U.S. Justice Department to launch new effort to crack down on firearms trafficking

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department is launching a new strike force aimed at cracking down on illegal firearms trafficking, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said on Tuesday.

The strike forces will be focused on reducing violent crime by targeting activity in “significant gun trafficking corridors” including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Monaco said during an event sponsored by the Police Executive Research Forum.

The Justice Department’s new initiative comes as President Joe Biden this week is expected to address recent spikes in shootings and other violent crimes.

Later this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on whether to support the confirmation of David Chipman, Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Chris Reese and Dan Grebler)

Senator Leahy to preside over Trump’s impeachment trial

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate’s longest-serving member, Democrat Patrick Leahy, will preside over the upcoming impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, Leahy said on Monday.

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts presided at Trump’s first impeachment trial last year, as the Constitution requires in presidential impeachments. But senators can preside when the person being impeached is not the current president of the United States, a Senate source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Leahy, 80, a lawmaker from Vermont who took office in 1975, is the senator with the most seniority in either party.

“When I preside over the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, I will not waver from my constitutional and sworn obligations to administer the trial with fairness, in accordance with the Constitution and the laws,” Leahy said in a statement.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday will deliver an article of impeachment to the Senate, accusing Trump of inciting insurrection in a fiery speech to his followers before this month’s deadly attack on the Capitol. But the trial is not expected to get started until Feb. 9.

Leahy is the president pro tempore of the Senate, meaning he is empowered to preside over Senate sessions in the absence of Vice President Kamala Harris. That duty is usually rotated, however, among senators of the majority party.

Being president pro tempore also makes Leahy, who is the senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the third in line of presidential succession, after the vice president and speaker of the House.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Peter Cooney)

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee says her religious views would not guide decisions

By Lawrence Hurley, Patricia Zengerle and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday began the first of two days of direct questioning from U.S. senators, telling senators that her religious views would not affect her decisions on the bench.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing presents Barrett with a chance to respond to Democratic lawmakers who have been unified in opposing her primarily on what they say would be her role in undermining the Obamacare healthcare law and its protection for patients with pre-existing conditions.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee’s chairman, opened the questioning by asking her about her conservative legal philosophy known as originalism, in which laws and the Constitution are interpreted based on the meaning they had at the time they were enacted.

“That meaning doesn’t change over time and it’s not for me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it,” Barrett said.

Graham asked Barrett, a devout Catholic and a favorite of religious conservatives, whether she could set aside her religious beliefs in making decisions as a justice.

“I can,” Barrett said.

Barrett called the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom she served as a clerk two decades ago, as her mentor, but said she would not always rule the same way as him.

“You would not be getting Justice Scalia, you would be getting Justice Barrett. That is so because originalists don’t always agree,” she said.

Graham will be followed by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat. Barrett sat alone at a table facing the senators.

Barrett was nominated to a lifetime post on the court on Sept. 26 by Trump to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barrett could be on the Supreme Court in time for the Nov. 10 arguments in a case in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement that has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage.

Barrett has criticized a 2012 Supreme Court ruling authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that upheld the law, popularly known as Obamacare.

Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority, leaving Democrats with little to no chance of blocking Barrett’s confirmation.

If confirmed, Barrett, 48, would tilt the Supreme Court further to the right and give conservative justices a 6-3 majority, making even the unexpected victories on which liberals have prevailed in recent years, including abortion and gay rights, rarer still. She is Trump’s third Supreme Court appointment.

Trump’s nomination of Barrett came late in an election cycle when Republican control of both the White House and Senate is at stake. The confirmation hearing format has changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the public excluded and some senators participating remotely.

Democrats, including vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, on the first day of the hearing zeroed in on the fate of Obamacare, as Republicans push to confirm Barrett before the Nov. 3 presidential election between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

The hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on Barrett’s confirmation to a lifetime job on the court.

