Appeals court finds Florida can require felons to pay fines before right to vote is restored

By Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Florida can require felons to pay all fines, restitution and legal fees they face before they can regain their right to vote, reversing a lower court ruling that held the measure unconstitutional.

The ruling, by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, could influence the election outcome in November.

Florida is considered a must-win in President Donald’s Trump’s bid for re-election and disenfranchised felons account for a significant voting bloc in a state with a history of tight elections.

The dispute, which could ultimately head to U.S. Supreme Court, centers on whether the law is a way around a voter-approved 2018 measure that aimed to end the state’s lifetime prohibition on voting by ex-felons.

The Republican-controlled Florida legislature passed the law the following year, requiring all former felons to pay off outstanding court debts and legal fees to be eligible to vote.

Voting and civil rights groups sued the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and state election officials over that requirement.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in May struck down most of the law as unconstitutional, describing it as a “pay to vote” scheme.

The appeals court, dominated by judges appointed by Trump, delayed the decision while it considered on appeal.

On Friday, a majority of the 11-judge panel found the defendants in the case failed to prove the measure violated the constitution, noting the country has a long history of placing restrictions on voting.

The decision was met with frustration by voting rights groups.

“Florida’s voters spoke loud and clear when nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018,” said Paul Smith, vice president at Campaign Legal Center. “Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. appeals court blocks Trump policy forcing migrants to wait in Mexico

By Mica Rosenberg

(Reuters) – A U.S. federal appeals court in San Francisco on Friday blocked a Trump administration policy that has forced tens of thousands of migrants to wait in Mexico for months for hearings in U.S. immigration courts.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their argument that the program violated U.S. immigration law and international treaty obligations on the treatment of asylum seekers.

The program, which began a year ago and is called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), is one of the most dramatic immigration policy changes enacted by the Trump administration.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made cracking down on immigration a central theme of his more than three years in the White House, has sought through a series of new policies and rule changes to reduce asylum claims filed mostly by Central Americans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment but the administration is likely to quickly appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court as it has done with other rulings.

Some 59,000 people have been sent back to Mexico under the program, which started in San Diego before being expanded to other ports of entry all across the U.S-Mexico border. [L2N25W1G1] It was not immediately clear what would happen to people already in the program.

Migrants, many of them children, have faced violence and homelessness as they wait for their court dates in dangerous border cities. At least 1,000 people returned under the program were violently attacked or threatened in Mexico, according to a Feb 28 Human Rights Watch report that documented kidnappings, rapes and assaults.

The Trump administration argued the program did not violate a principle in international law known as non-refoulement, which says asylum seekers should not be returned to places where they face danger. The administration has said migrants could tell officials at any point in the process they had a fear of returning to Mexico.

But the panel concluded that plaintiffs in the case, which included 11 individual asylum seekers and several immigration advocacy groups, “had shown a likelihood of success on their claim that the MPP does not comply with the United States’ treaty-based non-refoulement obligations.”

The Trump administration has said most asylum petitions are ultimately denied by immigration courts and releasing migrants into the United States to wait for hearings encourages people to disappear into the country. Officials say forcing migrants to wait in Mexico is a way to cut down on fraudulent asylum claims.

In a separate ruling on Friday, the 9th Circuit left in place a lower court’s block on a Trump administration regulation that barred migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry from seeking asylum.

A three-judge panel in that case found the regulation – issued in November 2018 and swiftly enjoined by a federal judge in the Northern District of California – conflicted with federal immigration statutes that govern asylum and amounted to “a categorical ban” on certain asylum seekers.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, Ted Hesson in Washington and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Boston Marathon bomber seeks to avoid death penalty

Boston Marathon bomber seeks to avoid death penalty
By Tim McLaughlin

BOSTON (Reuters) – Lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Thursday will try to persuade a federal appeals court that the death sentence he faces is unfair because it was handed down by a tainted jury.

Tsarnaev’s defense team, in briefs filed with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, have argued that the publicity and manhunt leading to his capture in April 2013 biased the pool of potential jurors, including one actual juror who joined the unanimous vote for the death penalty.

The then-19-year-old Tsarnaev and his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan sparked five days of panic in Boston when they detonated a pair of homemade pressure cooker bombs at the marathon’s finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 200.

The pair eluded capture for days, punctuated by a gunbattle with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, in which Tamerlan was killed. Boston and most of its suburbs were locked down for a day as armed officers and troops conducted a house-to-house search for Dzhokhar.

Tsarnaev, now 26, was sentenced to death in 2015 after a jury found him guilty of killing three people in the April 15, 2013 bombing – Martin Richard, 8; Chinese exchange student Lingzi Lu, 26, and restaurant manager Krystle Campbell – and murdering Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, 26, three days later as the brothers attempted to flee.

