoma highway police are facing questions this week after beating an elderly deaf Oklahoma man, Pearl Pearson, 64, after he allegedly refused to comply with their orders during a routine traffic stop.

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Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)

UnknownAfter outraging many civil libertarians for his attacks on Edward Snowden and support of the Obama surveillance programs, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has finally called for answer on the tracking of citizens . . . by Ford Motor Company.

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300px-ShihonageWe have another conflict that has arisen between non-discrimination laws and religious practices. In Canada, a woman has challenged the decision of a Halifax aikido school to protect a Muslim man from having contact with females and relieving him of the need to bow in adherence with the traditions of the martial art. Just last week, we discussed another story out of Canada where a university ordered such an accommodation for a Muslim man who did not want to have contact with female students despite the requirements of the curriculum. This decision was reportedly supported by Nova Scotia human rights commission officials. [Photo does not show any of those involved in this story]

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158px-flag_of_afghanistansvgThere is an important ruling in England where an Afghan man is believed to have become the first atheist to be granted asylum based on his rejection of religion. The 23-year-old had good reason to fear that if he returned to Afghanistan, he would be persecuted. While the United States has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the country, the government continues to reject the most basic civil liberties as well as the separation of mosque and state. The punishment is particularly likely for Muslims who reject their faith. They are considered blasphemers and apostates. What is interesting is that we continue to support Afghanistan when the abuses of that government are now viewed as a basis for asylum in England. We now have the ignobility of one ally (England) trying to protect innocent people from another ally (Afghanistan). More importantly, we still have people putting themselves at risk for a government that denies the very rights that define us as Americans in favor of a rigid religious orthodoxy.

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562832_336467456411546_1508062389_aVirginia state Sen. Thomas Garrett Jr. has introduced an anti-sodomy law to replace a prior law that was struck down in 2013 that targets sex with individuals below the age of 18. This new and improved morality law could criminalize an array of different forms of consensual relations, including oral sex. I recently wrote a column on the welcomed demise of morality codes in the United States.

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Oklahoma flagU.S. District Judge Terence Kern is under fire today from religious conservatives as an “activist judge” after he joined a growing list of federal judges striking down bans on same-sex marriage. Kern found that the state law violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. What is most interesting is that, like the earlier Utah ruling, Kern relies heavily on last summers rulings in Windsor and Hollingsworth. While Windsor had positive language for same-sex couples, the Court actually avoided the merits of the constitutional question on equal protection in favor of leaving the matter to the states in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Yet, courts are reading the ruling as a green light for broader constitutional rulings on the federal level.

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125px-Flag_of_Nigeria.svgRainbowFlagThe situation is getting worse for homosexuals in Nigeria by the day. The country has been taken over by a violent homophobia that led a few years ago to the enactment of a draconian law criminalizing homosexuality. Police recently have been arresting homosexuals and torturing them to name others for prosecution under the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which allows for ten years in jail. The law is not just about marriage. Called the “Jail the Gays” bill, it criminalizes homosexuality and threatens AIDS programs in the country. The question is that, as the recipient of a great deal of U.S. aid, why is it appropriate for us to indirectly support a nation that is abusing, and in some cases killing, gays and lesbians?

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200px-disneyqueenheartsWoodridge, Illinois, outside of Chicago, has a curious way of meting out justice. You may have a presumption of innocence under the Constitution, but if police arrest you, you still have to pay for the pleasure of the arrest. Starting this year, anyone arrested in a Chicago suburb must pay a $30 booking fee . . . even if they are found innocent.

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Supreme CourtPresident_Barack_ObamaRecently, I testified on the concentration of authority in the Executive Branch and an array of unconstitutional acts committed by President Barack Obama in the circumvention of Congress. For prior columns, click here and here and here and here. One of the key areas discussed in my testimony was the President’s abuse (in my opinion) of his recess appointments power. I have two law review articles out on the issue. See Jonathan Turley, Recess Appointments in the Age of Regulation, 93 Boston University Law Review ___ (2013) and Jonathan Turley, Constitutional Adverse Possession: Recess Appointments and the Role of Historical Practice in Constitutional Interpretation, 2103 Wisconsin Law Review ___ (2013). Now the issue is to be heard today by the Supreme Court in Noel Canning v. NLRB, No. 12-1115.

