U.S. House passes two Democratic-backed gun control bills

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a pair of gun control bills as Democrats seized upon a shifting political landscape that they said improved chances for enacting new laws after years of failed attempts.

The first measure, which passed the Democratic-led House 227-203, would close a long-standing loophole in gun laws by expanding background checks to those purchasing weapons over the internet, at gun shows and through certain private transactions. Only eight Republicans joined the Democrats in backing the bill.

The second bill, passed 219-210 with only two Republicans supporting it, would give authorities 10 business days for federal background checks to be completed before a gun sale can be licensed. Currently, such sales can proceed if the government cannot complete complicated background checks of prospective buyers within three days.

President Joe Biden is a supporter of expanded gun control measures. The legislation may face a tougher battle in the U.S. Senate, where Biden’s fellow Democrats hold an even slimmer majority than in the House.

The bills follow a series of deadly U.S. mass shootings over the past decade. Gun control is a divisive issue in the United States, which enshrines gun rights in its Constitution. Most Republicans strongly oppose gun restrictions, while most Democrats argue that new laws are needed to curb gun violence.

The House Judiciary Committee’s senior Republican, Jim Jordan, wrote on Twitter that House Democrats were “making it harder for law-abiding citizens to buy a gun.”

Many Democrats want to go further by banning sales of some high-capacity, military-style rifles that can fire ammunition rapidly.

Democratic Representative Mike Thompson, who has spearheaded a drive for expanded gun control for years, said 30 people are killed by gun violence daily in the United States, with that number growing to 100 if suicides and accidental deaths involving firearms are counted. At the same time, Thompson said, 170 felons and 50 domestic abusers are stopped from buying a gun every day.

“It only makes sense that if you expand it you’ll stop even more felons, more domestic abusers,” Thompson said.

Republicans opposing the bills argued that the legislation would not make American streets safer and would infringe upon the right to bear arms guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

With Democrats now controlling the White House along with both chambers of Congress, they are seeking to pursue liberal goals thwarted when Republicans led either the House or Senate. Democrats have said their position has been further strengthened by turmoil within the National Rifle Association, the influential gun lobby closely aligned with Republicans.

The Senate’s longstanding filibuster rule makes it so most legislation requires 60 votes to proceed in the 100-seat chamber rather than a simple majority, and Republicans could use the maneuver to try to block gun control measures. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said if that happens, Democrats would “come together as a caucus and we’ll see how we’re going to get this done,” possibly hinting at ending or altering the filibuster rule.

A bipartisan gun control bill in 2013 – proposed after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school – failed on a vote of 54-46 in the Senate, short of the needed 60 votes.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham)

Senators vote to proceed with Trump’s impeachment trial, but conviction may prove elusive

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Senate voted largely along party lines on Tuesday to move ahead with Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on a charge of inciting the deadly assault on the Capitol, but conviction appears unlikely barring a major shift among Republicans.

The Senate voted 56-44 to proceed to the first-ever trial of a former president, rejecting his defense lawyers’ argument that Trump was beyond the reach of the Senate after having left the White House on Jan. 20.

Democrats hope to disqualify Trump from ever again holding public office, but Tuesday’s outcome suggested they face long odds. Only six Republican senators joined Democrats to vote in favor of allowing the trial to take place, far short of the 17 needed to secure a conviction.

Convicting Trump would require a two-thirds majority in the 50-50 Senate.

The vote capped a dramatic day in the Senate chamber. Democratic lawmakers serving as prosecutors opened the trial with a graphic video interspersing images of the Jan. 6 Capitol violence with clips of Trump’s incendiary speech to a crowd of supporters moments earlier urging them to “fight like hell” to overturn his Nov. 3 election defeat.

Senators, serving as jurors, watched as screens showed Trump’s followers throwing down barriers and hitting police officers at the Capitol. The video included the moment when police guarding the House of Representatives chamber fatally shot protester Ashli Babbitt, one of five people including a police officer who died in the rampage.

The mob attacked police, sent lawmakers scrambling for safety and interrupted the formal congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s victory after Trump had spent two months challenging the election results based on claims of widespread voting fraud.

“If that’s not an impeachment offense, then there is no such thing,” Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin, who led a team of nine House members prosecuting the case, told the assembled senators after showing the video.

