Gavel Grab

Archive for February, 2010

Judges May Testify in Threat Case

Three federal appeals judges may take the witness stand when Harold “Hal” Turner is tried again on charges of encouraging listeners to murder three jurists.

U.S. prosecutors are working to strengthen their case against the Web radio talk show host, and they have won permission for the judges to testify, according to a National Law Journal article.

In an earlier round, a mistrial was declared in December. You can read more about the case in Gavel Grab.

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Retired Judge: DC Suited for Terror Trial

A  retired federal judge from Washington, D.C., urges unequivocally that the nation’s capital be considered for the trial of accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

“I submit that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is the most appropriate alternative forum for this trial. KSM’s crimes were committed against the entire nation, and it is fitting that the nation’s capital should host his trial,” retired Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson (photo at right) writes in the Washington Post.

Jackson dives into the debate over trying Mohammed and co-defendants in civilian court versus before military tribunals. He argues that Mohammed’s “crimes were civil, not military.” He says the court has experienced judges skilled at administering justice in an age of terrorism:

“It is no disparagement of the military officers who might constitute a military commission assigned to try KSM to say that they have neither comparable experience nor stature in the eyes of the world.” Read more

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Death Penalty Set Aside in Texas Case

The case had unfolded like a novel. But now the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has added a new chapter, and a reprieve, for a defendant who protested that the judge in his murder trial had been sleeping with the prosecutor (see Gavel Grab), and they admitted it.

In a split ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals ordered this week a new punishment trial for Charles Dean Hood, saying the jury didn’t get a proper chance to hear evidence that could have persuaded them to spare his life. He was convicted in 1990 and was sentenced to death.

According to an Associated Press article, the ruling didn’t mention the relationship of the trial judge, Verla Sue Holland, and the prosecutor, Thomas O’Connell. They no longer hold their former jobs. Neither individual has been publicly disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct or the State Bar of Texas.

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House Votes to Extend Patriot Act Provisions

The House of Representatives has passed 315 to 97 a bill to extend for a year key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the nation’s main counterterrorism law, the Associated Press reported. The bill, already approved  by the Senate, goes to President Obama for his signature.

As mentioned earlier this week in Gavel Grab, Senate Democrats retreated on new privacy protections when they could not muster enough votes to advance them.

The bill would renew the government’s authority to spy on a “lone wolf,” a non-U.S. citizen suspected of terrorism who may not belong to a known terrorist group; and it would extend provisions for roving wiretap court orders and for court orders to seize “any tangible things” judged relevant to a terrorism probe. You can read about controversy over the legislation in Gavel Grab.

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Will Cameras Capture Prop. 8 Trial Closing Arguments?

Is  a re-run ahead for a proposal to broadcast part of the same-sex marriage trial in California?

As the trial winds toward a close, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco has posted online a rules change that could permit telecasting of closing arguments, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article.

Chief District Judge Vaughn Walker, who is hearing the same-sex marriage case, tried a similar approach in January. But the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and slapped down the proposal, saying a five-day period for public comment was inadequate (see Gavel Grab.) This time, the public comment period began Feb. 4 and expires March 4.

The last testimony in the challenge to California’s ban on same-sex marriage–enacted after voters approved Proposition 8–was heard Jan. 27. The judge put off final arguments until after the filing of legal briefs, which were due Friday.

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Friday Media Summary


NY Times/Opinionator: Missing the Tea Party

American Constitution Society: ACS Panel Discussion – Citizens United v. FEC: The Decision, Its Implications, and the Road Ahead


Washington Post/AP: Holder, Gates: Congress should not restrict trials
Pete Yost – 2/25/2010

Business Week: Holder, Gates Urge House Not to Tie Their Hands on Terror Cases
Jeff Bliss – 2/25/2010

Washington Post: Bring Sheik Mohammed’s trial to D.C.
Thomas Penfield Jackson – 2/26/2010

Washington Times: Identifying the Gitmo Nine
Editorial – 2/25/2010

Kansas City Star: Judge orders another Guantanamo detainee freed

NY Times/City Room: Judge Expanded Review on Terrorism Suspect
BENJAMIN WEISER – 2/25/2010 U.S. Sen. Grassley: Questions president’s request for a half billion in taxpayer dollars
Press Release – 2/24/2010

Read more

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Maryland to Recognize Gay Marriages

Douglas Gansler, the Maryland attorney general, said  Maryland will recognize same-sex unions when gay couples have married elsewhere.