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Supreme CourtThe United States Supreme Court on Monday turned aside Arizona’s appeal to reinstate its law banning most abortions after 20-weeks. In Horne v. Isaacson (13-402), the state asked the Court to review the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. It declined to do so.

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Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

In recent weeks and months, we have all heard and read the many articles and stories about the whistleblower Edward Snowden and his disclosure of enormous amounts of NSA “secrets”.  His disclosures have exposed what the NSA was really doing, which is spying on practically every American’s metadata online and on the phone.  His disclosures have also put on display what happens to a “whistleblower” in this day and age.  He has been forced to flee his home country and is currently living in exile in Russia.

Just what were his crimes that made him fear for his safety and raised doubts as to whether he would ever be given a fair trial for his alleged disclosures of secret material and programs?  He did what any good American should do and that is expose illegal or immoral governmental activities and allow the American public to decide whether its government is acting legally and fairly. Didn’t he?

You may think his disclosures were an unprecedented example of a citizen uncovering and disclosing government programs designed to, at best, skirt the line of legality by spying on Americans, but you would be wrong. (more…)

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By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

This is the third of a multi-part article on the Public Interest Defense and its application to the the Edward Snowden situation. The defense is not recognized in America but other nations have considered this legal mechanism to provide an appropriate way to deflect criminal charges from whistleblowers like Snowden. Part 1 can be found here and  Part 2 can be found here.

snowdenWe found in parts 1 & 2 that the absolute right to a public plebiscite on punishment for political crimes goes back centuries to at least the time of Publius Horatius. We also saw that rulers have used this right to manipulate outcomes to further their own interests in deflecting blame or attacking political opponents. In modern times, the jury has replaced the assembled citizenry but the motivation of rulers to limit or channel the ancient right to their own ends remains. Even in America where the defense doesn’t technically exist but where its cousin, whistleblower protections, do, the urge to rein in messengers of truth remains.

The Public Interest Defense Abroad

Imagine the most influential prosecutor in modern America uttering the following words about the public’s right to understand the secret inner workings of  its government:

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Unknown150px-muslim_woman_in_yemenThere is an interesting story out of Canada’s York University and raises the question again with the extent to which business and institutions must accommodate religious values or practices. Professor Paul Grayson at York University was shocked when the university ordered him to allow a graduate student to skip a required part of the curriculum because he did not want any contact with women for religious purposes. He disobeyed the orders of his superiors in refusing the accommodation and could be disciplined for his decision (which was made with the support of his faculty).

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A man who admitted posting online footage of himself dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume to stir article-2535947-1A7D7C8800000578-641_634x428article-2535947-1A7EF30C00000578-119_306x423The widening divide between the United States and England over free speech was captured vividly in the case this case of Christopher Philips who was sent to jail for conduct that would have been viewed as hateful but protected in the United States. Philips was charged with appearing in three YouTube videos dressed as a klansman and posing with a life-sized golliwog doll (a type of rag doll depicting a black person). He is the latest person convicted for “giving offense” in England. Indeed, he pleaded guilty because, as Judge John Warner noted, “It does not require advanced education or knowledge of history to know what you were seeking to convey might cause offense.”

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Seal_of_Lake_County,_Illinoistape3_MEDA couple in North Chicago, Illinois, Brandy Allen and Nicholas Timmons, have filed a lawsuit against the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group, a Lake County MEG officer, “unknown agents” and “unknown police officers” in a disturbing case of alleged robbery and abuse. The couple says that police stopped them without cause and proceeded to arrest them, interrogated them, and ransack their apartment. They also allege that police took an array of valuable items from their apartment and refused to return the property.

