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Order: Mississippi judges have discretion for COVID safety
Court News | 2021/08/09 11:33
Mississippi judges have the power to delay trials, limit the number of spectators in courtrooms or take other steps to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, the leader of the state Supreme Court says in an emergency order.

Chief Justice Michael Randolph issued the order Thursday in response to the rapid spread of illness caused by highly contagious delta variant of the virus.

Mississippi has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the nation, and the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Friday that 97% of new cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi are among people who are unvaccinated.

Randolph’s order said judges may postpone jury trials that are scheduled through Sept. 10. In addition to limiting the number of spectators in courtrooms, judges may require people to wear masks and maintain distance between each other. The order encouraged courts to use teleconferencing and videoconferencing, when possible.

Plea hearings in felony cases must still take place in person, but defendants and others in the courtrooms should wear masks and maintain social distancing.

“Any in-person proceedings shall be limited to attorneys, parties, witnesses, security officers, members of the press and other necessary persons, as determined by the trial judge,” Randolph wrote.


40-year sentence upheld for man who killed his roommate
Court News | 2021/07/24 10:16
Maine’s supreme court has upheld a 40-year prison sentence imposed on a man who killed his roommate in Old Orchard Beach.

Dustan Bentley pleaded guilty to murder in the death of 65-year-old William Popplewell, who was beaten, stabbed and strangled with a ligature.

Police arrested Bentley as he was attempting to use a ratchet and strap to pull the body into the trunk of his car, which was lined with a shower curtain. An autopsy revealed the victim suffered multiple broken bones and had been stabbed up to 30 times.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled that there was nothing in the record to indicate that the judge made a mistake.

“At no point did the court depart from sentencing principles or abuse its discretion in coming to or issuing its sentence,” the court said.

Bentley and Popplewell met at a Portland homeless shelter, and Bentley later moved into Popplewell’s apartment in Old Orchard Beach in December 2018. Popplewell was killed in March 2019.


Michigan court won’t extend voting redistricting deadline
Court News | 2021/07/09 10:34
The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday denied a request to extend the deadline for drawing new legislative and congressional maps despite a delay in census redistricting data.

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, whose members have been meeting since September 2020, asked the court in April to allow for more time to draw the maps.

The current deadline for an initial proposal is Sept. 17, but the U.S. Census Bureau does not expect to have tabulated data ready for the public until Sept. 30. The commission asserts that the census data is necessary to draw fair and lawful maps.

With its decision, the Supreme Court declined to protect the commission from lawsuits due to any delays. In a statement, justices acknowledged that the commission’s lawyers have already said the commission will operate on a delayed schedule, with or without permission.

The commission was established by voters in 2018 to limit gerrymandering by having randomly selected Michigan residents, representing balanced political alignments, draw voting district boundaries every 10 years instead of the Legislature. The release of census data was delayed from a March 31 deadline because of the pandemic.

The court acknowledged that it believes the commission has been working diligently and through no fault of its own has been put in a difficult position to present fair voting maps, but said there isn’t a sufficient legal reason to preemptively extend the deadline.

Lawyers for the commission and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have said they will try to propose new maps by Dec. 11 and have them finalized by Jan. 25, three months after the original Nov. 1 deadline set by the state’s constitution.


Judge asked to dismiss lawsuit over WVa transgender ban
Court News | 2021/07/07 10:54
Education officials are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging West Virginia’s new law that bans transgender athletes from competing in female sports in middle schools, high schools and colleges.

Education and athletic officials said in court documents filed last week that they can’t be held liable for the law, which they didn’t request and largely won’t be responsible for enforcing, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its West Virginia chapter filed the lawsuit in May on behalf of an 11-year-old transgender girl who had hoped to compete in cross country in middle school in Harrison County. The girl is seeking an injunction to prevent the law from being enforced.

The ban is set to take effect Thursday and will require the state Board of Education to establish rules to determine the means by which local athletic officials can enforce the law.

Attorneys for the West Virginia Board of Education and the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission argued that they can’t be held responsible for the law because they aren’t responsible for enforcing it.

Attorneys for Harrison County Schools said the district “was not responsible for and did not pass” the transgender athlete ban and has not caused harm to the girl.

“(The law) was not created by the County Board, and it is not under the County Board’s control,” the response said.

The U.S. Justice Department intervened in the case last month, saying the ban was a violation of federal law.


Ruling is final blow to New Hampshire voter registration law
Court News | 2021/07/02 11:38
The New Hampshire Supreme Court struck a final blow Friday to a 2017 voter registration law that faced repeated legislative and court challenges, upholding a previous ruling that it’s unconstitutional.

The law required additional documentation from voters who register within 30 days of an election. It was passed by the Republican Legislature after President Donald Trump alleged that widespread voter fraud led to his loss in the state in 2016, though there is no evidence to support that and voter fraud cases are rare. Supporters said the law would increase trust in elections by requiring people to prove they live where they vote, but opponents argued it was confusing, unnecessary and intimidating.

After the New Hampshire Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters sued, a judge allowed the law to take effect in 2018 but blocked penalties of a $5,000 fine and a year in jail for fraud. In 2019, after Democrats won control of the Legislature, lawmakers passed a bill to repeal the law, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

The case went to trial in late 2019, and a judge ruled in April 2020 that the law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld that decision Friday.

“We acknowledge that the interests identified by the state are important, if not vital,” Justice Patrick Donovan wrote in the unanimous order. But the law failed to further those objectives while imposing unreasonable burdens on the right to vote, the court concluded.

Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said the ruling “sends a clear message to Chris Sununu and NH Republicans that their insidious voter suppression schemes will not stand in New Hampshire.”

“Today, we celebrate this incredible victory for voting rights. Tomorrow, we will continue to work to protect voting rights in the Granite State,” he said in a statement.

Sununu encouraged the Legislature to propose new legislation taking the court order into account.

“It’s disappointing that these commonsense reforms were not supported by our Supreme Court, but we have to respect their decision,” he said.

In its ruling, the court rejected the state’s argument that the law could only be struck down if it was unconstitutional in every set of circumstances. Similarly, it disagreed with the state’s claim that the law shouldn’t be deemed unconstitutional because only some, but not all, voters are burdened by it.



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