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)

U.S. top court to hear dispute over California pregnancy center law

An activist holds a rosary while ralling against abortion outside City Hall in Los Angeles, California September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether a California law requiring private facilities that counsel pregnant women against abortion to post signs telling clients how to get state-funded abortions and contraceptives violates free speech rights.

The justices will hear an appeal brought by Christian-based non-profit facilities sometimes called “crisis pregnancy centers” of a lower court ruling that upheld the Democratic-backed 2015 California law. The challengers argue that the law, by forcing them to post the information, violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

California argued that the Reproductive FACT Act, passed by a Democratic-led legislature and signed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, is justified by its responsibility to regulate the healthcare industry and is needed to ensure that women know the state has programs providing abortions and birth control.

The law requires licensed healthcare facilities to post a notice saying that the state has programs for “immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services … prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women.” For non-licensed medical facilities, an additional notice is required stating that the center “has no licensed medical provider who provides or directly supervises the provision of services.”

The facilities had asked the high court to hear their appeal of a ruling last year by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the law.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to similar law in New York City, although that case differed from the California dispute because the lower court had struck down several provisions, including one that required centers to disclose whether they provide abortions and other reproductive care.

The “crisis pregnancy centers” counsel women not to have abortions. These facilities, according to critics, often are located near hospitals and abortion clinics, offer ultrasounds and are staffed by people wearing medical garb. Some are medically licensed facilities, others are not.

Challengers included the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an umbrella group for anti-abortion pregnancy crisis centers that said its members include 73 centers in California that are medically licensed and 38 that are not.

The other plaintiffs are two centers in San Diego County: Pregnancy Care Center and Fallbrook Pregnancy Resource Center. The court did not act on three other cases brought by other centers making similar claims.

The Supreme Court found that women have a constitutional right to an abortion in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade. The court most recently backed abortion rights in 2016 when it struck down a Texas law that imposed strict regulations on clinics that provided abortions.

 

 

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

 

Supreme Court to hear major case on political boundaries

FILE PHOTO - A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether the U.S. Constitution limits how far lawmakers can go to redraw voting districts to favor one political party over another in a case that could have huge consequences for American elections.

The high court has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps on the grounds of racial discrimination, as it did on May 22 when it found that Republican legislators in North Carolina had drawn two electoral districts to diminish the statewide political clout of black voters.

But the justices have not thrown out state electoral maps drawn simply to give one party an advantage over another.

The justices will take up Wisconsin’s appeal of a lower court ruling last November that state Republican lawmakers violated the Constitution when they created state legislative districts with the partisan aim of hobbling Democrats in legislative races. The case will be one of the biggest heard by the Supreme Court during its term that begins in October.

The case involves a long-standing practice known as gerrymandering, a term meaning manipulating electoral boundaries for an unfair political advantage. The lower court ruled that the Republican-led legislature’s redrawing of state legislative districts in 2011 amounted to “an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.”

A panel of three federal judges in Madison ruled 2-1 that the way the Republicans redrew the districts violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection under the law and free speech by undercutting the ability of Democratic voters to turn their votes into seats in Wisconsin’s legislature.

In a possible sign of deep ideological divisions among the nine justices over the issue, the court’s conservative majority granted Wisconsin’s request, despite opposition from the four liberal justices, to put on hold the lower court’s order requiring the state to redraw its electoral maps by Nov. 1.

That means Wisconsin will not need to put in place a new electoral map while the justices consider the matter.

A Supreme Court ruling faulting the Wisconsin redistricting plan could have far-reaching consequences for the redrawing of electoral districts due after the 2020 U.S. census. State and federal legislative district boundaries are reconfigured every decade after the census so that each one holds about same number of people, but are sometimes draw in a way that packs voters who tend to favor a particular party into certain districts so as to diminish their statewide voting power.

Wisconsin Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel welcomed the justices’ decision to hear the state’s appeal and called the state’s redistricting process “entirely lawful and constitutional.”

The case in the short term could affect congressional maps in about half a dozen states and legislative maps in about 10 states, before having major implications for the post-2020 redistricting, according to the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

‘POLITICS GOING HAYWIRE’

“Wisconsin’s gerrymander was one of the most aggressive of the decade, locking in a large and implausibly stable majority for Republicans in what is otherwise a battleground state,” said Brennan Center redistricting expert Thomas Wolf. “It’s a symptom of politics going haywire and something that we increasingly see when one party has sole control of the redistricting process.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the court’s liberals in major cases, could cast the decisive vote. Kennedy, writing in a 2004 case, indicated he may be open to the idea that racial gerrymanders could violate the Constitution. Though a “workable standard” defining it did not exist, he suggested one might emerge in a future case.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking improper actions at the state level to suppress the turnout of minority voters and others who tend to support Democrats and maximize the number of party members in state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans call their actions lawful.