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nancy-leong-fullbody2There is a free speech controversy swirling around an ethics complaint in Illinois brought by University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong. Leong runs a blog site called Feminist Law Professors and recently discovered the identity of an anonymous commenter who has, according to Leong, left racist and sexist comments. She says that he is a a public defender in his late 40s and she wants him punished for his comments. We have discussed the free speech rights of public employees in an earlier column and blog postings, including the right to speak on blogs and Internet sites. The actions of Leong are troubling for those of us who believe strongly in free speech values, including the right to anonymity.

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vidal8n-1-webThere is a troubling case out of Boiling Spring Lake, North Carolina, where a family says that police were called to assist them with their son, Keith Vidal, 18, who was having a schizophrenic episode. After tasering and holding down the boy, an officer shot and killed him. The family says that the police pointed out that he had a screwdriver but they say that the screwdriver was tiny and could not have hurt anyone and that Vidal, who was being held down by multiple officers, was only 90 pounds.

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satan_statueIt is a scene that would warm the cockles of every Satanic heart. In Oklahoma, the Satanic Temple has unveiled the design for a 7-foot-tall statue of Satan that it believes would go nicely at the Oklahoma state Capitol. After all, the legislature put a Ten Commandments monument on the site in 2012. So why not the comforting image of Baphomet, a goat-headed figure with horns, wings and a long beard for children to gather around and take strength from on school visits? While it seems a tad unlikely that the Oklahoma legislature (which has a history of intermingling Christian faith with legislation) will add a Satanic element to the Capitol grounds, it forces the question of why it is permissible to depict one religion in exclusion of others.

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220px-DieudoWe have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. Often these cases involve vile or obnoxious speech, but such speech is the test of our values. We do not need laws to protect popular speech. One case in point is French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who likes to target Jews in his popular shows. He has already been hit with fines approaching $100,000 for his jokes and there is no a move to have been prosecuted criminally. For jokes. Bad even sick jokes to be sure. But jokes.

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NSA logo smallBernieSandersSen. Bernie Sanders asked the National Security Agency (NSA) a question that one would have thought would be easy to answer: has the NSA spied on Congress with its massive surveillance programs? The answer that came back was chilling in what it did not say. The NSA would only assure Sanders that it has “the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.” That must be a bit unnerving for Congress since it has allowed the NSA to strip citizens of the most basic privacy protections.

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By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

This is the second of a multi-part article on the Public Interest Defense and its application to the the Edward Snowden situation. The defense is not recognized in America but other nations have considered this legal mechanism to provide an appropriate way to deflect criminal charges from whistleblowers like Snowden. You can read the first installment of the series here.

The Trial of Publius Horatius

Publius Horatius (The Younger)

Publius Horatius (The Younger)

When last we met Publius Horatius, soldier of Rome, he had saved the Eternal City from disaster in an epic battle of champions and then was quite ceremoniously convicted of  treason against the state for the murder of his sister thus preventing the Senate from dealing with her traitorous grief over one of the fallen foe of Rome. In a clever legal maneuver made at the secret behest of the Roman king, Tullus Hostilius, who distrusted the designs of the Senate in passing him this hot potato of a case,  Publius invoked the ancient right of every Roman citizen to a provocatio ad populum – a direct appeal to the people of Rome. Readers of the Christian Bible will likely recall that Paul of Tarsus was likewise accorded this right by virtue of his Roman citizenship, though by this time Rome had moved from a republic to an empire and the appeal was made to Cæsar himself.#

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Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Blogger

Church and State StreetsDuring a city council meeting of Flower Mound, Texas, Mayor Tom Hayden proclaimed 2014 the “Year of the Bible”. He stated during the meeting “I ask that you join with me and encourage all residents in their own way to examine the principles and teachings found in the Bible.” He then promoted a Christian website administered by a local church “Calvary Chapel Church” promoting Christian theology and a program to learn the bible using a daily list of passages each day. The website is http://thebible2014.com and has a video link to the proclamation by the mayor here.

