U.S. watchdog investigating immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies

By Ted Hesson and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the department’s internal watchdog is investigating a Georgia immigration detention center tied to allegations of improper hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.

Wolf said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general would interview people at the facility on Wednesday and Thursday, but cautioned that “some of the facts on the ground” did not back up the allegations.

“At this point, they are allegations, and we need to make sure that they fully investigate them so that all sides have a chance to be heard,” Wolf said during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The claims were made by Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, in a complaint filed to the inspector general last week.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has denied the allegations, which have shocked people across Latin America, from where many U.S. immigrants hail, and caused an outcry among Democratic lawmakers.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump-appointed justice could signal major Supreme Court shift on abortion

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With President Donald Trump poised to nominate a U.S. Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy created by the death of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a new 6-3 conservative majority could be emboldened to roll back abortion rights.

The ultimate objective for U.S. conservative activists for decades has been to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. But short of that, there are other options the court has in curtailing abortion rights.

Republican-led states including Ohio, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama have passed a variety of abortion restrictions in recent years. Some that seek to ban abortion at an early stage of pregnancy are still being litigated in lower courts and could reach the justices relatively soon.

Abortion is one the most divisive issues in the United States. Conservative opposition to it has been a driving force behind Republicans, including Trump, making a high priority of judicial appointments in recent years.

“Roe v. Wade is on the line in a way it never has been before,” said Julie Rikelman, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which regularly challenges abortion restrictions.

Even if Roe is not overturned, “we could be in a situation where the court is upholding even more restrictions on abortion,” Rikelman added.

Trump has said he intends to announce his nomination on Saturday, with conservative appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa considered the frontrunners to be named to succeed Ginsburg, who was a strong defender of abortion rights. Ginsburg died on Friday at age 87.

The leadership of the Republican-controlled Senate is poised to move forward with the nomination even as Trump seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

Even though the court had a 5-4 conservative majority before Ginsburg’s death, some activists on the right were concerned about Chief Justice John Robert’s incremental approach. Roberts angered conservatives by siding with the court’s liberals in June when the court ruled 5-4 to strike down a Louisiana abortion restriction involving a requirement imposed on doctors who perform the procedure.

Roberts, who wrote a separate opinion explaining his views, signaled he may back other abortion restrictions in future cases but said he felt compelled to strike down Louisiana’s law because the justices just four years earlier had invalidated a similar law in Texas.

Trump vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. He already has appointed conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the court. Both voted to uphold the Louisiana law.

Anti-abortion groups are pushing for Trump to pick Barrett, a conservative Roman Catholic who he appointed to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. Although she has not yet ruled directly on abortion as a judge, Barrett has twice signaled opposition to rulings that struck down abortion-related restrictions.

Abortion rights activists have voiced concern that Barrett would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

STATE-BY-STATE EFFORTS

Broadly speaking, Republican-controlled states have enacted two types of abortion laws: measures that would impose burdensome regulations on abortion providers and those that would ban abortions during the early stages of pregnancy.

The latter laws in particular directly challenge Roe v. Wade and a subsequent 1992 ruling that upheld it. Those two rulings made clear that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion at least up until the point when the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks or soon after.

Legal challenges to laws recently enacted in conservative states that directly challenge the Roe precedent by banning abortion outright or in early stages of pregnancy are still being litigated in lower courts.

One appeal pending at the Supreme Court that the justices will discuss whether to hear in the coming months is Mississippi’s bid to revive a law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In a separate case the court could act upon at any time, the Trump administration has asked the justices to put on hold a federal judge’s decision to block during the coronavirus pandemic a U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule requiring women to visit a hospital or clinic to obtain a drug used for medication-induced abortions.

Clarke Forsythe, a lawyer with the Americans United for Life anti-abortion group that has urged Barrett’s appointment, said he expects the Supreme Court to “continue with an incremental approach” even if Trump’s nominee is confirmed, in part because of Roberts’ opinion in the Louisiana case.

But Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which backs abortion rights, said that with only four votes among the justices needed to take up a case, a newly emboldened conservative wing could force Roberts’ hand and take up a more direct challenge to Roe.

“Now,” Dalven said, “Chief Justice Roberts and his concern for the integrity for the court and his potential for being an incrementalist is not enough.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)

Around 295,000 without power from Hurricane Sally in Alabama, Florida

(Reuters) – Around 295,000 homes and businesses were still without power on Friday in Florida and Alabama after Hurricane Sally smashed into the Gulf Coast early Wednesday, according to local utilities.

That is down from a total of more than 614,000 customers affected by the storm in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

NextEra Energy Inc’s Gulf Power utility in Florida said it has already restored service to about 158,000 customers. The utility still has about 126,500 without power.

In Louisiana, which was not hit by Sally, about 40,000 customers were still without power in the southwestern part of the state since Hurricane Laura hit the coast in late August.

Entergy Corp, which still has about 25,600 out in Louisiana, said it expected to restore service to most customers by Sept. 23. In the Hackberry area where the Cameron LNG export plant is located, Entergy has said it expects to restore service by Sept. 20.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino)

U.S. energy firms tally damages from Hurricane Sally, begin restarts

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Storm-tossed U.S. offshore energy producers and exporters began clearing debris on Thursday from Hurricane Sally and booting up idle Gulf of Mexico operations after hunkering down for five days.

