U.S. top court rejects challenge to California gun waiting period

Firearms are shown for sale at the AO Sword gun store in El Cajon, California, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a blow to gun rights activists, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday turned away a challenge to California’s 10-day waiting period for firearms purchases that is intended to guard against impulsive violence and suicides.

The court’s action underscored its continued reluctance to step into the national debate over gun control roiled by a series of mass shootings including one at a Florida school last week. One of the court’s most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, dissented from the decision to reject the case and accused his colleagues of showing contempt toward constitutional protections for gun rights.

The gun rights groups and individual gun owners who challenged the law had argued that it violated their right to keep and bear arms under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. The challengers did not seek to invalidate California’s waiting period for everyone, just for people who already owned guns and passed a background check.

In his dissent, Thomas scolded his colleagues. “If a lower court treated another right so cavalierly, I have little doubt this court would intervene,” Thomas wrote. “But as evidenced by our continued inaction in this area, the Second Amendment is a disfavored right in this court.”

The Supreme Court has not taken up a major firearms case since issuing important gun rulings in 2008 and 2010.

The United States has among the most lenient gun control laws in the world. With the U.S. Congress deeply divided over gun control, it has fallen to states and localities to impose firearms restrictions. Democratic-governed California has some of the broadest firearms measures of any state.

A series of mass shootings including one in which a gunman killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school on Feb. 14 have added to the long-simmering U.S. debate over gun control and the availability of firearms.

In another gun case, the high court on Tuesday also declined to take up a National Rifle Association challenge to California’s refusal to lower its fees on firearms sales and instead use a surplus generated by the fees to fund efforts to track down illegal weapons.

Thomas said he suspected that the Supreme Court would readily hear cases involving potentially unconstitutional waiting periods if they involved abortion, racist publications or police traffic stops.

“The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this court’s constitutional orphan. And the lower courts seem to have gotten the message,” Thomas added.

Lead plaintiff Jeff Silvester, the Calguns Foundation and its executive director Brandon Combs, and the Second Amendment Foundation in 2011 challenged the 10-day waiting period between the purchase of a firearm and its actual delivery to the buyer, saying it violated the Second Amendment for individuals who already lawfully own a firearm or are licensed to carry one.

The waiting period gives a gun buyer inclined to use it for an impulsive purpose a “cooling off” period before obtaining it, which has been shown in studies to reduce handgun suicides and homicides, the state said in a legal filing. The waiting period also gives officials time to run background checks and ensure that weapons being sold are not stolen or being purchased for someone prohibited from gun ownership, the state said.

The states of California, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Illinois, Minnesota, Florida, Iowa, Maryland and New Jersey as well as Washington, D.C., have waiting periods that vary in duration and type of firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gun control advocacy group.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California’s law in 2016, reversing a federal trial court that had ruled it unconstitutional.

Last year, the Supreme Court left in place a California law that bars permits to carry a concealed gun in public places unless the applicant can show “good cause” for having it.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Storm barrels through U.S. Midwest with snow and frigid temperatures

Satellite image from the National Weather Service. 2-9-18

By Brendan O’Brien and Suzannah Gonzales

MILWAUKEE, Wis./CHICAGO (Reuters) – A major winter storm barreled into Chicago and Milwaukee early on Friday, dumping heavy snow and dropping temperatures well below freezing as it forced schools to close and threatened to leave travel at a stand still across the Midwest.

The storm system stretches from western Montana across the Dakotas and parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, and reaches as far east as southern Michigan. The storm could drop up to 14 inches (36 cm) of snow in some areas, the National Weather Service said.

Chicago was anticipating six to 12 inches of snow early on Friday morning with more snow expected over the weekend, according to the service’s weather forecast.

“The city is ready for this,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said during a news conference about the city’s preparedness on Thursday. “Make no mistake though, this is a heavy snow, heavier than we’ve seen in a number of winters.”

City officials announced school closures in Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee because of the weather.

Wind chill temperatures were expected to drop below 0 Fahrenheit (-18 C) in many areas across the region, and officials warned of limited visibility on roads.

Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports canceled more than 200 flights on Thursday before the storm hit, and several airlines were also anticipating delays or cancellations.

United Airlines said on Twitter that waivers were in effect for snow-hit areas this week allowing travelers to change flights without charges, and Delta Air Lines offered to rebook flights on Friday for 18 Midwest cities.