Aside from what many would consider glaring unconstitutionality of this type of proclamation under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its applicability to state and local governments as interpreted in the Fourteenth Amendment, various other religious institutions within the city have voiced serious concern.
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220px-BenFranklinDuplessisPresident_Barack_ObamaBelow is my column in Al Jazeera on the expansion of presidential powers in the United States. While there is growing recognition of the threat posed by the current powers exercised by the White House, it is important to keep the issue before the public if we are going to realign the tripartite system back to its original balance between the balances.

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By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

This is the first of a multi-part article on the Public Interest Defense and its application to the the Edward Snowden situation. The defense is not recognized in America but other nations have considered this legal mechanism to provide an appropriate way to deflect criminal charges from whistleblowers like Snowden. Part 2 can be found here.

The Legend of Publius Horatius

The Oath of the Horatii

The Oath of the Horatii

For centuries, children in ancient Rome would recount the legend of Publius Horatius, one of three Horatius brothers (known as the Horatii), who fought to defend Rome from attack by the militaristic and close-by Italian city-state of Alba Longa. Rather than engage in a pitched battle of armies for supremacy of the peninsula and subject all of Latinium (as Italy was then known) to the vulnerability of foreign attack, Rome and her rival opted to name a triumvirate of champions to fight to the death to decide the fates of two ancient megalopolises. One would emerge as the dominating power and the other would be relegated to a vassal state. The Horatii seemed the obvious choice among the Roman legionnaires as the triplet brothers  were unequaled among their peers in strength and martial prowess. Swearing an oath to fight to the death, the brothers strode to the Field of Mars to battle for both the glory and survival of Rome. For her part, Alba Longa chose her own incredibly coincident set of warrior  triplets known as the Curiatius brothers (or the Curiatii) who swore an equally obligating oath to “return either with their shields or on them” as a Spartan might say.

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eurocuptrophy80mm2008Well, the results are in and we have another distinction to crow about at the blog. We have been selected as the 2013 top News/Analysis site among the competing world blogs in the annual ABA Journal survey. The success of this blog is due entirely to our unique community around the world, which have maintained a site where the issues of our day can be discussed with passion but civility. Thanks to all of our regulars and particularly our our talented and popular weekend team of guest bloggers: Mike Appleton, David Drumm, Mark Esposito, Gene Howington, Elaine Magliaro, Larry Rafferty, Darren Smith, Mike Spindell, and Charlton Stanley. While we created and maintain this site to allow us to share our thoughts, it is always gratifying to receive such recognitions. It is always my hope that the selection will bring new people to our site to further expand the voices and views on legal, political, and sometimes just plain bizarre stories.

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conrad-alvin-barrett.jpg.siThe Justice Department has decided to charge Conrad Alvin Barrett, 27, with a hate crime in the “knockout game”-style attack against a black victim in Katy, Texas. The victim was a 79-year-old black man. The prosecution — and heavy punishment — of Barrett is clearly warranted if found guilty of the attack. However, the intervention of the Obama Administration is being questioned and is likely to add to preexisting concerns over the use of hate crimes to federalize state criminal actions and the standard for such prosecutions.

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250px-Sonia_Sotomayor_in_SCOTUS_robe220px-New_Year_Ball_Drop_Event_for_2012_at_Times_SquareMany of us stayed up to midnight last night and watched the ball come down in Times Square. If you were still sober enough to notice, the person triggering the dissent was none other than Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It turns out that that was not the only thing that she was doing on New Year’s Eve. Late Tuesday with only hours to go before January 1st — and the activation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — Sotomayor granted a stay requested by Catholic-affiliated groups to prevent the implementation of part of the ACA to require them to supply contraceptive services to employees in violation of their religious beliefs. The decision follows a refusal of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to issue a stay. The stay order by Sotomayor was requested from Catholic nuns running the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver and now joins a stay issued earlier by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

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India flagRainbowFlagWe recently discussed the Indian courts reinstating the criminalization of homosexuality in that country.  Now, the Indian National League, a Muslim political party, has reportedly launched a public campaign calling for all homosexuals to be killed under the nation’s death penalty. The posters appearing around the country also claims that freedom of expression is being abused by gays and lesbians in advocating their cause. This story has appeared on a couple of gay rights sites covering India but has not appeared in the mainstream press.

