Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.
California state prosecutors have filed new, more specific charges David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the anti-abortion activists who infiltrated private annual events held by the National Abortion Federation as part of their efforts to smear Planned Parenthood as being involved in a so-called black market trafficking of fetal tissue.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office had charged Daleiden and Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress with 15 felonies: 14 counts of unlawfully recording people without their permission and one count of conspiracy to invade privacy stemming from their covert recordings of Planned Parenthood staffers and officials. But in June, Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite dismissed all but one of the charges, saying that prosecutors had not been specific enough in identifying which video recordings were made illegally. So last week, prosecutors refiled those charges with numerical identification for each video. Lawyers for Daleiden and Merritt have said they intend to challenge the refiled charges because they are still not specific enough.
Attorneys filed documents on behalf of conservative activists, asking a Harris County, Texas, district court judge to issue an injunction blocking the City of Houston from paying its municipal employees’ same-sex spousal benefits, just days after the Texas Supreme Court blatantly ignored precedents on marriage equality.
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And more in bias from Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law last month HB 3859, which shields child welfare providers who deny services based on religious belief and permits them to refuse to place foster children with same-sex or non-Christian foster or adoptive parents. The law is “misguided and unconstitutional,” according to an open letter that nine Texas law professors sent to state lawmakers. “[The law] is not only a solution in search of a problem, it creates substantial constitutional problems insofar as it reaches too broadly in an effort to protect religious liberty.”
Two “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs, which are known for manipulating and lying to women seeking abortion), have filed a lawsuit challenging a recent change to Illinois’ right-of-conscience law. The law now requires physicians and nurses to notify their pregnant patients of all their options, including abortion. Plaintiffs argue that the law violates their constitutional right to free speech since it forces speech by requiring them to provide advice they find morally wrong. They also allege that the law violates federal laws banning discrimination against health-care workers who refuse to provide or refer patients for abortions.
A state judge in Miami has ruled that Florida lawmakers exceeded their authority when they modified the stand-your-ground law to require that prosecutors disprove a defendant’s self-defense claim at a pre-trial hearing. Judge Milton Hirsch said that under the state’s constitution, only the Florida Supreme Court could make that change.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments last week in the case of Christopher Ware, a Rastafarian inmate with dreadlocks. Ware is challenging a Louisiana Department of Corrections rule requiring male inmates at state facilities to have hair cut shorter than the collar length of their shirt. Ware says that forcing him to cut his hair is a violation of his religious beliefs.
Real Alternatives, an anti-abortion group behind a chain of CPCs in Pennsylvania, will not have submit to a state audit of how it spends money it receives from a block of funds that the state Department of Human Services granted to the organization so it could provide Pennsylvania women alternatives to abortion, according to a state court ruling. Real Alternatives takes a 3 percent cut of the grant money before channeling the rest to its network of CPCs. Department officials asked the auditor general to investigate Real Alternatives after discovering that the 3 percent cut was not authorized by the grant agreement.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed an ethics complaint with the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) against White House Senior Adviser and Assistant to the President Jared Kushner. It’s asking OGE to investigate Kushner’s failure to disclose his ownership in an online real estate company called Cadre.
Hui Chen, former compliance counsel and top corporate crime watchdog for the U.S. Department of Justice, resigned in June and explained her reasoning in a recent post published on LinkedIn. She pointed out that the Trump administration has been engaging in conduct that she wouldn’t brook from a corporation: “Trying to hold companies to standards that our current administration is not living up to was creating a cognitive dissonance that I could not overcome.”
Linda Greenhouse writes in the New York Times that in Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump has a “life-tenured judicial avatar” whose “aw-shucks” folksiness, as displayed during his confirmation hearing, has given way to hard-nosed right-wing conservatism. While she was once concerned that Gorsuch would be a natural ally to Chief John Roberts and bolster his conservative instincts, Greenhouse now thinks it’s just as likely that Gorsuch will get on Roberts’ last nerve.
Read the New York Times‘ Jesse Wegman’s lovely farewell to veteran journalist Lyle Denniston, who retired last week after covering the U.S. Supreme Court for 58 years, most recently for SCOTUSBlog.
Peter M. Shane writes in Slate that the Federalist Society, which Trump has effectively permitted to choose his nominees to fill appellate court vacancies, frequently genuflects to presidential power. (That’s why it is crucial that every Trump nominee be grilled about their views of executive power.) Trump is going to test the limits of his power, and judges on the federal bench must understand that presidential power is limited and then be willing to limit it.
Women are taking over the bench in Minnesota: For the first time in the state’s history, half of Minnesota’s ten judicial districts are headed by female judges; 43 percent of state district court judges are women; 53 percent of the judges on the Minnesota Court of Appeals are women, and 57 percent of the justices on the Minnesota Supreme Court are women. Go, Minnesota, go!