Winter weather across the United States this week killed several people in accidents in the Midwest, including six in Iowa, two in Missouri and one in Montana, local media in those states reported.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Deadly winter storm delays travel in U.S. Midwest, Northeast

Weather conditions for winter storm 2-6-18 National Weather Service

(Reuters) – A winter storm will dump snow and freezing rain on the U.S. Midwest and the Northeast beginning on Tuesday after it caused several deaths as it snarled highways and spurred the cancellation of hundreds of flights at Chicago’s main airport.

The National Weather Service warned commuters in northern Texas, east through southern Illinois and Indiana, and New York and Massachusetts, to watch for icy road conditions, wind gusts and reduced visibility throughout the day and into Wednesday.

“The ice and snow will result in difficult travel conditions,” the NWS said in an advisory. “Motorists are strongly urged to slow down and allow plenty of time to reach their destinations.”

Winds of 40-miles an hour(65 kph) and as much as 4 inches (10 cm) of snow are expected across the affected regions, with parts of New York and Vermont getting as much as a foot of snow, the NWS said.

The storm was responsible for the death of six people on Monday in crashes throughout Iowa, the Des Moines Register reported.

Two people also died in southwest Missouri and more than 70 others were injured after icy roads caused a high number of crashes, the Springfield News-Leader reported.

At Chicago’s busy O’Hare International Airport, the storm caused the cancellation of more than 460 flights, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Apple apologizes after outcry over slowed iPhones

Apple CEO Tim Cook stands in front of a screen displaying the IPhone 6 during a presentation at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California October 16, 2014.

By Stephen Nellis

(Reuters) – Facing lawsuits and consumer outrage after it said it slowed older iPhones with flagging batteries, Apple Inc is slashing prices for battery replacements and will change its software to show users whether their phone battery is good.

In a posting on its website Thursday, Apple apologized over its handling of the battery issue and said it would make a number of changes for customers “to recognize their loyalty and to regain the trust of anyone who may have doubted Apple’s intentions.”

Apple made the move to address concerns about the quality and durability of its products at a time when it is charging $999 for its newest flagship model, the iPhone X.

The company said it would cut the price of an out-of-warranty battery replacement from $79 to $29 for an iPhone 6 or later, starting next month. The company also will update its iOS operating system to let users see whether their battery is in poor health and is affecting the phone’s performance.

“We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down,” Apple said in its posting. “We apologize.”

On Dec. 20, Apple acknowledged that iPhone software has the effect of slowing down some phones with battery problems. Apple said the problem was that aging lithium batteries delivered power unevenly, which could cause iPhones to shutdown unexpectedly to protect the delicate circuits inside.

That disclosure played on a common belief among consumers that Apple purposely slows down older phones to encourage customers to buy newer iPhone models. While no credible evidence has ever emerged that Apple engaged in such conduct, the battery disclosure struck a nerve on social media and elsewhere.

Apple on Thursday denied that it has ever done anything to intentionally shorten the life of a product.

At least eight lawsuits have been filed in California, New York and Illinois alleging that the company defrauded users by slowing devices down without warning them. The company also faces a legal complaint in France, where so-called “planned obsolesce” is against the law.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Lawsuit seeks to block Illinois abortion coverage expansion

By Chris Kenning

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Abortion opponents in Illinois filed a lawsuit on Thursday to block a recently approved law expanding state-funded coverage of abortions for low-income Medicaid recipients and state workers.

The lawsuit was filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court on behalf of taxpayers by the conservative Thomas More Society, along with some state lawmakers and anti-abortion groups.

It asked a judge to block state funding for the law, arguing that the state failed to set aside up to $30 million in the budget to pay for abortions. The lawsuit also argued that the law could not take effect until June 2018, instead of January, because of when it was approved.

“The people of Illinois are opposed to taxpayer funded abortion, especially with the terrible financial state that Illinois is in,” Peter Breen, a Republican state lawmaker and an attorney for the Thomas More Society, said on Thursday.

He argued that the state would have to pay for up to 30,000 abortions a year.

Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed the bill in September, upsetting many conservatives.

“I do not think it’s fair to deny poor women the choice that wealthy women have,” Rauner said at the time.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois supported the law, saying it would keep women from being denied abortion coverage just because they were on Medicaid or worked for the state. Medicaid is a government healthcare program for the poor and disabled.