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Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty(rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

With the end of 2013 fast approaching, I have begun to wonder what the New Year holds for the country.  It looks like the Affordable Care Act is finally getting its website to function properly and the sign ups are now being counted in the millions.  Wall Street is still booming with the Dow Jones over 16,000, but yet unemployment is still too high and Congress is still trying to push austerity for the middle class and the poor, while doing everything in its power to prevent corporations and the wealthy from paying their fair share of taxes.  The Citizen’s United decision opened the money floodgates and needs to be curbed.  The military budget was spared in the recent Budget Deal, but yet unemployment benefits for millions have not been extended.

The gun lobby continues to prevent reasonable gun control legislation and needless scores of innocents continue to be slaughtered.  Instead of closing the gun show loophole or mandating reasonable and effective universal background checks, Congress did nothing.   Although there has been some recent movement from the Obama Administration to push Congress to allow the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the facility remains open after 12 years.  With all of the bad news or non-action on many fronts, is it possible to have hope that 2014 will bring better news for all Americans?  (more…)

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Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

JFKRiceUniversityI’ve written before about the fact that the murder of JFK in Dallas was to me the most traumatic national experience in my life and the fact that I think it changed the destiny of our country in a negative fashion. I think that for many around my age this is also true, but it is now fifty years past and the majority of Americans have no real knowledge of it. The trauma of that day and the ensuing events of history have left me with an admittedly irrational repugnance towards the city of Dallas and I feel almost a shudder when I hear of Dealey Plaza, where the murder took place. These feelings are so intense that I doubt that I will ever visit Dallas in my lifetime, much less go to Dealey Plaza. When I got my weekly E Mail from my favorite investigative journalism website WhoWhatWhy.com I took note of an article about the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. The article was a humorous look at the potential for Christmas gifts that might be available at the museum’s gift shop and of course provided a link to the museum’s website, which I then followed. Going to the website and perusing it caused me to muse about the ability in our country to turn even our most solemn national events into commercial enterprises, while we pretend that they provide an educational service. (more…)

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200px-MARKS_&_Spencer_logo.svg170px-Burgundy_bottlesThere is an interesting controversy in England over a policy of U.K. retailer Marks and Spencer, which has allowed Muslim employees to refuse to help customers buying dishes with pork or alcohol. The result was long lines of shoppers who were told to wait for a non-Muslim employee to check them out. With huge numbers of people buying champagne for the holiday, customers are irate as they stood around for another cashier without religious objections to appear. There is now a Facebook page to boycott the store over the policy. However, the Obama Administration is supporting a similar claim in a U.S. case.

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ad611-sister-wives-season-4Incoming Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has announced that his office intends to appeal the ruling striking down the criminalization of cohabitation in the Sister Wives case. The decision will ultimately send the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver, Colorado. However, the trial court has not yet issued a final order due to a couple outstanding issues. Once that order is issued, the Attorney General’s office will have 30 days to file a notice of appeal. In a surprising decision, the Attorney General also indicated that he will no longer have his office defend the Utah ban on same-sex marriage (struck down by Judge Robert Shelby) and possibly the cohabitation law (struck down by Judge Clark Waddoups). That will require the hiring of outside counsel and an outside firm to defend these laws as opposed to the Office of the Attorney General itself.

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_71928576_turingComputer pathbreaker and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing has been finally pardoned. It only took 61 years after his 1952 conviction for homosexuality and his chemical castration for the British government who contributed so mightily to the defeat of the Germans. What is particularly astonishing is not just that “moral people” in the United States and Britain not only did this to their citizens, but did this to a man who was protecting his nation so brilliantly and barred him from continuing work that was so pathbreaking in computer science. In the aftermath of the Sister Wives decision and our discussion of morality laws, Turning is a reminder of the hateful measures meted out in the name of morality or science or both.

