Bitter divisions on death penalty in U.S. top court exposed in Alabama showdown

Death row inmate Christopher Price is seen in this undated Alabama Department of Corrections photo obtained from Montgomery, Alabama, U.S., on April 10, 2019. Courtesy Alabama Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court exposed its bitter divisions over the death penalty yet again early Friday as the justices voted on ideological lines to reject an Alabama inmate’s bid to delay his execution.

On a 5-4 vote with the court’s conservatives in the majority, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed the execution of Christopher Price, 46, for 60 days so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection.

It was the third time in recent weeks the court has divided 5-4 on a death penalty case, with the conservatives in the majority each time.

The court’s order was released too late for the execution to take place, so Alabama will have to set a new execution date. State officials did not immediately respond to questions about their plans on Friday.

The court said in its order that Price had waited too long to pursue his claim.

Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberal justices, called the litigation an example of arbitrary administration of the death penalty. He wrote that Price’s claim failed because of a “minor oversight” by his lawyer when filing evidence to support his argument.

“To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system,” Breyer wrote.

He also noted that the justices were due to meet Friday morning and could have discussed the issue then instead of acting in the middle of the night. The three other liberal justices on the nine-justice court joined Breyer’s opinion.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 for killing William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama, on Dec. 22, 1991, as he assembled Christmas presents with his wife.

On Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose granted Price’s attorneys the 60-day stay and gave the state until May 10 to respond to their arguments that the three-drug protocol risked causing Price significant pain and that nitrogen hypoxia would reduce that risk.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution did not guarantee a condemned prisoner “a painless death,” paving the way for the execution of convicted murderer Russell Bucklew, who sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition.

In that majority opinion, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch took aim at the tactics of death penalty defense lawyers who frequently file last-minute applications to delay executions.

The court in February voted 5-4 to allow the execution of a Muslim convicted murderer after Alabama denied his request to have an imam present, saying he waited too long to file his lawsuit.

In March, however, the court blocked the execution of a convicted murderer whose request to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser present at the execution was denied by Texas..

Six executions in the United States scheduled during the first three months of 2019 have been stayed or rescheduled.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Trump declares U.S. census ‘meaningless’ without citizenship question

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Susan Heavey and Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday injected himself into one of the most consequential cases of the current Supreme Court term, saying the nation’s 2020 census would be “meaningless” without adding a citizenship question to the questionnaire.

The comment on Twitter came ahead of an expected ruling from the Supreme Court on whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add the citizenship question violated federal law.

“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question,” Trump tweeted. “Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together!”

The citizenship question is among a series of White House policies signaling tighter control over immigration.

These include Trump’s declaration in February of a national emergency to obtain funds for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and his threat to close the border as soon as this week, disrupting legal crossings as well as trade.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years, with results used to draw political boundaries, allocate seats in Congress and at the state and local level, and distribute roughly $800 billion of federal funds.

Critics have accused Trump of encouraging an undercount by dissuading immigrants from participating in the census, more likely hurting Democrats than Republicans.

When Ross announced the addition of a citizenship question in March 2018, he said it was in response to a Department of Justice request for data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects eligible voters from discrimination.

Only U.S. citizens can vote in federal elections. Non-citizens comprise about 7 percent of the 328.7 million people living in the United States. Census questionnaires have not included a citizenship question since 1950.

“The census is the administration’s new front on its war on immigration and, sadly, the president’s tweet today bears out that concern,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director on the House census oversight committee who now advises groups seeking an accurate 2020 count.

‘VERITABLE SMORGASBORD’

The Supreme Court is reviewing a Jan. 15 by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan, finding that the addition of the citizenship question was illegal and that Ross’ decision to add it was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Oral arguments are scheduled for April 23, with a decision expected by the end of June.

Furman said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross broke a “veritable smorgasbord” of federal rules by including the question, and that enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was a “pretextual” rationale for adding it.

The judge said adding the question would cause many states to lose federal funding, while Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas would lose Congressional seats.

Furman, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, stopped short of a finding that Ross intended to discriminate against immigrants.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought by 18 U.S. states, 15 cities and a variety of civil rights groups.

In urging the Supreme Court to overturn Furman’s ruling, Solicitor General Noel Francisco said Ross had discretion to add the citizenship question, and that there was a “long pedigree” in the census for asking about citizenship or country of birth.

He also said other democracies including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, and the United Kingdom ask about citizenship on their censuses.

Another federal judge, Richard Seeborg in San Francisco, on March 6 also declared the citizenship question illegal.

Following that ruling, the Supreme Court said it will also decide whether Ross’ actions violated the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, which sets out terms for counting people.