Republicans have sought to portray Democrats as attacking Barrett, a devout Roman Catholic, on religious grounds, although the Democrats have so far steered clear of doing so.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Harris, fellow Democrats target Trump Supreme Court nominee on Obamacare

By Lawrence Hurley and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic senators including vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris on Monday painted President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as a threat to the Obamacare healthcare law during a deadly pandemic and denounced the Republican drive to approve her before the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee began its four-day confirmation hearing for Barrett, Democrats voiced their strong opposition to the nomination even though they have little hope of derailing her nomination in the Republican-led Senate.

Barrett, a conservative appellate court judge nominated to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sat at a table facing the senators wearing a black face mask amid the pandemic as senators made opening statements. Barrett removed the mask when she was sworn in and delivered her own opening statement.

“I believe Americans of all backgrounds deserve an independent Supreme Court that interprets our Constitution and laws as they are written,” Barrett said, reading from prepared remarks that had been made public on Sunday, with her husband and seven children sitting behind her.

Barrett’s confirmation would give the court a 6-3 conservative majority that could lead to rulings rolling back abortion rights, expanding religious and gun rights, and upholding voting restrictions, among other issues.

But it was the fate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement that has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical coverage, that was the focus of Harris and her fellow Democrats. Barrett has criticized a 2012 Supreme Court ruling authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that upheld Obamacare.

Harris, the running mate of Trump’s Democratic election opponent Joe Biden, called the confirmation process so near the election “illegitimate.”

“I do believe this hearing is a clear attempt to jam through a Supreme Court nominee who will take away healthcare from millions of people during a deadly pandemic that has already killed more than 214,000 Americans,” Harris said, speaking via a video link.

“A clear majority of Americans want whomever wins the election to fill this seat and my Republican colleagues know that. Yet they are deliberately defying the will of the people in their attempt to roll back the rights and protections provided under the Affordable Care Act,” Harris said.

Barrett could be on the Supreme Court in time to participate in a case due to be argued on Nov. 10 in which Trump and Republican-led states are seeking to invalidate Obamacare.

Barrett will face marathon questioning from senators on Tuesday and Wednesday. The hearing is a key step before a full Senate vote by the end of October on her confirmation to a lifetime job on the court. Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority so Barrett’s confirmation seems almost certain.

A pivotal Obamacare provision that would be thrown out if the court strikes the law down bars insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions. In the hearing room, Democrats displayed posters of patients who could lose their medical coverage if Obamacare is invalidated, with senators recounting their individual stories.

Repeated Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare in Congress have fallen short, and Republicans have taken the effort to the courts.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz said the Democratic focus on healthcare and other policy issues showed they were not contesting Barrett’s qualifications to serve as a justice.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who chairs the committee, opened the hearing by saying it would be “a long contentious week” but implored senators to make the proceedings respectful.

“Let’s remember, the world is watching,” Graham added.

“This is probably not about persuading each other, unless something really dramatic happens. All Republicans will vote yes and all Democrats will vote no,” Graham said.


Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy condemned the Republican “mad rush” to fill the vacancy.

“They see the ability to take the courts from being independent to making them instead an arm of the far right and the Republican Party, with the potential to accomplish in courts what they have failed to accomplish by votes in the halls of Congress. And at the top of the hit list is the Affordable Care Act,” Leahy said.

Graham defended the Republican approach even while acknowledging that four years earlier they had refused to act on Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy because it was an election year, and that no Supreme Court nominee had a confirmation process so close to an election.

The Senate’s Republican leaders rejected Democratic pleas to delay the hearing over COVID-19 concerns.

Due to the pandemic, Harris and some other senators participated remotely. Republican Senator Mike Lee attended in person nine days after revealing he head tested positive for the coronavirus, arriving wearing a light-blue surgical mask. He took off the mask while giving his opening statement.

Barrett is a devout Catholic who has expressed opposition to abortion. Christian conservative activists long have hoped for the court to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker said that “Senate Republicans have found a nominee in Judge Barrett who they know will do what they couldn’t do – subvert the will of the American people and overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Republicans sought to portray the Democrats as attacking Barrett on religious grounds, though the Democrats steered clear of doing so. Speaking to reporters in Delaware, Biden said Barrett’s Catholic faith should not be considered during the confirmation process. Biden was the first Catholic U.S. vice president.