He also said  state agencies should begin affording gay married couples the rights of heterosexual married couples, according to a Washington Post article. Gansler gave a legal opinion that stoked immediate controversy, and the Democrat acknowledged it is likely to be tested in court.

A Baltimore Sun article pointed out that the opinion does not enable gay couples to be married in Maryland, and it does not have the weight of law but is intended to provide guidance for judges and state agencies. Gansler’s opinion is available here.

Both sides of the gay marriage issue have squared off in a recent trial in California over same-sex marriage. The judge has not reached a decision in the case; his decision could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. You can read more about that case in Gavel Grab.

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Another Extension Ahead for Patriot Act?

Congress appears poised once again to punt on renewing key sections of the USA Patriot Act.

When Senate Democrats could not muster the 60 votes needed to advance new privacy protections to the counterterrorism law, they retreated,  and the Senate passed a one-year extension of three key provisions that were set to expire, according to the Associated Press. The House was expected to take up the extension soon.

Set aside in the Senate “were restrictions and greater scrutiny on the government’s authority to spy on Americans and seize their records,” the AP reported. Republicans contended terror investigations would be weakened by the changes.

You can read more about debate over renewing the legislation in earlier Gavel Grab posts.

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Constitutional Amendment Proposed in Senate

Sen. Chris Dodd introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to effectively nullify the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, but the odds for passing any constitutional amendment are not great.

Not since 1992 has the Constitution been amended, according to a Hartford Courant article. It takes a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress, and ratification by three-fourths of the states, to amend the Constitution.

“I am a firm believer in the sanctity of the First Amendment, and I believe we must continue to do all we can to protect the free speech rights of the American people. But I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s conclusion that money is speech, and that corporations should be treated the same as individual Americans when it comes to protected, fundamental speech rights,” Dodd said in a statement.

The text of the Connecticut Democrat’s proposed amendment is available here. He proposes giving Congress authority to regulate campaign fundraising and expenditures for U.S. elections, including independent expenditures, and letting states regulate the activity in state elections.

You can learn more from Gavel Grab about a constitutional amendment introduced earlier in the House. Citizens United allows corporations to spend unlimited sums from their treasuries to support or oppose federal candidates. More than a month after the decision was issued, activists and analysts still are analyzing what it will mean; one of the latest panel critiques is discussed in The Blog of Legal Times.

You can read more about Citizens United by clicking here, and you can read Justice at Stake’s amicus brief in the case here.

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In Tennessee, An Overloaded Immigration Court

There is no let-up in the parade of reports about overburdened immigration courts facing huge caseloads and long docket delays.

The latest comes from The Tennesseean. It reports that since one of two Memphis-based immigration judges was reassigned recently to Virginia, the remaining judge hears cases in a Memphis courtroom–while other cases are heard by other judges around the country, using teleconference technology. All told, the newspaper reported, the court is overburdened:

“The immigration court has such a heavy caseload that hundreds of people recommended for deportation haven’t even been given a court date yet. They line up monthly at local immigration offices, where suspected illegal immigrants are asked to check in until a court date can be set.

“After three years of stepped-up immigration enforcement, the overloaded court system isn’t keeping pace — and observers say almost nowhere in the country is the problem worse than in Tennessee.”

A recent report for the American Bar Association documented a crushing overload for the immigration courts, and severe shortcomings (see Gavel Grab.) Read more

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