He wept as he recounted how relatives he brought to the Capitol that day to witness the election certification had to shelter in an office near the House floor, saying: “They thought they were going to die.”

In contrast to the Democrats’ emotional presentation, Trump’s lawyers attacked the process, arguing that the proceeding was an unconstitutional, partisan effort to close off Trump’s political future even after he had already departed the White House.

“What they really want to accomplish here in the name of the Constitution is to bar Donald Trump from ever running for political office again, but this is an affront to the Constitution no matter who they target today,” David Schoen, one of Trump’s lawyers, told senators.

He denounced the “insatiable lust for impeachment” among Democrats before airing his own video, which stitched together clips of various Democratic lawmakers calling for Trump’s impeachment going back to 2017.

HOUSE MANAGERS’ CASE ‘COMPELLING, COGENT’

Trump, who was impeached by the Democratic-led House on Jan. 13, is only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached, and the only one to be impeached twice.

His defense argued he was exercising his right to free speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment when he addressed supporters before the Capitol attack.

Bruce Castor, one of Trump’s lawyers, said the storming of the Capitol by hundreds of people “should be denounced in the most vigorous terms,” but argued that “a small group of criminals,” not Trump, were responsible for the violence.

Most legal experts have said it is constitutional to have an impeachment trial after an official has left office.

“Presidents can’t inflame insurrection in their final weeks and then walk away like nothing happened. And yet that is the rule that President Trump asks you to adopt,” Democratic Representative Joe Neguse told the senators.

Most of the senators at the trial were present in the Capitol on Jan. 6, when many lawmakers said they feared for their own safety.

Several Republican senators said they found Trump’s defense, particularly Castor’s argument, disjointed and unclear.

“The House managers made a compelling, cogent case. And the president’s team did not,” said Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who voted to advance the trial.

Cassidy had voted to block the trial on constitutional grounds last month, a Republican effort that failed 55-45. He was the only Republican to switch sides on Tuesday, a move that prompted the Republican Party in his home state, Louisiana, to issue a statement repudiating his decision.

Watching the proceedings on TV at his Florida resort, Trump was unhappy with Castor’s performance, said a person familiar with the situation.

After the Senate adjourned for the day, Castor told reporters: “I thought we had a good day,” and said he did not anticipate making any adjustments to his planned defense in response to the criticism.

The trial could provide clues on the Republican Party’s direction following Trump’s tumultuous four-year presidency. Sharp divisions have emerged between Trump loyalists and those hoping to move the party in a new direction. Democrats for their part are concerned the trial could impede Biden’s ability to swiftly advance an ambitious legislative agenda.

But few Republican senators appear willing to break with Trump.

Senator Josh Hawley, who helped lead the opposition in the Senate to the presidential election results, predicted that Tuesday’s vote would ultimately reflect the chamber’s final decision.

“That’s probably going to be the outcome, right there,” Hawley told reporters.

One year ago, the then-Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump on charges of obstructing Congress and abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter in 2019.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Susan Cornwall, Karen Freifeld and Steve Holland; Writing by Joseph Ax and Alistair Bell; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Explainer-What happens when the U.S. Electoral College meets on Monday?

WHAT IS HAPPENING ON MONDAY?

The winner of the U.S. presidential election is determined not by the popular vote but through a system called the Electoral College, which is mandated in the Constitution and allots “electoral votes” to states and the District of Columbia based on their congressional representation.

Before the election, state-level leaders of the two major parties selected people to serve as “electors.”

Technically, Americans are casting votes for those slates of electors, not the candidates themselves.

Those individuals are typically party loyalists who have pledged to support the candidate who got the most votes in their state.

There are 538 electoral votes, meaning 270 are needed to win the election.

Most electors are not household names, but the electors this year include Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former candidate for governor in that state.

Electors meet at a time and place selected by their state’s legislature. Nevada is meeting virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Most states will livestream the ceremonies.

Electors will sign certificates showing their votes, which are sent to government officials including Vice President Mike Pence. Those certificates are paired with ones signed by governors showing the popular vote tallies, which have already been certified by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Electoral votes will be officially tallied by a newly seated Congress on Jan. 6, in a special joint session that Pence will preside over.

