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US presses ahead with border wall in court despite shutdown
Court Watch | 2019/01/16 08:13
A federal attorney in South Texas said in court this week that during the ongoing partial government shutdown, he only has been allowed to work on cases related to President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

The Texas Civil Rights Project on Thursday released a transcript of a Tuesday hearing in a case where the U.S. government has sued a local landowner for her property along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many other civil cases have been delayed during the shutdown, which was triggered by Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall.

According to the transcript, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez noted that government attorneys working on border wall cases have not been furloughed despite the shutdown.

The prosecutor, Eric Paxton Warner, responded, “This is all I’m allowed to work on, Your Honor.”

Warner and a spokeswoman for the local U.S. attorney’s office did not return messages. A spokesman for the Department of Justice says each U.S. attorney had the authority to determine which civil cases should move forward or be delayed, but that civil cases would be delayed “to the extent this can be done without compromising to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said last year that it planned to start building in February. But unlike on other parts of the border, most border land in South Texas is owned privately. That requires the government to seize it through eminent domain, suing private landowners in cases that can take months or years. Some landowners who would be affected have already vowed to fight the government in court.

Efren Olivares, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project, accused the government of being “fixated” on a border wall at the expense of other matters.

“As someone who is also handling family reunification cases in which government lawyers are telling us they can’t do anything to help us because of the government shutdown, it’s extremely upsetting and frustrating,” he said.

The case that led to Tuesday’s hearing was opened 11 years ago, during the last major effort to build border barriers under the Secure Fence Act. It involves a chunk of land in Los Ebanos, a town of roughly 300 people situated along a bend in the Rio Grande, the river separating the U.S. and Mexico in Texas.

Olivares said the U.S. government already obtained the land it sought from the landowner, Pamela Rivas, but both sides haven’t agreed yet on compensation.


Supreme Court will hear Wisconsin drunk driving case
Court Watch | 2019/01/13 08:20
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to a Wisconsin drunk driving law that has parallels in other states.

Wisconsin law says law enforcement officials can draw blood from an unconscious driver without a warrant if they suspect the person was driving drunk.

The case the court agreed Friday to hear involves Gerald Mitchell. He was arrested in Sheboygan for driving while intoxicated in 2013 in Wisconsin. Mitchell was too drunk to take a breath test and became unconscious after being taken to a hospital. His blood was then drawn without a warrant. Mitchell was ultimately convicted of driving while intoxicated.

Mitchell says the blood draw was a search that violated his constitutional rights, but Wisconsin’s Supreme Court upheld his convictions. Mitchell says 29 states have similar laws.


GOP candidate asks North Carolina court to declare he won
Court Watch | 2019/01/03 07:35
The Republican in the nation's last undecided congressional race asked a North Carolina court Thursday to require that he be declared the winner because the now-defunct state elections board didn't act.

A lawsuit by GOP candidate Mark Harris claims the disbanded elections board had been declared unconstitutional, so its investigation into alleged ballot fraud by an operative hired by the Republican's campaign was invalid.

The elections board was dissolved Dec. 28 by state judges who in October declared its makeup unconstitutional but had allowed investigations to continue. A revamped board doesn't officially come into existence until Jan. 31.

"Time is of the essence," Harris' lawsuit states. Because the new elections board won't be created for weeks, "the uniform finality of a federal election is endangered by the State Board's actions and the citizens of the 9th District have no representation in Congress."

State elections staffers on Wednesday said a planned Jan. 11 evidentiary hearing to outline what investigators have found since November's election had to be postponed due to the lack of a board authorized to subpoena witnesses and hold hearings.

The investigation is continuing, however, with Harris being interviewed for two hours Thursday as all other U.S. House winners were sworn into office in Washington.

"We certainly want to help in any way we can with any investigation to get to the bottom of it, but we believe that, again, that I should be certified," Harris said. "We don't believe that the number of ballots in question would change the outcome of this election and we believe, again, that that is the standard ultimately that the board of elections looks to."

Harris narrowly led Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial vote counts, but the elections board refused to certify him as the winner amid an unusually large number of unused absentee ballots and a large advantage in absentees favoring the Republican in two of the 9th congressional district's rural counties.


Prominent Chinese rights lawyer tried in closed proceedings
Court Watch | 2018/12/27 09:19
The trial of a prominent human rights lawyer began in northern China on Wednesday with about two dozen plainclothes officers stationed outside a courthouse and at least one supporter taken away by police.

Reporters, foreign diplomats and supporters were prevented from approaching the municipal court in Tianjin city where lawyer Wang Quanzhang was being tried. Wang's wife, Li Wenzu, was kept from attending the proceedings by security agents who had blocked the exit of her apartment complex since Tuesday.

Li told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday that Liu Weiguo, Wang's government-appointed lawyer, confirmed the trial had started. But he did not tell her whether it was now over or whether a verdict had been reached.

The court said in a statement on its website that it "lawfully decided not to make public" the trial hearings because the case involved state secrets. A decision will be announced at a future date, the court said.

Wang is among more than 200 lawyers and legal activists who were detained in a sweeping 2015 crackdown. A member of the Fengrui law firm, among the most recognized in the field broadly known in China as "rights defending," he was charged with subversion of state power in 2016. He has been held without access to his lawyers or family for more than three years.

Fengrui has pursued numerous sensitive cases and represented outspoken critics of the ruling Communist Party. Wang represented members of the Falun Gong meditation sect that the government has relentlessly suppressed since banning it as an "evil cult" in 1999. Group leaders have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms and ordinary followers locked up as alleged threats.


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