Adding the citizenship question could lead to an undercount of 4.2 million Hispanics alone, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy estimated last month.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, and Nick Brown and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Trott, Meredith Mazzilli, Noeleen Walder and Susan Thomas)

Supreme Court rebuffs anti-abortion activists in Planned Parenthood suit

FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a bid by anti-abortion activists to narrow a Planned Parenthood lawsuit accusing them of illegally recording video of abortion providers to try to falsely show the illicit sale of aborted fetal tissue for profit.

The justices declined to hear an appeal by the activists of a lower court’s refusal to toss out fraud, invasion of privacy and other claims under California law made in the civil lawsuit by Planned Parenthood, a women’s healthcare and abortion provider.

Activist David Daleiden and his group, the Center for Medical Progress, had argued they were exercising their right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution in surreptitiously making the recordings.

Using footage recorded at conferences and other places, the Center for Medical Progress released videos in 2015 purporting to expose Planned Parenthood officials trafficking in aborted fetal parts, sparking controversy, congressional inquiries and investigations in various states.

Planned Parenthood has said the tapes were heavily edited to leave the false impression of wrongdoing.

The federal judge overseeing the case blocked the release of videos in a related matter, concluding there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing captured in the videos. The Supreme Court left that ruling in place last year.

Daleiden and another activist also face criminal charges in California in connection with the videos.

Planned Parenthood sued Daleiden, the California-based Center for Medical Progress and others in 2016, accusing them of conspiracy and wiretapping violations under federal law, as well as claims under California law for fraudulently gaining access to the conferences.

The anti-abortion activists said they were performing investigative journalism and said Planned Parenthood was trying to “silence and punish” them.

The activists claimed they were shielded from the state law claims under another California law requiring dismissal of lawsuits that try to stifle free speech on a public issue, which is a guaranteed right under the state and U.S. constitutions. Laws meant to protect against nuisance suits that stifle free speech, known as known as an “anti-SLAPP” laws, are common in most states.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year rejected their arguments, prompting Daleiden’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court refuses to block Trump’s gun ‘bump stock’ ban

FILE PHOTO: A bump fire stock, (R), that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S., October 4, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request by gun rights activists to put on hold the Trump administration’s ban on “bump stock” attachments that allow semi-automatic weapons to be fired rapidly, a rare recent instance of gun control at the federal level.

The court in a brief order refused to grant a temporary stay sought by plaintiffs including the group Gun Owners of America in a lawsuit filed in Michigan challenging the ban while litigation continues.

The policy took effect on Tuesday on the same day that Chief Justice John Roberts rejected a similar bid to delay implementation in a separate legal challenge brought in Washington by individual gun owners and gun rights groups including the Firearms Policy Foundation and Florida Carry Inc.

An appeals court previously exempted specific people and groups involved in the Washington case from the ban while that litigation proceeds.

President Donald Trump pledged to ban the devices soon after a gunman used them in an October 2017 shooting spree that killed 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas. The Justice Department on Dec. 18 announced plans to implement the policy.

Bump stocks use a gun’s recoil to bump its trigger, enabling a semiautomatic weapon to fire hundreds of rounds per minute, which can transform it into a machine gun. The Justice Department’s regulation followed the lead of many states and retailers that imposed stricter limits on sales of guns and accessories after a deadly shooting at a Florida high school in February 2018.

In the Michigan case, a federal judge already has ruled in favor of the administration. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to put the ban on hold pending appeal. Other plaintiffs in that case include the Gun Owners Foundation, the Virginia Citizens Defense League and three individual gun owners.

In the Washington case, a federal judge also upheld the ban, prompting gun rights advocates to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. That court has heard oral arguments but has not yet ruled.

Those challenging the policy have argued that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lacks the authority to equate bump stocks with machine guns. One of the laws at the center of the legal dispute was written more than 80 years ago, when Congress restricted access to machine guns during the heyday of American gangsters’ use of “tommy guns.”

Trump’s fellow Republicans typically oppose gun control measures and are protective of the right to bear arms promised in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. In 2017, there were 39,773 gun deaths in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures released in December.

The FBI said in January it had found no clear motive for the 64-year-old Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

In major religion case, U.S. top court weighs Maryland cross case

Advocates for the separation of church and state participate in a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of oral arguments over whether a concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One in Bladensburg, Maryland, is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday takes up one of the biggest cases of its current term when it weighs whether a cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The so-called Peace Cross, a 40-foot-tall (12 meters) concrete memorial to 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One, is situated on public land at a busy road intersection in Bladensburg just outside Washington.

