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Supreme Court appears likely to reject Trump immunity claim
Court Issues | 2020/05/14 00:19
The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared likely to reject President Donald Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal investigation while in office. But the court seemed less clear about exactly how to handle subpoenas from Congress and the Manhattan district attorney for Trump’s tax, bank and financial records.

The court’s major clash over presidential accountability could affect the  2020 presidential campaign, especially if a high court ruling leads to the release of personal financial information before Election Day.

The justices heard arguments in two cases by telephone Tuesday that stretched into the early afternoon. The court, which includes six justices age 65 or older, has been meeting by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There was no apparent consensus about whether to ratify lower court rulings that the subpoenas to Trump’s accountant and banks are valid and should be enforced. The justices will meet by phone before the end of the week to take a preliminary vote on how those cases should come out, and decisions are expected by early summer.

On the same day Trump’s lawyers were telling the court that the subpoenas would be a distraction that no president can afford, Trump found the time to weigh in on a long string of unrelated issues on Twitter, about Elon Musk reopening Tesla’s California plant in defiance of local authorities, the credit he deserves for governors’ strong approval ratings for their handling of the virus outbreak, the anger Asian Americans feel “at what China has done to our Country,” oil prices, interest rates, his likely opponent in the November election and his critics.

The justices sounded particularly concerned in arguments over congressional subpoenas about whether a ruling validating the subpoenas would open the door to harassing future presidents.

“In your view, there is really no protection against the use of congressional subpoenas for the purpose of preventing the harassment of a president,” Justice Samuel Alito said to Douglas Letter, the lawyer for the House of Representatives.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he worried about a “future Sen. McCarthy,” a reference to the Communist-baiting Wisconsin senator from the 1950s, with subpoena power against a future president.

But in the case involving Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s subpoena for Trump’s taxes, the justices showed little interest in the broadest argument made by Jay Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, that a president can’t be investigated while he holds office.


Catholic schools, ex-teachers clash in Supreme Court case
Legal Interview | 2020/05/11 00:21
First, Kristen Biel learned she had breast cancer. Then, after she told the Catholic school where she taught that she’d need time off for treatment, she learned her teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed.

“She was devastated,” said her husband Darryl. “She came in the house just bawling uncontrollably.”

Biel died last year at age 54 after a five-year battle with breast cancer. On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a disability discrimination lawsuit she filed against her former employer, St. James Catholic School in Torrance, California.

A judge initially sided with the school and halted the lawsuit, but an appeals court disagreed and said it could go forward. The school, with the support of the Trump administration, is challenging that decision, telling the Supreme Court that the dispute doesn’t belong in court.

The case is one of 10 the high court is  hearing arguments in by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic. The justices heard arguments in four cases this week. Next week includes Biel’s case as well as high-profile fights over President Donald Trump’s financial records and whether presidential electors have to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.

Biel’s lawsuit is one of two cases being heard together that involves the same issue: the “ministerial exception” that exempts religious employers from certain employment discrimination lawsuits.

The Supreme Court recognized in a unanimous 2012 decision that the Constitution prevents ministers from suing their churches for employment discrimination. But it specifically avoided giving a rigid test for who should count as a minister.

Now the Supreme Court will decide whether Biel, and another former teacher who sued a different Catholic school for age discrimination, count as ministers barred from suing. Both Biel and the other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, taught religion, among other subjects.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for Biel and Morrissey-Berru, says if his clients lose, it could have “innumerable, cascading consequences” on employees of religious institutions. He’s argued employment law protections could be denied to nurses at religiously affiliated hospitals, counselors at religious summer camps, and cooks and administrators in social services centers.


Unanimous Supreme Court throws out ‘Bridgegate’ convictions
Blog News | 2020/05/09 00:24
A unanimous Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the convictions of two political insiders involved in the “Bridgegate”  scandal that ultimately derailed the 2016 president bid of their ally, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The justices said there was evidence of deception, corruption, and abuse of power in the political payback saga that involved four days of traffic jams on the world’s busiest motor-vehicle bridge, the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. But “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.

In the end, the justices concluded that the government had overreached in prosecuting Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni for their roles in the scheme. Kelly was a deputy chief of staff to Christie. Baroni was a top Christie appointee to the Port Authority, the bridge’s operator.

The court’s decision to side with Kelly and Baroni continues a pattern from recent years of restricting the government’s ability to use broad federal laws to prosecute public corruption cases. In 2016, the court overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. In 2010, the court sharply curbed prosecutors’ use of an anti-fraud law in the case of ex-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.



Blind justice: No visual cues in high court phone cases
Court Watch | 2020/05/09 00:22
On the evening before he was to argue a case before the Supreme Court years ago, Jeffrey Fisher broke his glasses. That left the very nearsighted lawyer with an unappealing choice. He could wear contacts and clearly see the justices but not his notes, or skip the contacts and see only his notes.

It wasn’t hard to decide. “I couldn’t imagine doing argument without seeing their faces,” Fisher said.

He won’t have a choice next month. Because of the coronavirus pandemic the high court is, for the first time in its 230-year history, holding arguments by telephone. Beyond not being able to see the justices’ nods, frowns and hand gestures, the teleconference arguments in 10 cases over six days present a range of challenges, attorneys said, but also opportunities.

The unprecedented decision to hold arguments by phone was an effort to help slow the spread of the virus. Most of the justices are at risk because of their age; six are over 65. And hearing arguments by phone allows them to decide significant cases by the court’s traditional summer break.

The attorneys arguing  before the court include government lawyers as well as those in private practice. Three of the 25 are women. Most have made multiple Supreme Court arguments and are familiar to the justices, although seven are giving their first arguments before the court. The Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, will argue twice.

The cases the justices are hearing include fights over subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records  and cases about whether presidential electors are required to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who won their state.

Justices have long said that the written briefs lawyers submit are vastly more important to the cases’ outcomes than what’s said in court. But the arguments also help them resolve nagging issues and occasionally can change a justice’s vote.


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