The storm toppled trees, flooded streets and left almost 500,000 homes and businesses in Alabama and Florida without power. Sally became a tropical depression on Thursday, leaving widespread flooding along its path with up to a foot (30 cm) of rain falling in parts of Florida and Georgia.

Crews returned to at least 30 offshore oil and gas platforms. Chevron Corp began restaffing its Blind Faith and Petronius platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, following Murphy Oil Corp.’s restart.

Bristow Group, which transports oil workers from a Galliano, Louisiana, heliport, resumed crew-change flights to facilities in the west and central Gulf of Mexico.

“We are making flights offshore and experiencing a slight increase in outbound passengers,” said heliport manager Lani Moneyhon.

The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, a deep water oil port that handles supertankers, reopened its marine terminal after suspending operations over the weekend.

Sally had shut 508,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil production and 805 million cubic feet of natural gas, more than a quarter of U.S. Gulf of Mexico output, and halted petrochemical exports all along the Gulf Coast.

About 1.1 million bpd of U.S. refining capacity were offline on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Energy Department, including two plants under repair since Hurricane Laura and another halted by weak demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crude weakened early Thursday with U.S. futures down a fraction and trading below $40 a barrel. Gasoline futures inched higher in early trading, continuing gains this week.

Phillips 66, which shut its 255,600-bpd Alliance, Louisiana, oil refinery ahead of the storm, said it was advancing planned maintenance at the facility and would keep processing halted.

Royal Dutch Shell’s Mobile, Alabama, chemical plant and refinery reported no serious damage from an initial survey, the company said. Chevron said is a Pascagoula, Mississippi, oil refinery operated normally through the storm.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Writing by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

Georgia prosecutor asks court to revoke bond for former Atlanta policeman charged with murder

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A Georgia prosecutor has asked a judge to revoke the bond for the former Atlanta policeman charged with murder in the shooting of Rayshard Brooks, saying in court papers that he had violated its terms by taking an out-of-state vacation.

Brooks, a Black man, was fatally shot in June in the parking lot of a Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta, an incident that was caught on video and set off days of protests over racial inequality and social injustice.

District Attorney Paul Howard asked the court late on Tuesday to send former officer Garrett Rolfe, 27, back to jail for violating the terms of his bond, which include a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and an order that he stays within the court’s jurisdiction.

Rolfe, who was out of jail on $500,000 bond, went to Daytona Beach, Florida, according to the court filing, which cited data from an ankle-monitoring device.

The court papers, filed to Fulton Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick, also say the state received notice from Rolfe’s attorney on Monday that he had traveled to Florida for vacation.

Rolfe’s attorney, Noah Pines, could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

An attorney for Brooks’ family, Chris Stewart, said at a news briefing on Wednesday that he had never heard of someone out on bond being able to take a vacation.

“That is not a flight risk, that is flight,” he said.

No date has been set for a hearing on the prosecutor’s motion to revoke bail.

A second officer, Devin Brosnan, 26, was placed on administrative duty and charged with aggravated assault. The city’s police chief resigned after the incident.

In a separate legal action, Rolfe filed a civil lawsuit against the city and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, contesting his firing from the department. It states that he was not given the benefit of a discipline hearing before he was dismissed.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Bernadette Baum)

Georgia’s Governor withdraws emergency request to stop Atlanta’s mask mandate for COVID-19

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on Tuesday withdrew his emergency request for a court to stop enforcement of Atlanta’s requirement that faces masks be worn in all public places, while mediation over the state’s legal effort to block the mandate proceeds.

Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city two weeks ago to stop enforcement of the local mandate, aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The governor argued that the city lacks the authority to override his order encouraging but not requiring face coverings.

In a statement, the Republican governor’s office said that the motion was withdrawn, “to continue productive, good faith negotiations with city officials and prepare for a future hearing on the merits of our legal position.”

Mayor Bottoms, a Democrat, has said that she would continue to defy the governor’s orders, but hoped that the two sides could find a solution.

Bottoms is one of a handful of Georgia mayors and other leaders who have enacted local mask orders in defiance of the governor.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures, has suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

As Southern U.S. states have seen a spurt of new cases, Georgia has had more than 170,000 coronavirus cases and over 3,500 known fatalities.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. coronavirus infections, hospitalizations rise, crisis could worsen

(Reuters) – The United States has revisited the grim milestone of recording more than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths in a single day, while infections and hospitalizations are rising in many states, forcing President Donald Trump to acknowledge the crisis could get worse.

More than 142,000 people in the country have died from the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, a toll that public health experts say will likely rise in several states. Florida, Texas, Georgia and California are among about 40 states recording more cases.

Florida reported 9,785 new cases and 140 new deaths on Wednesday, while COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized hit a record high of 9,530. Alabama reported a record 61 new deaths on Wednesday, a day after hospitalizations hit a record high.

Nationally, coronavirus deaths rose by 1,141 on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally. It was the first time since June 10 that the daily toll surpassed 1,000.

