Supreme Court rejects limits to partisan gerrymandering

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a major blow to election reformers, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected efforts to rein in the contentious practice of manipulating electoral district boundaries to entrench one party in power by turning away challenges to political maps in Maryland and North Carolina.

The justices, in a 5-4 decision with the court’s conservative in the majority and liberals in dissent, ruled in a decision with nationwide implications that judges do not have the ability to curb the practice known as partisan gerrymandering. The court sided with Republican lawmakers in North Carolina and Democratic legislators in Maryland who drew electoral district boundaries that were challenged by voters.

The ruling, authored by Chief justice John Roberts, delivered a huge setback to election reformers who had hoped the court would intervene over a growing trend in which parties that control state legislatures use the electoral district line-drawing process to cement their grip on power and dilute the voting power of people who support the rival party.

The court ruled for the first time that federal courts have no authority to curb partisan gerrymandering – a decision that could give lawmakers who control state legislatures even more incentive to draw maps after the 2020 census that disadvantage voters who tend to back the rival party.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court’s liberals, took the unusual step of reading her dissent from the bench.

“For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” Kagan said.

In the Maryland case, the court sided with Democratic legislators in Maryland who reconfigured the U.S. House of Representatives district at issue.

In the North Carolina case, the justices overturned a lower court decision that ordered that the state’s 13 U.S. House of Representatives districts be reconfigured before the 2020 U.S. election to remove the partisan bias. The lower court had decided that the Republican-drawn districts were so politically biased that they violated the rights of voters under the U.S. Constitution.

The decision could have a major impact in states across the country. Critics have said gerrymandering is becoming more extreme and can better engineer election outcomes with the use of precise voter data and powerful computer software. The justices on May 24 blocked lower court rulings that had struck down Republican-drawn electoral maps in Michigan and Ohio and had ordered new ones to be drawn for the 2020 election.

The high court previously had struggled to resolve the legality of partisan gerrymandering, a longstanding practice in which boundaries of legislative districts are reworked with the aim of tightening one party’s grip on power. The justices in June 2018 failed to issue definitive rulings on partisan gerrymandering in two cases – this same one from Maryland and another involving a Republican-drawn electoral map in Wisconsin.

The boundaries of legislative districts across the country are redrawn to reflect population changes contained in the census conducted by the federal government every decade, a head count mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

This redistricting in most states is carried out by the party in power, though some states in the interest of fairness assign the task to independent commissions. Gerrymandering typically involves politicians drawing legislative districts to pack voters who tend to favor a particular party into a small number of districts to diminish their statewide voting power while dispersing others in districts in numbers too small to be a majority.

Critics have said partisan gerrymandering, when taken to extremes, warps democracy by intentionally diluting the power of some voters and the electability candidates they support.

Gerrymandering is a practice dating back two centuries in the United States. But critics have said it is becoming more extreme with the use of precision computer modeling to guide the creation of district boundaries that maximize the clout of one party’s voters at the expense of other voters.

While the Supreme Court has ruled against gerrymandering intended to harm the electoral clout of racial minorities, it has never curbed gerrymandering carried out purely for partisan advantage.

Democrats have said partisan gerrymandering by Republicans in such states as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania helped President Donald Trump’s party maintain control of the U.S. House and various state legislatures for years, although Democrats seized control of the House in last November’s elections and made inroads in state legislatures.

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

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung)

U.S. trial tests claims Roundup weed killer caused cancer

By Jim Christie

(Reuters) – Bayer AG on Monday faced a second U.S. jury over allegations that its popular glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup causes cancer, six months after the company’s share price was rocked by a $289 million verdict in California state court.

The lawsuit by California resident Edwin Hardeman against the company began on Monday morning in federal rather than state court. The trial is also a test case for a larger litigation. More than 760 of the 9,300 Roundup cases nationwide are consolidated in the federal court in San Francisco that is hearing Hardeman’s case.

Bayer denies all allegations that Roundup or glyphosate cause cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, saying decades of independent studies have shown the world’s most widely used weed killer to be safe for human use and noting that regulators around the world have approved the product.

During the first phase in the trial, the nine-person jury is asked to weigh scientific evidence to determine whether Roundup caused Hardeman’s lymphoma.

Aimee Wagstaff, a lawyer for Hardeman, told a packed courtroom during her opening statement on Monday that chemicals in Roundup made the weed killer more toxic than glyphosate alone, causing the man’s cancer.

But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who presides over the federal litigation, repeatedly scolded her for “crossing the line” by referring to internal corporate communications the judge has said have no bearing on the science in the case.

“You completely disregarded the limitations,” Chhabria said.

In a January ruling, Chhabria called evidence by plaintiffs that the company allegedly attempted to influence regulators and manipulate public opinion “a distraction” from the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes cancer.