Fred Edwords and two other plaintiffs filed a 2014 lawsuit challenging the cross as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

Edwords, who is retired, is a long-time member and previous employee of the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state.

Supporters of the group participated in a small rally in front of the court before the arguments, with some holding signs saying, “Protect the Constitution they fought for,” in reference to military veterans. Supporters of the cross, including members of the American Legion, a private veterans’ group, also gathered outside the building.

The cross was funded privately and built in 1925. The property where it stands was in private hands when it was erected, but it is now on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental agency.

The nine justices on the high court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, are due to hear a 70-minute oral argument, with a ruling due by the end of June.

The Establishment Clause’s scope is contested, so comments by the justices suggesting a willingness to allow greater government involvement in religious expression will be closely scrutinized.

The cross has the backing of President Donald Trump’s administration and members of the American Legion, who hold memorial events at the site. Veterans and their relatives have said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a Christian cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and hurtful.

Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery.

The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, reversing a Maryland-based federal judge’s decision allowing the monument.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals by the park commission and the American Legion, which is represented by the conservative religious rights group First Liberty Institute.

The Supreme Court has sent mixed messages about parameters for government-approved religious expression, including in two rulings issued on the same day in 2005.

In one, it ruled that a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building depicting the biblical Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution. But in the other, it decided that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and schools were unlawful.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

War memorial or religious symbol? Cross fight reaches U.S. high court

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

BLADENSBURG, Md. (Reuters) – When Fred Edwords first drove by the 40-foot-tall (12 meters) concrete cross that has stood for nearly a century on a busy intersection in suburban Maryland outside the U.S. capital, his first reaction was, “What is that doing there?”

To Edwords, who believes there should be an impermeable wall separating church and state, the location of the so-called Peace Cross – a memorial to Americans killed in World War One situated on public land, with vehicles buzzing by on all sides – seemed to be a clear governmental endorsement of religion.

“It’s so obviously part of the town and a centerpiece. It just popped out at me. There was nothing about it that made me think it was anything other than a Christian cross,” Edwords, 70, said in an interview.

Edwords and two other plaintiffs filed a 2014 lawsuit challenging the cross as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

The conservative-majority court will hear arguments in the case next Wednesday, with a ruling due by the end of June.

While the Establishment Clause’s scope is a matter of dispute, most Supreme Court experts predict the challenge to the Peace Cross will fail, with the justices potentially setting a new precedent allowing greater government involvement in religious expression.

The Peace Cross, now aging and crumbling a bit, was funded privately and built in Bladensburg in 1925 to honor 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One. The property where it stands was in private hands when it was erected, but later became public land.

Its supporters include President Donald Trump’s administration and members of the American Legion veterans’ group, who hold memorial events at the cross. At a recent gathering at a nearby American Legion post, veterans and their relatives said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a Christian cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and painful.

To Mary Ann Fenwick LaQuay, 80, the cross respectfully chronicles the war sacrifice of her uncle Thomas Notley Fenwick, one of 49 honored.

“It hurts people who have family members there. Every time I go by there, I think of my uncle. It hurts to think people would take it away,” she said.

Stan Shaw, 64, a U.S. Army veteran, said it appeared the challengers were going out of their way to take offense.

“If you don’t want to see it, take another route,” Shaw added.

Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery. At its base is a barely legible plaque listing the names of the dead. Every year, ceremonies with no religious content are held at the site, lawyers defending the cross said.

Edwords, who is retired, is a long-time member and previous employee of the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state. He and his fellow challengers said they support veterans and that the lawsuit concerns only the symbolism of the cross, not the fact that it honors war dead.

The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, reversing a Maryland-based federal judge’s decision allowing the monument.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the public agency that owns the cross, and the American Legion, which is represented by the conservative religious rights group First Liberty Institute.

TEN COMMANDMENTS

The Supreme Court has sent mixed messages about the extent to which there can be government-approved religious expression, including in two rulings issued on the same day in 2005.

In one case, it ruled that a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building depicting the biblical Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution. But in the other, it decided that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and schools were unlawful.

More recently, the court in 2014 ruled that government entities do not automatically violate the Constitution when they hold a prayer before legislative meetings.

In some other recent cases, the court has taken an expansive view of religious rights. In 2014, it ruled that owners of private companies could object on religious grounds to a federal requirement to provide health insurance that included coverage for women’s birth control.

It ruled in 2017 that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states whose constitutions ban such funding. In a narrow 2018 ruling, the court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his Christian beliefs.

The American Legion’s lawyers are asking the court to decide that government endorsement of religion is not the appropriate test in the Peace Cross case. Instead, they said, courts should conclude that the government violates the Constitution only when it actively coerces people into practicing religion.