Tsarnaev is not expected to be present during two hours of oral arguments at the same federal courthouse in Boston where he was convicted. His lawyers are asking the appeals court to reverse his death sentence.

“Tsarnaev was tried in a community still suffering from his crimes,” his defense team argued in court papers. “Two of the jurors who voted to sentence him to death lied during (jury selection), including the foreperson, who falsely denied calling Tsarnaev a ‘piece of garbage’ on Twitter, and, as the government concedes, failed to disclose that she and her family had sheltered in place in their Dorchester home during the manhunt.”

U.S. Justice Department lawyers say Tsarnaev received a fair trial and the jury was picked from a population mostly opposed to the death penalty. During his trial, a poll by the Boston Globe showed that about two-thirds of Massachusetts residents favored a life sentence for Tsarnaev.

During the trial, the family of the youngest victim, Richard, also asked prosecutors to consider taking the death penalty off the table.

(Reporting By Tim McLaughlin; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)

Charleston mass shooting victims can sue U.S. over gun purchase: court

FILE PHOTO: Dylann Roof sits in the court room at the Charleston County Judicial Center to enter his guilty plea on murder charges in state court for the 2015 shooting massacre at a historic black church, in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Grace Beahm/Pool/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Survivors of a 2015 mass shooting at a South Carolina church can sue the U.S. government over its alleged negligence in allowing Dylann Roof to buy the gun he used to kill nine African-Americans, a federal appeals court said on Friday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the government was not immune from liability under either the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) or the Brady Act to prevent handgun violence.

Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel revived 16 lawsuits that challenged lapses in how the government vetted prospective gun purchasers, including the FBI’s management of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

William Wilkins, a former chief judge of the 4th Circuit representing the victims, said Congress had charged the FBI with adopting procedures “to stop people like Roof who could obtain assassins’ weapons” from doing so.

“The government has to do what the law requires,” Wilkins said in an interview. “It failed to do that in this case.”

Roof, a white supremacist, had been admitted to a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, where he then used his .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol in the shooting.

Victims said a proper background check would have shown that Roof had recently admitted to drug possession, which would have disqualified him from buying the gun from a federally licensed dealer two months earlier.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court that no one disputed that a proper check would have stopped Roof.

But he said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston was wrong to dismiss the lawsuits on immunity grounds in June 2018, even as Gergel faulted the government’s “abysmally poor policy choices” in managing the background check system.

Gregory said the case turned on the NICS examiner’s alleged negligence in disregarding mandatory procedures. “The government can claim no immunity in these circumstances,” he wrote.

Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee partially dissented, saying the government was not immune from Brady Act claims, but that Gergel properly dismissed the FTCA case.

Roof, now 25, was sentenced to death in January 2017 after being convicted on 33 federal counts related to the shooting, including hate crimes. He pleaded guilty three months later to state murder charges, and was sentenced to nine consecutive life terms without parole.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)

Lawsuit over U.S. airport screener abuses is revived

FILE PHOTO: TSA agents check passengers at a security checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport in New York City, New York, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday handed a victory to fliers who object to invasive screenings at U.S. airport security checkpoints, saying screeners are not absolutely immune from lawsuits accusing them of abusive conduct.

In a 9-4 decision, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said Transportation Security Agency (TSA) screeners qualified as “officers of the United States” for purposes of searching passengers “for violations of federal law,” waiving the government’s immunity from some lawsuits.

The decision reversed a July 2018 ruling by a three-judge panel of the same court.

It is a victory for Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Florida, who with her husband sued for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution over a July 2006 altercation at Philadelphia International Airport.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro, who wrote the majority opinion, said the decision was unlikely to spur a flood of litigation, given how “the overwhelming majority” of screeners do their jobs professionally “despite far more grumbling than appreciation.”

Writing for the dissenters, Circuit Judge Cheryl Krause accused the majority of subjecting the government to potential “vast liability” despite a lack of congressional intent.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. court to reconsider shielding airport screeners from abuse claims

FILE PHOTO: A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official wears a TSA badge at Terminal 4 of JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Penney/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court decided to revisit its recent decision that made it difficult for travelers to sue U.S. airport screeners over claims of abuse at security checkpoints.

In a brief order on Wednesday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said a 13-judge panel will reconsider the 2-1 decision at a Feb. 20 hearing, in a rare review by the full court known as “en banc.”

The court had held on July 11 that U.S. Transportation Security Administration screeners were administrative employees of the federal government, and did not qualify as “investigative or law enforcement officers” who could be liable for civil claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

While the decision did not address criminal liability, Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro said in a dissent at the time that it would prevent many passengers from obtaining “any meaningful remedy” for assaults, wrongful detentions and made-up criminal charges, something he said Congress did not intend.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the screeners, declined to comment.