If the jury determines Roundup caused Hardeman’s cancer, the judge said such evidence could be presented in a second trial phase.

Plaintiffs criticized Chhabria’s order dividing the trial and restricting evidence as “unfair,” saying their scientific evidence allegedly showing glyphosate causes cancer is inextricably linked to Monsanto’s alleged wrongful conduct.

Evidence of corporate misconduct was seen as playing a key role in the finding by a California state court jury in August that Roundup caused another man’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that Bayer’s Monsanto unit failed to warn consumers about the weed killer’s cancer risks. That jury’s $289 million damages award was later reduced to $78 million.

Bayer’s share price dropped 10 percent following the verdict and has remained volatile.

Brian Stekloff, a lawyer for Bayer, in his opening statement attacked the idea of a link between Roundup and cancer. He noted U.S. rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have remained steady over time, even when Roundup use began to soar in the 1990s.

Hardeman began using the Roundup brand herbicide with glyphosate in the 1980s to control poison oak and weeds on his property and sprayed “large volumes” of the chemical for many years on a regular basis, according to court documents. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 66 in February 2015 and filed his lawsuit a year later. Hardeman is currently in remission.

But Stekloff on Monday said Hardeman’s age and his history of chronic hepatitis C were known risk factors for developing lymphoma. The lawyer also said the majority of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma incidents are idiopathic, or have no known cause.

(Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco, Writing by Tina Bellon; editing by Anthony Lin, Lisa Shumamker and Tom Brown)

California tells Trump that lawsuit over border wall is ‘imminent’

FILE PHOTO: The prototypes for U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall are seen behind the border fence between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes/File Photo

By David Morgan and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – California will “imminently” challenge President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to obtain funds for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on Sunday.

“Definitely and imminently,” Becerra told ABC’s “This Week” program when asked whether and when California would sue the Trump administration in federal court. Other states controlled by Democrats are expected to join the effort.

“We are prepared, we knew something like this might happen. And with our sister state partners, we are ready to go,” he said.

Trump invoked the emergency powers on Friday under a 1976 law after Congress rebuffed his request for $5.7 billion to help build the wall that was a signature 2016 campaign promise.

The move is intended to allow him to redirect money appropriated by Congress for other purposes to wall construction.

The White House says Trump will have access to about $8 billion. Nearly $1.4 billion was allocated for border fencing under a spending measure approved by Congress last week, and Trump’s emergency declaration is aimed at giving him another $6.7 billion for the wall.

Becerra cited Trump’s own comment on Friday that he “didn’t need to do this” as evidence that the emergency declaration is legally vulnerable.

“It’s become clear that this is not an emergency, not only because no one believes it is but because Donald Trump himself has said it’s not,” he said.

Becerra and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, have been expected to sue to block Trump’s move.

Becerra told ABC that California and other states are waiting to learn which federal programs will lose money to determine what kind of harm the states could face from the declaration.

He said California may be harmed by less federal funding for emergency response services, the military and stopping drug trafficking.

“We’re confident there are at least 8 billion ways that we can prove harm,” Becerra said.

Three Texas landowners and an environmental group filed the first lawsuit against Trump’s move on Friday, saying it violates the Constitution and would infringe on their property rights.

The legal challenges could at least slow down Trump’s efforts to build the wall but would likely end up at the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

Congress never defined a national emergency in the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which has been invoked dozens of times without a single successful legal challenge.

Democrats in Congress have vowed to challenge Trump’s declaration and several Republican lawmakers have said they are not certain whether they would support the president.

“I think many of us are concerned about this,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Trump could, however, veto any resolution of disapproval from Congress.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News on Sunday that Trump’s declaration would allow the administration to build “hundreds of miles” of border wall by September 2020.

“We have 120-odd miles that are already under construction or are already obligated plus the additional funds we have and then we’re going to outlay; we’re going to look at a few hundred miles.”

Trump’s proposed wall and wider immigration policies are likely to be a major campaign issue ahead of the next presidential election in November 2020, where he will seek a second four-year term.

(Reporting by David Morgan and David Lawder; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Judge denies tribes’ request to block final link in Dakota pipeline

Police vehicles idle on the outskirts of the opposition camp against the Dakota Access oil pipeline near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge denied a request by Native American tribes seeking a halt to construction of the final link in the Dakota Access Pipeline on Monday, the controversial project that has sparked months of protests from tribal activists seeking to halt the 1,170-mile line.

Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., at a hearing, rejected the request from the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, who had argued that the project will prevent them from practicing religious ceremonies at a lake they say is surrounded by sacred ground.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week granted a final easement to Energy Transfer Partners LP, the company building the $3.8-billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), after President Donald Trump issued an order to advance the pipeline days after he took office in January.