At that point, the election is officially decided.

CAN ELECTORS DEFY THE POPULAR VOTE?

Yes, but that is a rare occurrence.

In 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other than their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control rogue electors, or “faithless electors.” Some provide a financial penalty for a rogue vote, while others call for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced.

COULD CONGRESS REFUSE TO ACCEPT BIDEN’S ELECTORAL VOTES?

It is theoretically possible, but such a move is extremely unlikely to work because Democrats control the House of Representatives.

A U.S. law called the Electoral Count Act allows individual members of the House and Senate to challenge the results during the Jan. 6 special session — a rarely used procedure.

Any objection to a state’s results must be backed by at least one House member and one senator.

The two chambers would then separate to debate the objections before voting on whether to reject the state’s results.

An objection must pass in both chambers by a simple majority.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)

Explainer: The Electoral College and the 2020 U.S. presidential race

By Jan Wolfe

(Reuters) – In the United States, the winner of a presidential election is determined not by a national vote but through a system called the Electoral College, which allots “electoral votes” to all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their population.

Complicating things further, a web of laws and constitutional provisions kick in to resolve particularly close elections.

Here are some of the rules that could decide the Nov. 3 contest between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

How does the Electoral College work?

There are 538 electoral votes, meaning 270 are needed to win the election. In 2016, President Donald Trump lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton but secured 304 electoral votes to her 227.

Technically, Americans cast votes for electors, not the candidates themselves. Electors are typically party loyalists who pledge to support the candidate who gets the most votes in their state. Each elector represents one vote in the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was a compromise between the nation’s founders, who fiercely debated whether the president should be picked by Congress or through a popular vote.

All but two states use a winner-take-all approach: The candidate that wins the most votes in that state gets all of its electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska use a more complex district-based allocation system that could result in their combined nine electoral votes being split between Trump and Biden.

Can electors go rogue?

Yes.

In 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other than their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control rogue electors, or “faithless electors.” Some provide a financial penalty for a rogue vote, while others call for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced.

When do the electors’ votes have to be certified by?

Federal law requires that electors meet in their respective states and formally send their vote to Congress on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.” This year that date is Dec. 14.

Under U.S. law, Congress will generally consider a state’s result to be “conclusive” if it is finalized six days before the electors meet. This date, known as the “safe harbor” deadline, falls on Dec. 8 this year.

Those votes are officially tallied by Congress three weeks later and the president is sworn in on Jan. 20.

What if officials in a particular state can’t agree on who won?

Typically, governors certify the results in their respective states and share the information with Congress. But it is possible for “dueling slates of electors,” in which the governor and legislature in a closely contested state could submit two different election results.

The risk of this happening is heightened in states where the legislature is controlled by a different party than the governor. Several battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.

According to legal experts, it is unclear in this scenario whether Congress should accept the governor’s electoral slate or not count the state’s electoral votes at all.

What if a candidate doesn’t get 270 votes?

One flaw of the electoral college system is that it could produce a 269-269 tie. If that occurs, a newly elected House of Representatives would decide the fate of the presidency on Jan. 6, with each state’s votes determined by a delegation, as required by the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Currently, Republicans control 26 state delegations, while Democrats control 22. Pennsylvania is tied between Democratic and Republican members. Michigan has seven Democrats, six Republicans and one independent.

The composition of the House will change on Nov. 3, when all 435 House seats are up for grabs.

Will the system ever change?

Critics say the Electoral College thwarts the will of the people. Calls for abolishing the system increased after George W. Bush won the 2000 election despite losing the popular vote, and again in 2016 when Trump pulled off a similar victory.

The Electoral College is mandated in the Constitution, so abolishing it would require a constitutional amendment. Such amendments require two-thirds approval from both the House and Senate and ratification by the states, or a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures.

Republicans, who benefited from the Electoral College in the 2000 and 2016 elections, are unlikely to back such an amendment.

Individuals states do have some freedom to change how their electors are chosen, and experts have floated proposals for reforming the system without a constitutional amendment.

Under one proposal, states would form a compact and agree to award all their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the nationwide popular vote.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Aurora Ellis)

Trump rejects impeachment charges as an affront to U.S. Constitution

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday rejected the Democratic-led House of Representatives’ impeachment charges, describing the allegations that he had abused his power and obstructed Congress as affronts to the U.S. Constitution that must be rejected.