Nineteen states have reported a record number of currently hospitalized COVID patients so far in July. Thirty-two states have reported record increases in cases in July and 16 states have reported record increases in deaths during the month.

The U.S. government moved to secure 100 million doses of vaccine, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Wednesday.

The government will pay $1.95 billion to buy the doses of Pfizer Inc and German biotech firm BioNTech SE’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate if they are able to successfully develop one, the companies said.

Pfizer said it would not receive any money from the government unless the vaccine is deemed to be safe and effective and is successfully manufactured.

Trump, who played down the extent of the health crisis and the importance of face coverings, changed his tone on Tuesday, and encouraged Americans to wear a mask if they cannot maintain social distance.

Trump also said that the spread of the virus “will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better – something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is.”

Mandatory mask wearing, which health officials say can slow the spread of the virus, is a political issue among Americans, with many conservatives calling such rules a violation of their constitutional rights.

Coronavirus infections are increasing in some politically important states including Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely, Alexandra Alper, Jeff Mason, Michael Erman and Ankur Banerjee; Writing by Grant McCool; editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Second Georgia judge recuses herself before hearing on Atlanta’s face mask mandate

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Two Georgia judges recused themselves Tuesday before a hearing on Governor Brian Kemp’s lawsuit seeking to stop Atlanta’s mayor from enforcing a requirement that people in the state’s largest city wear masks in public.

First, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe recused herself about an hour before the hearing, but did not provide a reason in a one-page court filing except to describe it as a “voluntary recusal.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Ellerbe told court officials she had discussed the case with another judge prior to the hearing.

The second Fulton County Superior Court Judge, Shawn Ellen LaGrua, was then appointed, but also quickly recused herself.

In a two-page court filing, she wrote that she had once worked for Governor Kemp when he was Georgia’s secretary of state and did not want “any appearance of impropriety or bias.”

A spokesman for the court said a statement was expected later in the day. There was no immediate comment from the governor’s office or the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Earlier this month, Kemp barred local leaders from requiring people to wear masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, several Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have defied the governor’s order and kept local mandates in place.

The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Bottoms and the Atlanta city council, arguing that local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.

“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.

Tuesday’s hearing was on an emergency motion by the governor’s office to have the court lift Atlanta’s mask requirement while the lawsuit works its way through the court system.

Kemp has not filed lawsuits against the other cities with mask orders.

Americans are divided over the use of masks even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise in many parts of the country, including Georgia. The divide is largely along political lines, with conservatives more likely than liberals to call the rules a violation of their constitutional rights.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

Georgia judge recuses herself at hearing over Atlanta’s face mask mandate

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A Georgia judge recused herself on Tuesday about an hour before a hearing on Governor Brian Kemp’s lawsuit seeking to stop Atlanta’s mayor from enforcing a requirement that people in the state’s largest city wear masks in public.

In a one-page order, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe did not provide a reason for what was described as a “voluntary recusal.”

A spokesman for the court said a statement was expected later in the day. There was no immediate comment from the governor’s office or the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Earlier this month, Kemp barred local leaders from requiring people to wear masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, several Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have defied the governor’s order and kept local mandates in place.

The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Bottoms and the Atlanta city council, arguing that local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.

“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.

Tuesday’s hearing was on an emergency motion by the governor’s office to have the court lift Atlanta’s mask requirement while the lawsuit works its way through the court system.

The governor’s office has not yet filed lawsuits against the other mayors.

Americans are divided over the use of masks even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise in many parts of the country, including Georgia. The United States has more than 3.8 million recorded cases and more than 140,900 deaths in the pandemic.

The divide is largely along political lines, with conservatives more likely than liberals to call the rules a violation of their constitutional rights.

President Donald Trump told Fox News on Friday he did not believe in implementing a national mask mandate.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

Georgia judge to hear arguments over governor’s bid to stop Atlanta mask mandate

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A Georgia judge is scheduled Tuesday to hear arguments in an emergency motion brought by Governor Brian Kemp to stop the city of Atlanta from enforcing a mandate that people wear masks in public to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

The motion, pending before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe, is the latest salvo in a clash between some Georgia mayors and Kemp over the issue of mask mandates, which the Republican governor opposes.

It asks the judge to halt Atlanta’s efforts while a lawsuit Kemp filed Thursday works its way through the courts.

Earlier this month, Kemp issued an order that bars local leaders from requiring people to wear masks, but a handful of Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have bucked the governor and continued to require them in public.

The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city council that argues local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.

“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.

The governor’s office has not yet filed lawsuits against the other mayors.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures following the early stages of the U.S. outbreak, has suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

Bottoms has said she planned to defy Kemp’s order and enforce a mandatory mask ordinance.

“I take this very seriously and I will continue to do everything in my power to protect the people of Atlanta,” the mayor said on NBC News’ “Today” on Friday, and she added that the lawsuit is “a waste of taxpayer money.”

Bottoms, who has announced publicly that she and members of her family have tested positive for COVID-19, remains in quarantine at her home office. Judge Ellerbe’s hearing will be conducted by video conference later Tuesday morning.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)