Republicans control the U.S. Congress. They also have majorities in an all-time high of 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, according to the Republican State Leadership Committee.

After winning control of the state legislature in 2010, Wisconsin Republicans redrew the statewide electoral map.

They were able to amplify Republican voting power, gaining more seats than their percentage of the statewide vote would suggest. In 2012, Republicans received about 49 percent of the vote but won 60 of the 99 state Assembly seats. In 2014, the party garnered 52 percent of the vote and 63 Assembly seats.

A dozen Wisconsin Democratic Party voters in 2015 sued state election officials, saying the redistricting divided Democratic voters in some areas and packed them in others to dilute their electoral clout and benefit Republican candidates.

The lower court found that redistricting efforts are unlawful partisan gerrymandering when they seek to entrench the party in power, and have no other legitimate justification.

The state argues recent election results favoring Republicans were “a reflection of Wisconsin’s natural political geography,” with Democrats concentrated in urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court sides with officials sued over post-Sept. 11 detentions

FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to former President George W. Bush’s attorney general, FBI chief and other officials, ruling they cannot be sued over the treatment of detainees, mainly Muslims, rounded up in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The justices, in a 4-2 decision, reversed a lower court’s decision that said the long-running suit brought by the detainees could proceed against former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and others. Mueller is now the special counsel investigating possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign team in the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Three of the justices did not participate in the ruling.

The civil rights lawsuit sought to hold the various former officials responsible for racial and religious profiling and abuse in detention that the plaintiffs said they endured after being swept up following the 2001 attacks by al Qaeda Islamic militants on the United States.

Writing for the court, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy said the allegations were serious and that the Supreme Court did not condone the treatment of the detainees. But, Kennedy said, the only issue for the court was whether Congress had authorized such lawsuits against public officials. It had not, the justices concluded.

The court sent one part of the case back to lower courts to determine if claims against Dennis Hasty, the warden in charge of the detention facility in Brooklyn where the detainees were held, could go forward.

The suit was filed by a group of Muslim, Arab and South Asian non-U.S. citizens who, their lawyers said, were held as terrorism suspects based on their race, religion, ethnicity and immigration status and abused in detention before being deported.

The lawsuit claimed that the senior Bush administration officials were liable because they made the policy decisions that led to the round-up and confinement of the plaintiffs.

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

Breyer took the relatively unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench, saying such lawsuits should be allowed to go forward in order “to provide appropriate compensation for those deprived of important constitutional rights and in times of special national-security need.”

The plaintiffs were charged with only civil immigration violations. But they said they were subjected at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center to 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement, strip searches, sleep deprivation, beatings and other abuses and denied the ability to practice their religion.

They said their rights under the U.S. Constitution to due process and equal protection under the law were violated.

During the U.S. Justice Department’s massive investigation after the Sept. 11 attacks, certain immigrants in the country illegally were detained until being cleared of involvement.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ashcroft, Mueller and former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar could be sued, based on a 1971 Supreme Court precedent. In 2013, a judge had dismissed the claims against them but allowed some against detention facility wardens.

Government lawyers have said there is no proof Ashcroft or Mueller personally condoned any potential unconstitutional actions.

The plaintiffs included Benamar Benatta, an Algerian Muslim who was seeking refugee status in Canada, and Ahmed Khalifa, an Egyptian Muslim who said he was on vacation.

In a similar previous case, the Supreme Court in 2009 backed Ashcroft, saying a lawsuit by detainees failed to contain specific details on Ashcroft’s involvement.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

As vote looms, Thailand’s powerful army aims to preserve role

Thai soldiers attend a morning training at military barracks in Prachin Buri outside Bangkok, Thailand

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Andrew R.C. Marshall

BANGKOK, Thailand (Reuters) – Thailand votes on Sunday for a new constitution that aims to subdue political parties and give the generals a permanent role in overseeing the country’s economic development, senior military officers say.

The kingdom of Thailand has a long history of coups. But interviews with officers, including two generals, show the military’s ambition is to make such interventions unnecessary by weakening political parties and maintaining permanent influence over elected governments.