“The Senate should speedily reject these deficient articles of impeachment and acquit the president,” an executive summary of the Republican president’s pre-trial brief said in Trump’s first comprehensive defense before the start of his Senate trial.

Trump, only the fourth of 45 American presidents to face the possibility of being ousted by impeachment, is charged with abusing the powers of his office by asking Ukraine to investigate a Democratic political rival, Joe Biden, and obstructing a congressional inquiry into his conduct.

The executive summary asserted that the “House Democrats theory of ‘abuse of power’ is not an impeachable offense.” It rejected the obstruction of Congress charge as frivolous and dangerous, saying the president exercised his legal rights by resisting congressional demands for information.

It accused the House Democrats of conducting a rigged process and said they succeeded in proving that Trump had done nothing wrong.

While the Republican-controlled Senate is highly unlikely to remove Trump from office, it is important for the Republican president to diminish the Democratic accusations as a partisan witch-hunt. He needs to limit the political damage to his re-election bid as he seeks a second term in November.

Trump’s legal team says he was well within his constitutional authority to press Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year to investigate Biden and his son Hunter as part of what Trump says was an anti-corruption drive. The Bidens deny any wrongdoing and Trump’s allegations have been widely debunked.

Democrats say Trump abused his power by withholding U.S. military assistance to Ukraine as part of a pressure campaign and obstructed Congress by refusing to hand over documents and barring administration officials from testifying, even when subpoenaed by House investigators.

Trump’s team says he is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers provisions.

In a 111-page document filed before the Senate trial begins in earnest on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers laid out their arguments against Trump, saying the president must be removed from office to protect national security and preserve the country’s system of government.

Seeking to show he is still conducting presidential business despite the trial, Trump is scheduled to depart late on Monday for Davos, Switzerland, to join global leaders at the World Economic Forum. Some advisers had argued against him making the trip.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Ross Colvin, Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)

Explainer: How impeachment works and why Trump is unlikely to be removed

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate is due to hold a trial to consider whether President Donald Trump should be removed from office, after the House of Representatives voted in December to impeach him for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential rival in the 2020 presidential election.

What happens next and why is Trump unlikely to be removed from office?

WHY IMPEACHMENT?

The founders of the United States feared presidents abusing their powers, so they included in the Constitution a process for removing one from office.

The president, under the Constitution, can be removed from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

High crimes and misdemeanors have historically encompassed corruption and abuses of the public trust, as opposed to indictable violations of criminal statutes.

Former President Gerald Ford, while in Congress, famously said: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

No president has ever been removed as a direct result of impeachment. One, Richard Nixon, resigned before he could be removed. Two, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Impeachment begins in the House, the lower chamber, which debates and votes on whether to bring charges against the president via approval of an impeachment resolution, or “articles of impeachment,” by a simple majority of the body’s members.

The Constitution gives House leaders wide latitude in deciding how to conduct impeachment proceedings, legal experts said.

The House Intelligence Committee investigated whether Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to open probes that would benefit him politically, holding weeks of closed-door testimony and televised hearings before issuing a formal evidence report.

The House Judiciary Committee used the report to draft formal charges and voted 23-17 along party lines to approve charges against Trump of abuse of power and obstructing House Democrats’ attempts to investigate him for it.

The Democratic-controlled House approved both of those charges on Dec. 18 in votes that fell almost completely along party lines.

That set up a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate.

WHAT WOULD A SENATE TRIAL LOOK LIKE?

House members act as the prosecutors; the senators as jurors; the chief justice of the United States presides.

Historically, the president has been allowed to have defense lawyers call witnesses and request documents.

Beyond that, parameters of the trial are uncertain at this point. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is pressing for four Trump aides to testify, including Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, and John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has thrown cold water on that idea, saying House Democrats should have secured the testimony of Bolton and Mulvaney during their investigation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has delayed sending over the impeachment articles to the Senate in a bid to pressure McConnell. The two sides appear to have made little progress toward an agreement.

CAN THE SENATE REFUSE TO HOLD A TRIAL?

There is debate about whether the Constitution requires a Senate trial. But Senate rules in effect require a trial, and McConnell has publicly stated that he will allow one to proceed.

