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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.


Court tosses NY case that could have expanded gun rights
Legal Interview | 2020/04/29 04:20
The Supreme Court sidestepped a major decision on gun rights Monday in a dispute over New York City’s former ban on transporting guns.

The justices threw out a challenge from gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association’s New York affiliate. The court ruled that the city’s move to ease restrictions on taking licensed, locked and unloaded guns outside the city limits, coupled with a change in state law to prevent New York from reviving the ban, left the court with nothing to decide. The court asked a lower court to consider whether the city’s new rules still pose problems for gun owners.

The anticlimactic end to the Supreme Court case is a disappointment to gun rights advocates and relief to gun control groups who thought a conservative Supreme Court majority fortified by two appointees of President Donald Trump, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, might use the case to expand on landmark decisions from a decade ago that established a right under the Second Amendment to keep a gun at home for self-defense.

But other guns cases remain in the high court’s pipeline, including whether gun owners have a constitutional right to carry their weapons in public. Later Monday, the justices scheduled 10 cases involving gun restrictions in California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey, for possible discussion during their private telephone conference on Friday. The court could decide to hear one or more of those next term.

Although the opinion was unsigned, the court split 6-3 over the outcome. Gorsuch joined Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas in dissenting from the dismissal. Kavanaugh wrote a brief concurring opinion in which he agreed with the result, but also said the court should take up another guns case soon.




Supreme Court sides with government in immigration case
Legal Interview | 2020/04/26 20:25
The Supreme Court is making it harder for noncitizens who are authorized to live permanently in the United States to argue they should be allowed to stay in the country if they've committed crimes.

The decision Thursday split the court 5-4 along ideological lines. The decision came in the case of Andre Barton, a Jamaican national and green card holder. In 1996, when he was a teenager, he was present when a friend fired a gun at the home of Barton's ex-girlfriend in Georgia. And in 2007 and 2008, he was convicted of drug possession in the state.

His crimes made him eligible to be deported, and the government sought to remove him from the country in 2016. Barton argued he should be eligible to stay. Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in his opinion for the court's conservatives that it was important that Barton's 1996 crime took place in the first seven years he was admitted to the country.

Kavanaugh wrote that “when a lawful permanent resident has amassed a criminal record of this kind,” immigration law makes them ineligible to ask to be allowed to stay in the country.


Washington Supreme Court to hear COVID-19 inmate case online
Legal Interview | 2020/04/24 03:23
In an historic setting, the Washington Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Thursday while sitting alone in their separate chambers using Zoom technology in a case that addresses the safety of inmates in the state’s prisons during the coronavirus outbreak.

At the same time, conservative lawmakers, law enforcement officials and some victims plan to hold news conferences on both sides of the state to protest the release of some offenders.

At least 24 corrections employees and 13 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, almost 100 offenders were placed in isolation and more than 1,000 are being quarantined. The majority of the positive cases occurred at the Monroe Correctional Complex where seven staff and 12 inmates have the disease.

After the virus hit the facility, the second largest in Washington, inmates filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking the justices to order Gov. Jay Inslee and Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair to release inmates who are older than 60, have underlying conditions and are within 60 days of their release date.

In an unanimous ruling on April 10, the justices ordered the state to devise a plan to protect inmates from the disease. Several days later, Inslee announced plans to release almost 1,000 non-violent offenders who are close to their release date.

As of Wednesday, about 41 inmates received work release furloughs, 293 had their sentences commuted and another 600 were on a list to be considered for a release into the community using electronic monitoring.

The corrections department has also told the court that it has imposed a list of measures designed to keep incarcerated people healthy, including mandatory face masks and hand-sanitizer dispensers.

Lawyers for the inmates say their efforts fall short. They say the prisons are too crowded to allow for social distancing.



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