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Court Skeptical of Passenger Rights Law
Law Firm News | 2008/03/06 12:57
A federal appeals panel seemed impatient Wednesday with arguments supporting the first law in the nation requiring airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers trapped in a plane delayed on the ground.

The three judges expressed skepticism that states should be allowed to impose such a law on an industry already subject to extensive federal oversight. It was likely, they implied through their questions, that federal authority would pre-empt state laws on the issue.

New York's law requires relief for people who have been trapped in a plane on the ground for at least three hours. It was passed after passengers at Kennedy International Airport were stranded on planes for more than 10 hours with no food and overflowing toilets.

The court did not immediately rule on the constitutionality of New York's Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

The judges said they were sympathetic to the needs of passengers on planes, but they seemed to agree that only the federal government can regulate airline services.

Judge Brian M. Cogan said New York's law might lead to multiple solutions by states nationwide that would subject airlines to all kinds of requirements.

Judge Debra Ann Livingston agreed.

"There is a patchwork problem in that every state should be concerned about this and probably would write different regulations," she said.

Even though the judges had not yet ruled, Judge Richard C. Wesley defended their apparent stance.

"This is a pre-emption issue. Judges aren't heartless people in black robes. Three judges must decide whether New York stepped over the pre-emption line," Wesley said.

The law was challenged before the appeals court by the Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade group representing leading U.S. airlines.

Seth Waxman, a lawyer for the trade group, told the judges that a dozen other states were considering laws similar to New York's law. He said Congress was considering its own legislation.

"If regulation is required in this area, it must be national to avoid what otherwise is a patchwork solution," Waxman said.

Barbara Underwood, arguing in defense of the law, said it required minimal standards and protected the public.

She said planes in line for takeoff might, after three hours, be forced to return to the gate to pick up more food and water and empty its restrooms or need to summon a delivery service to perform those chores.

A recent federal report showed that about 24 percent of flights nationally arrived late in the first 10 months of last year, which was the industry's second-worst performance record since comparable data began being collected in 1995.

Kennedy airport had the third-worst on-time arrival record of any major U.S. airport through October, behind the New York area's other two major airports, LaGuardia and Newark, according to the report.

Wesley called it a health and safety issue.

"What it really is about is human dignity," Underwood said.

Queens Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, a Democrat, the prime sponsor of New York's Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, said after the arguments that he was not discouraged by the questions posed by the judges. He said he would welcome a national law protecting airline customers.

"I'm hopeful the judges will preserve the law," he said.



Judge at Rezko Trial Keeps Jurors Secret
Law Firm News | 2008/03/05 22:16
The judge in the corruption trial of a prolific fundraiser for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich (blah-GOY'-uh-vich) says she's keeping the identities of jurors secret.

Twelve jurors and six alternates are to hear opening statements Thursday in Antoin "Tony" Rezko's trial.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve says she's not releasing the jurors' names or numbers. She has left the door open to releasing some information later.

The 52-year-old Rezko is accused of shaking down companies hoping to invest teachers' pension money or build hospital expansions. He denies wrongdoing.

Rezko has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Blagojevich and sizable amounts for Obama. Neither politician has been charged with anything.



US Judge Awards $37M in Peru Massacre
Law Firm News | 2008/03/05 21:43
A federal judge has ordered a former Peruvian army officer to pay $37 million for his role in a 1985 massacre in Peru in which 69 civilians were slain, including elderly people and infants.

U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled Tuesday in a lawsuit filed against former Maj. Telmo Hurtado by two women — Ochoa Lizarbe and Pulido Baldeon — who were 12 at the time and survived the attack.

Jordan had previously found in the lawsuit that Hurtado was had committed torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Hurtado, 46, is in federal custody in Miami while fighting deportation to Peru, with a hearing set for March 26. He did not contest the lawsuit, did not have a lawyer and refused to testify last month when he was brought to court for a hearing on damages.

Jordan said the money can be awarded under a 1991 U.S. law allowing torture victims to collect damages in this country for violations if a foreign government refuses to do so. Neither woman has received any compensation from Peru's government.



EPA Head Unaware of Pressures on States
Law Firm News | 2008/03/05 20:26

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday he didn't know of behind-the-scenes efforts by EPA officials to blunt state attempts to reduce mercury emissions from power plants.

Those efforts occurred even as the Bush administration argued in court that states are free to enact tougher mercury controls from power plants, The Associated Press reported last month, based on internal EPA documents.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., questioned EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson about the report at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations environment subcommittee.

"Has anyone with EPA ever pressured any state against instituting any more restrictive mercury regulation?" asked Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I don't recall having any firsthand knowledge of that," said Johnson. "I don't know if they have, no I don't," he added.

Leahy cautioned Johnson that such pressure on states was inappropriate, and if it did occur, "then the EPA gave misleading information to the courts, which is an extremely serious matter."

A federal appeals court last month struck down the Bush administration's industry-friendly approach for mercury reduction that allowed plants with excessive smokestack emissions to buy pollution rights from other plants that foul the air less.

Internal EPA documents obtained by the advocacy group Environmental Defense show attempts over the past two years to bar state efforts to make their plants drastically cut mercury pollution instead of trading for credits that would let them continue it.

Many states did not want their power plants to be able to buy their way out of having to reduce mercury pollution.

The push to rein in uncooperative states continued until the eve of the Feb. 8 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that struck down the EPA's program. A day before that ruling, the White House Office of Management and Budget approved a draft regulation to impose a "federal implementation plan" for mercury reduction in states whose mercury control measures did not meet EPA approval.



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