Republicans could seek to amend those rules, but such a moveis politically risky and considered unlikely, legal experts said.

WHAT’S THE PARTY BREAKDOWN IN CONGRESS?

The House comprises 431 members at present. Only three of the chamber’s 233 Democrats voted against one or both articles of impeachment; one voted “present” and another did not vote. Among Republicans, 195 voted against both articles and two did not vote. Independent Justin Amash, a former Republican, voted for both articles.

In 1998, when Republicans had a House majority, the chamber also voted largely along party lines to impeach Clinton, a Democrat.

The Senate now has 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who usually vote with the Democrats. Conviction and removal of a president would require a two-thirds majority.

That is highly unlikely in this case. No Senate Republicans have indicated they may vote to convict the leader of their party. Should all 100 senators vote, at least 20 Republicans and all the Democrats and independents would have to vote against him.

WHO BECOMES PRESIDENT IF TRUMP IS REMOVED?

In the unlikely event the Senate convicts Trump, Vice President Mike Pence would become president for the remainder of Trump’s term, which ends on Jan. 20, 2021.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Ross Colvin and Grant McCool)

Explainer: How impeachment works and why Trump is unlikely to be removed

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday instructed the House Judiciary Committee to draft articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump for pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival.

What happens next and why Trump is unlikely to be removed from office are both explained here.

WHY IMPEACHMENT?

The founders of the United States feared presidents abusing their powers, so they included in the Constitution a process for removing one from office.

The president, under the Constitution, can be removed from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

High crimes and misdemeanors have historically encompassed corruption and abuses of the public trust, as opposed to indictable violations of criminal statutes.

Former President Gerald Ford, while in Congress, famously said: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

No president has ever been removed as a direct result of impeachment. One, Richard Nixon, resigned before he could be removed. Two, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Impeachment begins in the House, the lower chamber, which debates and votes on whether to bring charges against the president via approval of an impeachment resolution, or “articles of impeachment,” by a simple majority of the body’s members.

The Constitution gives House leaders wide latitude in deciding how to conduct impeachment proceedings, legal experts said.

The House Intelligence Committee has conducted an investigation into whether Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit him politically, holding weeks of closed-door testimony and televised hearings before issuing a formal evidence report.

The Judiciary panel will use the report to consider formal charges that could form the basis of a full House impeachment vote by the end of December.

If the House approves articles of impeachment, a trial is then held in the Senate. House members act as the prosecutors; the senators as jurors; the chief justice of the United States presides. Historically, the president has been allowed to have defense lawyers call witnesses and request documents.

CAN THE SENATE REFUSE TO HOLD A TRIAL?

There is debate about whether the Constitution requires a Senate trial. But Senate rules in effect require a trial, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has publicly stated that he will allow one to proceed.

Republicans could seek to amend those rules, but such a move is politically risky and considered unlikely, legal experts said.

WHAT ABOUT OPENING A TRIAL AND QUICKLY ENDING IT?

The Senate rules allow members to file, before the conclusion of the trial, motions to dismiss the charges against the president. If such a motion passes by a simple majority the impeachment proceedings effectively end.

Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial, which did not end in a conviction, lasted five weeks. Halfway through the proceedings, a Democratic senator introduced a motion to dismiss, which was voted down.

WHAT’S THE PARTY BREAKDOWN IN CONGRESS?

Democrats control the House. The House comprises 431 members at present, 233 of whom are Democrats. As a result, the Democrats could impeach the Republican Trump with no Republican support.

In 1998, when Republicans had a House majority, the chamber voted largely along party lines to impeach Clinton, a Democrat.

The Senate now has 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who usually vote with the Democrats. Conviction and removal of a president would require a two-thirds majority. A conviction seems unlikely. Should all 100 senators vote, at least 20 Republicans and all the Democrats and independents would have to vote against him.

WHO BECOMES PRESIDENT IF TRUMP IS REMOVED?

In the unlikely event the Senate convicted Trump, Vice President Mike Pence would become president for the remainder of Trump’s term, which ends on Jan. 20, 2021.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe, editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)

Conservative U.S. Justice Gorsuch again sides with liberals in criminal case

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participates in taking a new family photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For the second time in three days, conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch on Wednesday sided with his four liberal colleagues in a 5-4 ruling in favor of a criminal defendant, on this occasion an Oklahoma man convicted of possessing child pornography.