Future governments, they said, would be legally obliged to follow a 20-year national development plan set by the army.

Under the proposed charter, which would replace one torn up following the May 2014 coup, a junta-appointed Senate with seats reserved for military commanders would check the powers of elected lawmakers.

“They will be sitting there to make sure all the reforms will be carried out and at the same time make sure the newly elected government does exactly what they’re supposed to do,” General Thawip Netniyom, chief of Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC), told Reuters.

The generals, he said, would be baby-sitting, “somewhat”.

One clause in the draft constitution would allow an unelected prime minister to take power in the event of a political crisis – that’s what happened in 2014 when army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha led a coup against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra and  afterward became prime minister.

PREEMINENT INSTITUTION

Thailand’s military has always been powerful, but the 2014 coup established it as the nation’s preeminent institution – arguably more powerful than even the monarchy, which faces uncertain times as the health of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, fades.

It has long been assumed the military is keeping a tight grip on power to oversee the royal succession. But interviews with the generals disclosed the new constitution is part of a fundamental political restructuring guaranteeing the military a permanent role in how Thailand is run.

The draft constitution allows the military and its allies to “legally compel” future governments to execute a 20-year plan rather than their own short-sighted populist policies, said Major General Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, the deputy government spokesman.

No Thai government has ever adopted a 20-year national strategy, never mind implemented it.

The plan itself is still a work in progress, said Weerachon. Executed by both the public and private sector, it will be divided into five-year periods and provide a blueprint for reforms on social, economic and political issues.

Since helping to overthrow an absolute monarchy in what was then the Kingdom of Siam in 1932, the military has staged 19 coups, 12 of them successful, and has provided 12 of its 29 prime ministers in that time.

ROADMAP TO ELECTIONS

The junta has appeared particularly sensitive to criticism in the lead-up to the vote. Dozens of activists and politicians have been arrested in recent weeks for campaigning against the constitution.

No such restrictions apply to the “yes” vote, with the junta   broadcasting songs and television programs to drum up support for the constitutional referendum.[L4N1A72VE]

It is unclear what will happen if the draft is rejected, which would raise questions about the junta’s roadmap to a promised general election next year.. Polls show a large majority of Thailand’s 50 million voters are undecided.

Interviews with Thai officers show that while the military has lost  faith in civilian rule, it recognizes that democracy – or the military’s version of it – is integral to Thailand’s development and international image.

Elected politicians, said the officers, could never be trusted to act in the national interest because voters only chose parties that promise wasteful populist policies.

“Every government policy was based on its own political interest, and that leads to many problems – corruption, inequality, dispute,” said Weerachon, the deputy spokesman.

If recent governments had followed the long-term plans of  technocrats, rather than pursuing their own policies, “Thailand would be a developed country by now,” he said.

The draft constitution would preclude the need for any future coups because the military, which historically has operated independently of civilian rule, would have indirect but decisive power over future governments.

“The idea is to never have another coup,” said Thawip. “We wish that this won’t need to happen.”

CONTROLLING GOVERNMENT

It is a radical vision, and one that signals the rise of a politically ambitious class of officers not seen for a generation. They were forged by the previous coup in 2006, which overthrew populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

That coup’s failure to bring stability to Thailand ultimately convinced the military to get more involved in politics, not less, and to rewrite the rules of the game.

Key personnel in the 2006 coup belong to a military faction nicknamed the “Eastern Tigers,” formally known as the 2nd Infantry Division of the First Army Region. Coup leader Prayuth  and his powerful deputy, Ge.l Prawit Wongsuwan, are both from “Eastern Tigers” regiments.

Thawip said it didn’t matter which political party won the next election, “as long as we make sure they will follow the new constitution.” The aim of the constitution was “to keep watching or controlling the government’s actions (to) make sure they aren’t doing anything that undemocratic.”

The Jakkapong army camp in Thailand’s eastern Prachin Buri province, where the Eastern Tigers hail from, is the cradle of this ambitious new generation of officers.

At the camp soldiers carry out morning drills amid signs saying ‘Strong Army, Stable Country’.

Obedience, said Major Pongpon Wijitkarn, a drill instructor at the camp, is the first quality demanded of new recruits and one the military demands of civilian politicians.

“If we soldiers are ordered to do something, we do it,” Pongpon said as his men marched up and down beneath a tropical sun. “If politicians don’t follow through with something, we can stand over them and ensure that they follow through with their promises.”

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Bill Tarrant)