The case had been brought by Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Florida, following a July 2006 screening at Philadelphia International Airport.

Pellegrino objected to the invasiveness of the screening, and was eventually jailed for about 18 hours and criminally charged with assault, making terroristic threats and other crimes, which she denied. She was acquitted at a trial.

Her case drew support from such groups as the Cato Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s vitally important for government officers to be held accountable for intentional misconduct,” ACLU lawyer Hugh Handeyside said in an interview. “Without that possibility, we might see more abuses.”

Ambro said the July 11 decision could provide immunity even in extreme cases, citing a 2015 incident where screeners allegedly manipulated a Denver International Airport checkpoint so a male screener could grope “attractive” male passengers.

Pellegrino, now 69, said an in interview the support she has received has been “astonishing,” adding: “We feel elated today that we’ll have an opportunity to have this reconsidered.”

The 3rd Circuit hears appeals from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but other courts can cite its decisions as precedent.

The case is Pellegrino et al v U.S. Transportation Security Administration et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-3047.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

TSA screeners win immunity from flier abuse claims: U.S. appeals court

FILE PHOTO: A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official's wears a TSA badge at Terminal 4 of JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Penney/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Fliers may have a tough time recovering damages for invasive screenings at U.S. airport security checkpoints, after a federal appeals court on Wednesday said screeners are immune from claims under a federal law governing assaults, false arrests and other abuses.

In a 2-1 vote, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners are shielded by government sovereign immunity from liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act because they do not function as “investigative or law enforcement officers.”

The majority said it was “sympathetic” to concerns that its decision would leave fliers with “very limited legal redress” for alleged mistreatment by aggressive or overzealous screeners, which add to the ordinary stresses of air travel.

“For most people, TSA screenings are an unavoidable feature of flying,” but it is “squarely in the realm” of Congress to expand liability for abuses, Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote.

The decision, the first on the issue by a federal appeals court, was a defeat for Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Florida.

She and her husband had sued for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution over a July 2006 altercation at Philadelphia International Airport.

Pellegrino on Wednesday said she was reviewing the decision. A lawyer who helped with her appeal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to court papers, Pellegrino had been randomly selected for additional screening at the Philadelphia airport before boarding a US Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Pellegrino, then 57, objected to the invasiveness of the search, but conditions deteriorated and she was later jailed for about 18 hours, the papers show. Criminal charges were filed, and Pellegrino was acquitted at a March 2008 trial.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro dissented from Wednesday’s decision.

“By analogizing TSA searches to routine administrative inspections, my colleagues preclude victims of TSA abuses from obtaining any meaningful remedy for a variety of intentional tort claims,” he wrote.

Torts are civil wrongs that can result in damages.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney William McSwain in Philadelphia, whose office represented TSA officials, had no immediate comment.

The appeals court ruled 11 months after throwing out a First Amendment claim by an architect, Roger Vanderklok, who said he was arrested in retaliation for asking to file a complaint against an ill-tempered TSA supervisor.

The case is Pellegrino et al v U.S. Transportation Security Administration et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-3047.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

Trump picks conservative judge Gorsuch for U.S. Supreme Court

By Lawrence Hurley and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday nominated Neil Gorsuch for a lifetime job on the U.S. Supreme Court, picking the 49-year-old federal appeals court judge to restore the court’s conservative majority and help shape rulings on divisive issues such as abortion, gun control, the death penalty and religious rights.

The Colorado native faces a potentially contentious confirmation battle in the U.S. Senate after Republicans last year refused to consider Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy caused by the February 2016 death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia.

Gorsuch is the youngest nominee to the nation’s highest court in more than a quarter century, and he could influence the direction of the court for decades.

Announcing the selection at the White House flanked by the judge and his wife, Trump said Gorsuch’s resume is “as good as it gets.” Trump said he hopes Republicans and Democrats can come together on this nomination for the good of the country.

“Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind, tremendous disciple, and has earned bipartisan support,” Trump said.

“Depending on their age, a justice can be active for 50 years. And his or her decisions can last a century or more, and can often be permanent,” Trump added.

Gorsuch is a judge on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and was appointed to that post by Republican President George W. Bush in 2006.

Some Democrats in the U.S. Senate, which votes on whether to confirm judicial nominees, have already said they would seek to block whoever Trump nominates.

Gorsuch is considered a conservative intellectual, known for backing religious rights, and is seen as very much in the mold of Scalia, a leading conservative voice on the court for decades.

“I respect … the fact that in our legal order it is for Congress and not the courts to write new laws,” Gorsuch said, as Trump looked on. “It is the role of judges to apply, not alter, the work of the people’s representatives. A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge, stretching for results he prefers rather than those the law demands.”