The court ruled that the right of Andre Haymond to face a jury trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment was violated when a judge unilaterally imposed an additional prison sentence after Haymond violated the terms of his supervised release.

Haymond originally was sentenced to just over three years in prison and 10 years of supervised release after being convicted by a jury in 2010 of possessing pornographic images involving children. He was arrested in 2007 after an undercover agent caught him sharing images online.

After completing his sentence, Haymond was found in 2015 in possession of 59 additional images. A judge then imposed a new five-year sentence without a jury’s participation.

Gorsuch, appointed to the court by President Donald Trump in 2017, found that the federal sentencing law under which the judge acted – which required the judge to send Haymond to prison without a jury’s involvement or the requirement that the government prove his guilt – ran afoul of the Constitution as applied in Haymond’s case.

“Only a jury, acting on proof beyond reasonable doubt, may take a person’s liberty. That promise stands as one of the Constitution’s most vital protections against arbitrary government,” Gorsuch wrote.

Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberal justices, did not join Gorsuch’s opinion, but agreed with the outcome.

In dissent, conservative Justice Samuel Alito appeared alarmed that the court might in a future case endanger the entire concept of supervised release. Federal judges in 2018 handled almost 17,000 cases involving revocation of supervised release, Alito said, citing court statistics.

If Gorsuch’s opinion were to be applied more broadly in the future, “the whole system of supervised release would be like a 40-ton truck speeding down a steep mountain road with no brakes,” Alito wrote.

Gorsuch joined the four liberal justices on Monday in a 5-4 ruling striking down as unconstitutionally vague a law imposing stiff criminal sentences for people convicted of certain crimes involving firearms. [nL2N23V0N5]

In both cases, the court’s four other conservative justices were in dissent including Trump’s other appointee, Brett Kavanaugh.

Gorsuch and the liberal justices have been in the majority on four occasions in 5-4 rulings in the current Supreme Court term, which began in October and ends on Thursday.

For a graphic on major U.S. Supreme Court rulings, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2V2T0Uf

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

As U.S. shutdown ties record, Trump weighs emergency declaration

President Donald Trump salutes a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter as he stands with U.S. Border Patrol agents as it flies over the Rio Grande River during his visit to the U.S. - Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, facing the prospect of the longest U.S. government shutdown in history, is considering declaring a national emergency that would likely escalate a policy dispute with Democrats over his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall into a court test of presidential power.

To escape a political trap of his own making, Trump on Thursday suggested that he might declare an emergency so he can bypass Congress to get funding for his wall, which was a central promise of his 2016 election campaign.

As the partial government shutdown entered its 21st day on Friday, Trump reiterated his claim in an early-morning tweet, saying Mexico would indirectly pay for the wall, without offering any evidence. It would become the longest U.S. shutdown on Saturday.

He originally pledged Mexico would pay for the wall, which he says is needed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs. But the Mexican government has refused. Trump is now demanding that Congress provide $5.7 billion in U.S. taxpayer funding for the wall.

Democrats in Congress call the wall an ineffective, outdated answer to a complex problem. The standoff has left a quarter of the federal government closed down and hundreds of thousands of federal employees staying home on furlough or working without pay set to miss their paychecks.

With no Capitol Hill compromise in sight, Trump publicly ruminated on Thursday during a trip to the Texas border about declaring an emergency.

A close Trump confidant judged the time for such a step had come. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement: “It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier. I hope it works.”

The Wall Street Journal, NBC and the Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that the White House had asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look into diverting money from its budget toward the wall and to explore how fast construction could begin under an emergency declaration. Reuters could not immediately verify the accuracy of the reports.

BOXED IN

Critics of the national emergency strategy have said it may be illegal. In any case, it was almost certain to trigger an immediate court challenge from Democrats, including an accusation of trying to circumvent Congress’ power over the national purse strings.

That would push the wall impasse into the courts, allowing the government to be fully reopened while the judges weigh the case, which could take months.