Lawyers for the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Standing Rock Sioux wanted Judge Boasberg to block construction with a temporary restraining order.

“We are contending that the waters of Lake Oahe are sacred to Cheyenne River and all of its members, and that the very presence of a pipeline, not only construction but possible oil flow through that pipeline, would obstruct the free exercise of our religious practices,” Matthew Vogel, a legislative associate for the Cheyenne River Sioux, told reporters in a conference call ahead of the hearing.

The company only needs to build a final 1,100-foot (335 meter) connection in North Dakota under Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River system, to complete the pipeline.

The line is set to run from oilfields in the Northern Plains of North Dakota to the Midwest, and then to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, could be operating by early May.

Chase Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Tribe, said in the call that the pipeline would also cause economic harm to Native Americans.

The tribes could be facing a difficult task in convincing Boasberg to grant the restraining order. Last September, he rejected a broad request by Native Americans to block the project. That ruling was superseded by the Obama Administration, which delayed the line, seeking more environmental review.

Thousands of tribe members and environmental activists have protested the pipeline setting up camps last year on Army Corps land in the North Dakota plains. In December, the Obama Administration denied ETP’s last needed permit, but with Trump’s stated support of the pipeline, that victory was short-lived for the Standing Rock Sioux.

The Army Corps has said it will close remaining camps on federal lands along the Cannonball River in North Dakota after Feb. 22.

Cleanup efforts continued in the main protest camp located on federal land over the weekend. Only a few hundred protesters remain, and crews have been removing tipis and yurts. The Standing Rock tribe has been asking protesters to leave.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; additional reporting by Terray Sylvester in Cannon Ball, North Dakota; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Oregon militants acquitted of conspiracy in wildlife refuge seizure

Leader of a group of armed protesters Ammon Bundy talks to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon

By Scott Bransford

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – A federal court jury delivered a surprise verdict on Thursday acquitting anti-government militant leader Ammon Bundy and six followers of conspiracy charges stemming from their role in the armed takeover of a wildlife center in Oregon earlier this year.

The outcome marked a stinging defeat for federal prosecutors and law enforcement in a trial the defendants sought to turn into a pulpit for airing their opposition to U.S. government control over millions of acres of public lands in the West.

Bundy and others, including his brother and co-defendant Ryan Bundy, cast the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as a patriotic act of civil disobedience. Prosecutors called it a lawless scheme to seize federal property by force.

Jubilant supporters of the Bundys thronged the courthouse after the verdict, hailing the trial’s outcome as vindication of a political ideology that is profoundly distrustful of federal authority and challenges its legitimacy.

“We’re so grateful to the jurors who weren’t swayed by the nonsense that was going on,” defendant Shawna Cox told reporters. “God said we weren’t guilty. We weren’t guilty of anything.”

As the seven-week-long trial in the U.S. District Court in Portland climaxed, U.S. marshals wrestled to the floor Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, as he argued heatedly with the judge over the terms of his client’s continued detention.

The Bundys still face assault, conspiracy and other charges from a separate armed standoff in 2014 at the Nevada ranch of their father, Cliven Bundy, triggered when federal agents seized his cattle for his failure to pay grazing fees for his use of public land.

The outcome of the Oregon trial clearly shocked many in the packed courtroom. Attorneys exchanged looks of astonishment with the defendants, then hugged their clients as the not-guilty verdicts were read amid gasps from spectators.

Outside the courthouse, supporters celebrated by shouting “Hallelujah” and reading passages from the U.S. Constitution. One man rode his horse, named Lady Liberty, in front of the courthouse carrying an American flag.

The verdict came after four days of deliberations. One juror, a former federal employee, was dismissed over questions of bias on Wednesday and replaced by a substitute.

The 12-member panel found all seven defendants – six men and a woman – not guilty of the most serious charge, conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force. That charge alone carried a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

The defendants also were acquitted of illegal possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property, except in the case of Ryan Bundy, for whom jurors were deadlocked on the charge of theft.

The takeover of the wildlife refuge was initially sparked by outrage over the plight of two imprisoned Oregon ranchers the occupiers believed had been unfairly treated in an arson case. But the militants said they were also protesting larger grievances at what they saw as government tyranny.

The standoff led to the shooting death of one protester, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, by police shortly after the Bundy brothers were arrested, and left parts of the refuge badly damaged.

More than two dozen people, in all, have been criminally charged in the occupation, and a second group of defendants is due to stand trial in February.

Mumford told reporters he believed Ammon and Ryan Bundy would remain in custody for the time being but may be transferred to Nevada.

Four co-defendants were free on their own recognizance during the trial. A fifth, David Fry, the last of the occupiers to surrender in February, was released hours after the verdict.

(Reporting by Scott Bransford in Portland; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Simon Cameron-Moore)