“This nominee said she wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. The president wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” Biden said. “Let’s keep our eye on the ball.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Senate panel approves subpoena authority in Trump-Russia probe

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided Senate Judiciary Committee approved sweeping subpoena power on Thursday for a politically charged congressional probe of an FBI investigation into Republican President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and its contacts with Russia.

The Republican-led panel voted 12-10 along party lines to grant its chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, authority to subpoena dozens of former Obama administration officials including former FBI Director James Comey and former national security adviser Susan Rice.

Republicans turned away multiple efforts by Democrats to gain authority to subpoena Trump advisers and former aides, including his current attorney Rudy Giuliani, former attorney Michael Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign advisers Roger Stone and Rick Gates.

Trump and his Republican allies contend that the probe code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” which led to the 22-month Russia investigation by then-U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, was a corrupt effort to undermine Trump’s candidacy and later his presidency.

“This is really unprecedented,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, who accused Graham of negating committee rules that require separate approval for individual subpoenas.

Graham said Democrats were simply trying to stop his probe. “I’m not going to be stopped,” he said.

The Russia probe overshadowed Trump’s presidency. A Justice Department watchdog said in December that investigators made numerous errors but found no evidence of political bias.

Democrats view the current Senate probe as a political ploy to harm Trump political rival Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee in the Nov. 3 election, noting that Biden’s campaign chairman, Steve Ricchetti, is among the Republican subpoena targets.

Thursday’s vote came just over a week after former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the Mueller investigation before the same panel. Mueller found numerous contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but concluded there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy.

(Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump push for conservative judges intensifies, to Democrats’ dismay

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC, U.S., January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As President Donald Trump pursues his goal of making the federal judiciary more conservative, his fellow Republicans who control the Senate are poised to confirm another batch of his picks for influential U.S. appeals courts to the dismay of some Democrats.

The Senate this week is set to take up six of Trump’s nominees to the regional appeals courts, including four from states that have at least one Democratic senator.

A long-standing Senate tradition that gave senators clout over judicial nominees from their home states has been fraying for years, meaning Democrats have less of a chance of blocking appointees they oppose, as they did with some success during Republican former President George W. Bush’s administration.

One of those due for consideration on the Senate floor this week is Milwaukee lawyer Michael Brennan, who Trump has nominated for a vacant seat on the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over a region that includes Wisconsin. One of Wisconsin’s two senators, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, opposes Brennan’s confirmation.

Another important test will come at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday for Ryan Bounds, a federal prosecutor from Oregon nominated by Trump to fill a seat on the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Oregon’s two senators, both Democrats, oppose the nomination.

Brennan, Bounds and other Trump nominees who may be opposed by home-state Democratic senators are likely to win confirmation because of the Republicans’ 51-49 Senate majority.

Trump has made quick progress in reshaping federal appeals courts, winning Senate confirmation of 15 nominees to fill vacancies on federal appeals courts. Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama won confirmation of nine appeals court judges by the same point in his first term.

Trump also has been picking a raft of conservative jurists for lower federal courts and won Senate confirmation last year of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The regional appeals courts play a major role in shaping U.S. law. The judges hear appeals from federal district courts and usually have the final say, as the U.S. Supreme Court takes up only a tiny proportion of cases.

The appeals courts can set binding precedents on a broad array of issues, including voting rights, gun rights and other divisive social issues.


For Trump and his party, setting aside a long-standing Senate tradition may be a worthwhile price to pay to achieve what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called a top goal: shifting the ideological composition of the federal judiciary to the right.

For Trump, nine of the 15 appeals court vacancies he has filled have been on regional courts that already leaned conservative. His administration now aims to fill vacancies in regional courts from states represented by Democratic senators.

Leonard Leo, an outside advisor to Trump who has been instrumental on judicial nominations including Gorsuch’s, said the White House has the same criteria for picking conservative nominees no matter the state.