“After the emergency announcement, the path toward construction via executive order may be as unclear as a storm at midnight. But it will at least allow the president to move out of the corner he’s boxed himself into,” said Charles Gabriel, analyst at strategy firm Capital Alpha Partners.

Partial government funding expired on Dec. 22, leaving departments ranging from Justice, Agriculture and Treasury to Commerce and Homeland Security without money to operate programs and pay their workers.

An emergency declaration would come with risks. Even some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress have signaled worries about such an action. Given that the Constitution gives Congress the power to set spending priorities and appropriate money, they worry about a tough legal fight and an unwise precedent.

‘CROSSING THE RUBICON’

“If Trump crosses this Rubicon, what would prevent a Democratic president from declaring a ‘national emergency’ on Day 1 of their administration on climate change and/or healthcare?” Chris Krueger, an analyst at strategy firm Cowen Washington Research Group, asked in a commentary note.

Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who has had good relations with Trump, said declaring a national emergency would be “wrong, but I think that’s his only way out.”

Manchin predicted that if Trump made the declaration, Congress would immediately move to pass bills funding the various agencies, knowing that the president would then be able to sign them into law.

While some Republican senators have begun clamoring for an end to the shutdown, party leaders toeing Trump’s line this week have ignored passage in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives of funding bills for government agencies. The House was expected to pass more such bills on Friday.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)

Eyeing conservative U.S. top court, two states pass abortion measures

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Erin Schaff/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – Voters in Alabama and West Virginia on Tuesday passed ballot measures that could pave the way for new limits or a full ban on abortion in those states if the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

In Oregon, meanwhile, an initiative that would prohibit the use of taxpayer money to fund abortion except in cases of medical necessity appeared headed for defeat.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, legalized abortion nationwide, and the justices have reaffirmed a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion in subsequent rulings since then.

Abortion opponents hope the addition of President Donald Trump’s appointee Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, replacing a retired justice who had protected abortion rights and cementing a 5-4 conservative majority, will lead to a dramatic scaling back or outright reversal of abortion rights recognized under the 1973 ruling.

In Alabama, an amendment to the state’s constitution to formally “recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and rights of children, including the right to life” was leading by a margin of 59 percent to 40 percent with 96 percent of precincts counted, according to the New York Times.

The Republican-backed Amendment 2 does not specifically outlaw or restrict abortion in Alabama. But Republican state Representative Matt Fridy has said he wrote the measure with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in mind.

“We want to make sure that at a state level, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that the Alabama Constitution cannot be used as a mechanism by which to claim that there is a right to abortion,” Fridy told Fox News in an August interview.

In West Virginia, a ballot measure amending the state’s constitution to say that “nothing in this constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or funding of abortion” was ahead 51 percent to 48 percent with 54 out of 55 precincts reporting.

The Republican-led West Virginia legislature voted in March to put the initiative on the ballot, with lawmakers saying they wanted to make clear there was nothing in the state constitution preventing them from passing abortion-related legislation should the Roe ruling be overturned or narrowed.

Oregon’s Measure 106 would amend the state constitution to bar the use of public money to fund abortions except in cases of medical necessity or where mandated by federal law.

“All three of these instances are the latest in a long string of attacks on access to reproductive healthcare nationally,” said Katie Glenn, Alabama state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates. “Amendment 2 in Alabama specifically would pave the way to ban abortion without exception, regardless of whether the person was a victim of rape or incest or if their life is at risk.”

A number of Republican-governed states over the years have passed laws seeking to put restrictions on abortion, some of which have been invalidated by the courts.

The Supreme Court in 2016 bolstered constitutional protections for abortion rights when it threw out key parts of a Texas law that imposed hard-to-meet regulations on abortion facilities and doctors, finding the measure placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion in violation of a 1992 high court precedent.

Anthony Kennedy, the retired justice who Kavanaugh replaced, sided with the court’s four liberals in the 2016 ruling.

Overturning Roe would end a constitutional right to abortion, enabling individual states to set their own policies.

Alabama and West Virginia are among the states that already have laws on the books imposing certain restrictions on abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The institute said four states have laws that would automatically ban abortion if Roe were to be reversed, seven states have laws that express an intention to restrict abortion as much as possible in the absence of Roe, and nine states still have on the books their unenforced, pre-Roe abortion bans.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)