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Alans-Headshots-028-150x1501134photo1There is a disturbing controversy building in South Carolina where South Carolina’s attorney general has joined calls for a state supreme court justice to recuse himself from criminal cases after Donald Beatty spoke out against prosecutorial abuse — a continuing if not growing problem across the country that we have discussed in prior postings (here and here and here and here and here and here and here). For a prior column, click here . Attorney General Alan Wilson says that he will ask for the recusal in a move that seems intended to signal other justices and judges that such criticism of prosecutors will not be tolerated.

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220px-Michael_Morell,_December_2012Last week, I wrote about the dangers of tasks forces bearing gifts for civil libertarians and noted how Obama stacked the task force on NSA surveillance with hawks to guarantee the preservation of the program. One of those was former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell who served during the secret development and use of the program. Obviously, if he were to conclude that the program was illegal, it would have meant that he was part of the violations. Not only did the task force maintain the program was legal (in conflict with the recent ruling of a federal court), but now Morell has called not for the limitation of the program but its expansion. That is what President Obama considers a reformer in the national security field.

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President_Barack_Obama228px-Picture_of_Edward_SnowdenBelow is my column in the Sunday Los Angeles Times on the basis for a pardon for Edward Snowden. It is clear that President Obama (and ranking congressional members) are opposed to such clemency. Snowden embarrassed a great number of powerful people in Washington, including the President. However, there is historical precedent for such a pardon and compelling arguments that such a course may be the right course for the country.

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Submitted by Charlton Stanley, Guest Blogger

When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.
- Senator Christopher Dodd

Utah Federal CourtBack in 2008, John Palmer ordered gifts for his wife, Jen. John ordered from KlearGear, an online retailer located in Michigan. When the merchandise did not arrive, Jen began calling, but got the runaround from KlearGear and the order was canceled. At that point,the frustrated Jen Palmer wrote an account of her negative experiences with KlearGear on the complaint site, Ripoff Report. In describing her frustration with trying to reach somebody at the company to talk to, Jen wrote, “There is absolutely no way to get in touch with a physical human being. No extensions work.”

In 2012, more than four years later, KlearGear notified the Palmers they were being “fined” $3,500 for their negative review. KlearGear warned that unless the bad review was removed from Ripoff Report, they would turn the “fine” over to a collection agency. Ripoff Report makes it clear on their web site that they do not remove negative reviews, but merchants have the opportunity to respond, with their response posted next to the original complaint.

When the unpaid $3.500 was reported as a bad debt to all the credit reporting agencies, the Palmer’s credit rating took a nose dive. They were unable to buy a furnace they needed, they could not finance a car, and were denied other credit, including buying a new home.

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Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

We have all heard the political arguments for and against an Estate Tax, or as some have called it, a Death Tax.  Over the years while I attended several Continuing Legal Education seminars and Trust School presentations, I have often learned about the estate and gift tax avoidance strategy called a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, or GRAT.  Since these estate reduction strategies are best used with very large estates, I have rarely had the opportunity to recommend it to any of my clients or trust customers. Recently, I read an article that provided some documentation just how prominent and popular the GRATS are with the super wealthy.

Just what is a GRAT and why should any of us be concerned with its use?  In my opinion, it is important to understand that when the über wealthy complain about any tweaking of the estate tax, most of them pay little or no estate or gift taxes due to the use of techniques like the GRAT.  Just how does a GRAT work?

Simply put, the donor transfers money or stock into a trust and if the assets increase in value, any increase in the stocks beyond the principal and the minimum interest rate that must be paid back to the donor, goes directly to the beneficiaries tax-free.  When you are talking assets worth millions and in some cases, billions, huge sums of money can escape the estate and gift tax process entirely.  (more…)

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