Ed Yohnka, the ACLU’s director of public policy and communications, on Thursday rejected the lawsuit’s contention that lawmakers needed to designate specific funds.

“That’s like saying the General Assembly has to appropriate money for knee replacements,” he said.

About 15 other states allow Medicaid to pay for abortion, including some required by courts, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Illinois was the first state in decades to voluntarily lift a restriction on such services.

Illinois’ Medicaid program has previously covered abortions in cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life or health is threatened.

The expansion would enable poor women to obtain elective abortions. The law would also allow state employees to have the procedures covered under state health insurance.

The law’s passage by the Democratic-controlled Illinois legislature came after some other U.S. states, which are controlled by Republicans, have sought in recent years to tighten regulations on abortion clinics and forced closures in Texas and Kentucky.

Monsanto, BASF weed killers strain U.S. states with crop damage complaints

Monsanto's research farm is pictured near Carman, Manitoba, Canada on August 3, 2017.

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. farmers have overwhelmed state governments with thousands of complaints about crop damage linked to new versions of weed killers, threatening future sales by manufacturers Monsanto Co and BASF.

Monsanto is banking on weed killers using a chemical known as dicamba – and seeds engineered to resist it – to dominate soybean production in the United States, the world’s second-largest exporter.

The United States has faced a weed-killer crisis this year caused by the new formulations of dicamba-based herbicides, which farmers and weed experts say have harmed crops because they evaporate and drift away from where they are applied.

Monsanto and BASF say the herbicides are safe when properly applied. They need to convince regulators after the flood of complaints to state agriculture departments.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year approved use of the weed killers on dicamba-resistant crops during the summer growing season. Previously, farmers used dicamba to kill weeds before they planted seeds, and not while the crops were growing.

However, the EPA approved such use only until Nov. 9, 2018, because “extraordinary precautions” are needed to prevent dicamba products from tainting vulnerable crops, a spokesman told Reuters in a statement last week. The agency wanted to be able to step in if there were problems, he said.

Next year, the EPA will determine whether to extend its approval by reviewing damage complaints and consulting with state and industry experts. States are separately considering new restrictions on usage for 2018.

Major soybean-growing states, including Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, each received roughly four years’ worth of complaints about possible pesticide damage to crops this year due to dicamba use, state regulators said.

Now agriculture officials face long backlogs of cases to investigate, which are driving up costs for lab tests and overtime. Several states had to reassign employees to handle the load.

“We don’t have the staff to be able to handle 400 investigations in a year plus do all the other required work,” said Paul Bailey, director of the Plant Industries division of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

In Missouri, farmers filed about 310 complaints over suspected dicamba damage, on top of the roughly 80 complaints about pesticides the state receives in a typical year, he said.

Nationwide, states launched 2,708 investigations into dicamba-related plant injury by Oct. 15, according to data compiled by the University of Missouri.

States investigate such complaints to determine whether applicators followed the rules for using chemicals. Those found to have violated regulations can be fined.

Monsanto has said that U.S. farmers spraying this past summer failed to follow detailed instructions of up to 4,550 words printed on labels.

The companies will change usage instructions in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the past summer’s problems.

“With significant adoption and a lot of interest in this new technology, we recognize that many states have received a number of reports of potential off-target application of dicamba in 2017,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said last month.

 

PHOTOGRAPHING DAMAGED SOYBEANS

State investigators try to visit fields within days after farmers report possible damage to take photos before signs of injury, such as cupped leaves on soybean plants hit by dicamba, disappear. They question farmers and the people who applied the herbicide, and often gather samples from plants to test.

In Arkansas, farmers filed about 985 complaints associated with dicamba, the most of any state. Investigators are probing about 1,200 total complaints involving pesticide use, which includes weed killers, said Terry Walker, director of the Arkansas State Plant Board.

Arkansas delayed inspections of animal feed and allowed overtime to handle the dicamba cases, which is not normal practice, Walker said. He was unable to provide a cost estimate for dealing with the complaints.

Among the farmers who reported damage was Reed Storey, who said he wanted to ensure state officials knew dicamba caused damage even when users follow the instructions.

“I’m calling strictly to let y’all know that we have an issue with this product,” Storey, who spoke last month, said he told Arkansas regulators.