But Leo said, “You’ve got to engage a little more – in a more intense degree of consultation – with Democrats than with Republicans, so that takes a little time.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Some nominations have been less contentious, with the White House and Democratic senators able to agree.

Michael Scudder and Amy St. Eve, two Trump nominees for the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, are backed by the two Illinois senators, both Democrats. They are among the nominees up for Senate confirmation votes this week.

Hawaii’s two Democratic senators back a Trump nominee to the 9th Circuit. The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, has so far held fire on Richard Sullivan, Trump’s nominee to the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Michigan’s two Democratic senators voted in November to confirm Joan Larsen to the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Liberal activists doubt the White House is serious about compromise on judicial nominations.

“Those few examples show that when Democratic home state senators are consulted in good faith, they are not looking for progressive judges,” said Christopher Kang, who worked on judicial nominations in Obama’s White House.

“They understand that President Trump is going to appoint conservative judges but they are willing to work in good faith to find consensus nominees,” Kang added.

There are 148 vacancies in the federal judiciary, with 68 pending nominees. Trump inherited a large number of vacancies in part because McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans refused to confirm Obama’s nominees to fill some of the jobs before he left office in January 2017, including Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

(This story corrects court to which Larsen was appointed in paragraph 19, Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals instead of Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Will Dunham)

Kentucky Senate passes bill restricting abortion procedure

FILE PHOTO: Republican Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Steve Bittenbender

(Reuters) – The Kentucky Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation on Thursday to ban a common abortion procedure once the patient reaches her 11th week of pregnancy, in what would amount to one of the strictest abortion limits yet in the United States.

The Senate voted 31-5 in favor of the measure, which now goes back to the state’s House of Representatives for final approval of changes to a version of the bill it passed 71-11 vote on March 12. Both bodies are controlled by Republicans.

The procedure in question, called dilation and evacuation, accounts for 16 percent of all abortions performed in Kentucky. It is primarily for pregnancies in the second trimester.

The House and Senate are in recess until March 27.

On Monday, Mississippi’s governor signed into law the most restrictive abortion measure enacted in the United States, which bans any type of procedure once pregnancies reach 15 weeks.

But on Tuesday, a U.S. federal judge blocked the law from taking effect for 10 days, pending legal arguments over whether the injunction should remain in effect while the overall case remains under judicial review.

The Kentucky and Mississippi measures both allow medical emergency procedures that otherwise would be prohibited.

Representatives for Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican who has described himself as “100 percent pro-life,” could not be reached immediately for comment.

Since last year, when Republicans won control of the Kentucky House for the first time since 1921, the state’s legislature has passed several measures to restrict access to abortion, including banning any type of abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Representative Addia Wuchner, a Republican, tweeted after a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, that her bill protects “unborn children in Kentucky from intentional bodily dismemberment”.

But critics say that the bill will almost certainly face a legal challenge. Last year, a similar measure passed by Texas lawmakers was struck down by a federal judge.

Similar bans in other states including Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma have also been struck down by courts.

“Kentucky can’t afford doomed legislation created out of willful ignorance,” Marcie Crim, executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, said on Twitter. “We need every dime of our money to go towards real improvements, not grandstanding.”

While dilation and evacuation is used in most second-trimester abortions, nearly 90 percent of all abortions are performed in the first trimester, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Editing by Bernie Woodall and Richard Borsuk)

NSA Chief Begs Congress To Keep Power Of Bulk Collection

Amid public outrage over reports that the NSA has been collection massive amount of information about average Americans as part of their bulk collection spying efforts, the head of the National Security Agency is asking Congress to not change their ability to spy on a global scale.

General Keith Alexander pleaded with the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that the risk to America from global threats is growing every single day. He said that the bulk collection efforts of the NSA provide vital information that intelligence services can use to stop terrorist activity both at home and abroad.

Gen. Alexander told the Senators that bulk collection was the only way to “connect the dots” between foreign terror threats and any potential terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The program was revealed as part of the massive document release from fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Gen. Alexander admitted to Senators the NSA would be open to finding a better solution with the help of technology companies.