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the choice of Gorsuch was seen by the White House as a significant departure from Supreme Court nominations from the recent past, given that many justices have come from the eastern United States. Gorsuch lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he raises horses and is a life-long outdoorsman.

The official described Gorsuch as a mainstream judge who should easily be confirmed by the Senate. The official noted that the Senate confirmed him for his current judgeship in 2006 by voice vote with no one voting against him.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said that “the Senate owes the American people a thorough and unsparing examination of this nomination,” saying Trump “outsourced this process to far-right interest groups.”

The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way immediately opposed the nomination, with its president, Michael Keegan, describing Gorsuch as an “ideological warrior who puts his own right-wing politics above the Constitution.”

The administration official said the White House feels Gorsuch has the qualities that Democratic senators said they wanted to see in a justice during visits with senior Trump officials about filling the vacancy.

“He plays it straight. He sticks to principles, and his opinions reflect a consistency regardless of who is in his courtroom,” the official said of Gorsuch.

Trump made his choice between two U.S. appeals court judges, Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman of the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to a source involved in the selection process.

Gorsuch became the youngest U.S. Supreme Court nominee since Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1991 selected conservative Clarence Thomas, who was 43 at the time.

He is the son of Anne Burford, the first woman to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She served in Republican President Ronald Reagan’s administration but resigned in 1983 amid a fight with Congress over documents on the EPA’s use of a fund created to clean up toxic waste dumps nationwide.

Trump’s selection was one of the most consequential appointments of his young presidency as he moved to restore a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that had been in place for decades until Scalia died at age 79 on Feb. 13, 2016.

Trump, who took office on Jan. 20, got the opportunity to name Scalia’s replacement only because the Republican-led U.S. Senate, in an action with little precedent in U.S. history, refused to consider Obama’s nominee for the post, appeals court judge Merrick Garland. Obama nominated Garland on March 16 but Republican senators led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denied Garland the customary confirmation hearings and vote.

Trump has said his promise to appoint a conservative justice was one of the reasons he won the Nov. 8 presidential election, with Christian conservatives and others emphasizing the importance of the pick during the campaign. Trump last week said evangelical Christians would love his nominee.

Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate. The minority Democrats, irate over Garland’s rebuff, potentially could try to block the nomination with procedural hurdles.

The new appointee would expand the court’s conservative wing, made up of John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Kennedy long has been considered the court’s pivotal vote, sometimes siding with the liberals in key cases such as the June 2016 ruling striking down abortion restrictions in Texas.

The court’s restored conservative majority likely would be supportive toward the death penalty and gun rights and hostile toward campaign finance limits. Scalia’s replacement also could be pivotal in cases involving abortion, religious rights, presidential powers, transgender rights, voting rights, federal regulations others.

Gorsuch has strong academic qualifications, with an Ivy League education: attending Columbia University and, like several of the other justices on the court, Harvard Law School. He also completed a doctorate in legal philosophy at Oxford University, spent several years in private practice and worked in George W. Bush’s Justice Department.

Gorsuch joined an opinion in 2013 saying that owners of private companies could object on religious grounds to a provision of the Obamacare health insurance law requiring employers to provide coverage for birth control for women.

As long as Kennedy and four liberals remain on the bench, the court is not expected to pare back abortion rights as many U.S. conservatives fervently hope. The Supreme Court legalized abortion in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. In June, the justices ruled 5-3 to strike down a Texas law that restricted abortion access, with Kennedy and the liberals in the majority.

The current vacancy is the court’s longest since a 391-day void from 1969 to 1970 during Republican Richard Nixon’s presidency. After Abe Fortas resigned from the court in May 1969, the Senate voted down two nominees put forward by Nixon before confirming Harry Blackmun, who became a justice in June 1970. Aside from that one, no other Supreme Court vacancy since the U.S. Civil War years of the 1860s has been as long as the current one.

Some Democrats have threatened to pursue a procedural hurdle called a filibuster, meaning 60 votes would be needed in the 100-seat Senate unless its long-standing rules are changed. Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 52-48 majority, meaning some Democratic votes would be needed to confirm his pick.

Trump said last week he would favor Senate Republicans eliminating the filibuster, a change dubbed the “nuclear option,” for Supreme Court nominees if Democrats block his pick.

Trump during his presidency may get to make additional appointments to the Supreme Court. Liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who Trump called upon to resign last July after she called him “a faker,” is 83 while Kennedy is 80. Stephen Breyer, another liberal, is 78.

If any of those three is replaced by a Trump appointee, conservatives would be eager to bring cases challenging the Roe v. Wade ruling in the hope it would be overturned, long a goal for many Christian conservatives.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Chung, Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey, Ayesha Rascoe and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)