Illinois received about 421 total pesticide complaints, the most since at least 1989, said Warren Goetsch, acting chief of the Bureau of Environmental Programs at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. That includes at least 245 complaints associated with dicamba, which could take until next year to finish investigating, he said.

“It’s frustrating I think for us that we’re as behind as we are,” Goetsch said.

 

MONSANTO’S BIG BET

Monsanto is betting on dicamba-tolerant soybeans to replace those that withstand glyphosate, an herbicide used for decades but which is becoming less effective as weeds develop resistance. The company aims for its dicamba-resistant seeds to account for half the U.S. soybeans planted by 2019.

Monsanto, which is in the process of being acquired by Bayer AG  for $63.5 billion, said it plans to open a call center to help customers use dicamba next year and is talking with states about the product.

Monsanto’s net sales increased $1.1 billion, or 8 percent, in fiscal year 2017 due partly to increased sales of its dicamba-resistant soybean seeds.

The company and BASF already face several lawsuits from farmers alleging damage to plants from dicamba used by neighbors.

 

ANALYZING PLANT SAMPLES

The EPA provides grants to states that help fund investigations into pesticide damage and this year offered 35 states extra assistance analyzing plant samples for dicamba, according to the agency.

Minnesota and Illinois turned to the EPA for help, with the latter saying the federal agency has better equipment to detect low levels of dicamba.

In Iowa, the state’s laboratory bureau received 515 samples to test this year, up 35 percent, as dicamba use helped drive up the total number of pesticide complaints to 270 from a typical range of 70 to 120, according to the state. Each test costs up to $9.

“We are really anxious to flip the page and look ahead to 2018 and try to figure out the things that can be done to improve the situation,” said Mike Naig, deputy secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

 

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Matthew Lewis)

 

Listeria risk prompts Meijer to recall produce in six U.S. states

Listeria risk prompts Meijer to recall produce in six U.S. states

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Retailer Meijer Inc said it was recalling packaged vegetables in six U.S. states because of possible contamination from Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which can cause fatal food poisoning in young children, pregnant women and elderly or frail people.

Meijer, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said there were no illnesses reported as of Sunday.

The recall affects 35 products and includes vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus as well as party trays sold in Meijer-branded plastic or foam packaging in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin between Sept. 27 and Oct. 20, the company said on Saturday.

In February, Meijer recalled its Meijer-branded Colby and Colby Jack cheese sold through its deli counters because of potential contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1,600 people develop a serious form of infection known as listeriosis each year, and 260 die from the disease, making it the third most deadly form of food poisoning in the United States.

“The infection is most likely to sicken pregnant women and their newborns, adults aged 65 or older and people with weakened immune systems,” the CDC said on its website. Symptoms include fever and diarrhea and can start the same day of exposure or as much as 70 days later.

(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)

Illinois Republican governor signs controversial abortion bill

FILE PHOTO - Bruce Rauner talks to the media at the White House in Washington December 5, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

By Chris Kenning

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed a controversial bill into law on Thursday to expand state-funded coverage of abortions for low-income residents on Medicaid and state employees.

The bill, approved by the state legislature in May, would also keep abortions legal in Illinois if the U.S. Supreme Court follows President Donald Trump’s call to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortions legal 44 years ago.

Illinois’ Medicaid program has previously covered abortions in cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life or health is threatened.

The expansion would enable poor women to obtain elective abortions. The bill would allow state employees to have the procedures covered under state health insurance.

Rauner, who had earlier suggested he would veto the measure, said in a statement that he had talked to woman around the state before making his decision.

“I understand abortion is a very emotional issue with passionate opinions on both sides. I sincerely respect those who believe abortion is morally wrong,” he said.

“But, as I have always said, I believe a woman should have the right to make that choice herself and I do not believe that choice should be determined by income,” Rauner added. “I do not think it’s fair to deny poor women the choice that wealthy women have.”

The decision comes as conservative legislatures and other Republican governors have sought in recent years to tighten regulations on abortion clinics and forced closures in states such as Texas and Kentucky.

The move by Rauner upset conservatives.

“Taxpayers should not be forced to fund something as controversial and culturally divisive as abortions,” Republican state Senator Dan McConchie told the Chicago Tribune.

Currently, 15 other states allow Medicaid to pay for abortion, including some required by courts, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Illinois is the first state in decades to voluntarily lift its restriction on Medicaid coverage of abortion, according to National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

“Under the Trump administration, we are potentially facing the greatest threat to reproductive rights in more than a generation. HB 40 ensures that abortion will remain legal in Illinois, regardless of what happens at the federal level,” the forum’s executive director, Sung Yeon Choimorrow, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning; Editing by Diane Craft)

Family of Chinese scholar missing in Illinois asks Trump for help

Chinese student Yingying Zhang is seen in a still image from security camera video taken outside an MTD Teal line bus in Urbana, Illinois, U.S. June 9, 2017. University of Illinois Police/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Family members of a Chinese scholar presumed kidnapped in Illinois asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday to provide additional resources to help find her.

Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar to the University of Illinois from southeastern China, disappeared on June 9. Police believe Zhang is dead, although no body has been found.

Brendt Christensen, a former master’s student at the university, has been charged with abducting Zhang. Christensen, 28, pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping last month and is scheduled to stand trial in September.

Yingying Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, cited the president’s own role as a father in a letter sent to Trump earlier this month and read by Zhang’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, at a news conference on Tuesday.

“As a loving father to your own children, you can understand what we are going through,” the letter said. “We fervently request that you direct all available federal law enforcement and investigatory resources be used to find our daughter as soon as possible.”

A White House representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Hou also told reporters at the news conference in Champaign, Illinois, that he and the family would not return to China until Zhang is found.

An online fundraising platform has collected more than $137,000 to support the family’s stay in the United States.

The case has been watched closely by Chinese media, China government officials and Chinese students in the United States.

Zhang, who had been studying photosynthesis and crop productivity, was last seen when a security camera recorded her getting into a black car that authorities linked to Christensen, according to court documents.

Christensen was placed under surveillance by federal agents who heard him talking about how he kidnapped Zhang, court records said. He could receive a life sentence if convicted.

Christensen’s attorney, Anthony Bruno, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the defense received more than 1,000 pages of police reports related to the case earlier this month, and expects to gain access to video evidence soon.

Bruno said the defense plans to request a delay to the start of the trial to get additional time to review the “enormous” amount of evidence received from the government.

A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Springfield, Illinois, office referred questions to U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Sharon Paul.

Paul said in a phone interview on Tuesday that prosecutors have no update on Yingying Zhang’s whereabouts and declined to provide details of the FBI’s search efforts.

(Reporting by Julia Jacobs in Chicago; Editing by Patrick Enright and Matthew Lewis)

Chicago sugary drink tax to take effect next week after ruling

Soda in Walmart

By Julia Jacobs

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A sweetened beverage tax will take effect in Chicago on Wednesday after an Illinois judge threw out a lawsuit by retailers that argued the measure was vague and unlawful.

Cook County, which includes Chicago and surrounding suburbs, joins a growing number of localities across the United States that have adopted measures to cut consumption of sugary drinks for health reasons, including Seattle and San Francisco.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Kubasiak decided in the county’s favor on Friday, about a month after he had halted implementation of the penny-per-ounce tax in response to the lawsuit by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

“We believed all along that our ordinance was carefully drafted and met pertinent constitutional tests,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement released after the ruling.

The retailers had argued the tax was unlawful because it exempted custom-made sweetened beverages, such as coffee drinks made in a cafe, and only taxed pre-made beverages, such as sodas, sports drinks and flavored water.

In his order on Friday, Kubasiak agreed with the county that there was a significant distinction between taxing the two types of sugary beverages.

County attorneys had also argued that taxing custom-made beverages would put an excessive administrative burden on the county, and that taxing widely available pre-made beverages would be more effective in improving public health.

Preckwinkle said in the statement that the county, which passed the tax in November, lost at least $17 million in revenue in the weeks in which the measure was delayed.

Kubasiak said in his order that he was aware of the county’s “budgetary turmoil” as a result of the revenue loss but that it did not factor in to his decision making. “The Court is not party to the County’s budget matters and is not moved by its public airing of those matters,” he said.

In response to the plaintiffs’ claims that the technology needed to collect the tax would not be ready for quick implementation, Preckwinkle said the retailers should have been prepared to collect the tax a month ago.

David Ruskin, an attorney for the retailers’ association, said the plaintiffs are considering an appeal.

“We are disappointed with today’s ruling,” Rob Karr, president of IRMA, told reporters. “I can only imagine the outrage felt by consumers.”

(Editing by Patrick Enright and Matthew Lewis)