Such a ruling would give public officials “carte blanche to have symbols anywhere,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania expert on law and religion who joined a legal brief supporting Edwords.

Edwords conceded that the lawsuit could end up backfiring on his side with a ruling against him but stands by his decision to challenge the cross.

“We are not trying to be revolutionary here,” Edwords said.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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)

Supreme Court blocks restrictive Louisiana abortion law

FILE PHOTO - An abortion rights activist holds up a sign as marchers take part in the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday stopped a Louisiana law imposing strict regulations on abortion clinics from going into effect in its first major test on abortion since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy last summer.

The court on a 5-4 vote granted an emergency application by Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women to block the Republican-backed law from going into effect while litigation continues.

The four liberal justices were joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority, suggesting that Roberts, as Kennedy used to be, is now the key vote on the issue.

Kennedy backed abortion rights in two key cases. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who President Donald Trump appointed to replace Kennedy, joined the court’s four other conservatives in dissent.

Hope Medical Group challenged the law’s requirement that doctors who perform abortions must have an arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.

Kavanaugh, writing for himself, said it was not clear whether doctors would be unable to obtain the admitting privileges were the law to go into effect. He said that he would have favored allowing them to bring a later legal challenge if their efforts were unsuccessful.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion-rights group that represents the challengers, said the law could lead to the closure of two of the three abortion clinics operating in Louisiana, a state of more than 4.6 million people.

The law was passed in 2014 but courts had prevented it from going into effect. The Supreme Court itself blocked the law in 2016, two days after hearing another major case involving a similar Texas law that the justices struck down months later.

Kennedy, a conservative who retired in July 2018, had voted to preserve abortion rights in 1992 and again in the 2016 Texas case.

Roberts was a dissenter in the 2016 case, but his vote on Thursday, for now, suggests the court is not retreating from that precedent.

Kavanaugh is one of two Trump appointees who are part of the court’s 5-4 conservative majority, along with Neil Gorsuch.

The Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalized the procedure nationwide in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The court on Feb. 1 temporarily blocked the Lousiana law, which was due to go into effect on Feb. 4, while the justices decided how to proceed.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Trump asks U.S. Congress to prohibit late-term abortion

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump called for curbs on late-term abortion in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, citing controversies over the issue in New York and Virginia.

Using emotive language, Trump waded into what has long been a divisive issue in American politics, even though the procedure was legalized in a Supreme Court ruling more than 40 years ago.

“To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb,” Trump said.

“Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life. Let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: all children – born and unborn – are made in the holy image of God,” he said.

The issue of whether a fetus feels pain has been raised frequently in recent years by abortion opponents pushing for more restrictions in state legislatures. Medical opinion on the issue is not conclusive.

With the confirmation last year of Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, conservatives now have a 5-4 edge on the nation’s highest court, raising fears among abortion rights supporters that the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling could be weakened or overturned.

Currently, laws governing late-term abortions vary state by state.

Trump criticized a New York law enacted last month that provides strong abortion rights protections, including late-term abortions when the mother’s health is endangered.

In his speech, he said lawmakers in the state “cheered with delight” at the law “that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”

The Republican president also seized on a controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, repeating Republicans’ accusations that Northam, a Democrat, advocated infanticide when he defended a bill that would have lifted restrictions on later-term abortions.

Northam has said his comments were misinterpreted. “Extrapolating otherwise is bad faith,” his spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel, said last week.

The embattled Virginia governor is facing a separate controversy over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, but has resisted calls to resign.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Pakistan court upholds acquittal of Christian woman accused of blasphemy

Paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the acquittal of a Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy, dismissing a petition filed by Islamists who have called for her execution.

“On merit, this petition is dismissed,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said in court, saying the petitioners, led by a village prayer leader, had failed to point out any mistake in the original judgment

Asia Bibi, a farm worker, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her conviction was overturned in October, prompting protests from religious hardliners calling for her death and demanding that the government prevent her from leaving the country.

Under pressure from days of protests in the capital, Islamabad, and other cities, the government agreed to stop Bibi leaving the country until the Supreme Court heard a review petition.

Bibi, who spent eight years on death row, has been in hiding since the Supreme Court freed her in October. She has always denied committing blasphemy.

In remarks in court, Khosa was severely critical of the petitioners’ attempt to have the judgment reversed and said Bibi had been convicted on the basis of false evidence, pointing to discrepancies in testimony presented in the original case.

“You think we give the death sentence to someone on the basis of false evidence?” Khosa said. “Such lies were told that one statement doesn’t match with another.”

“Please point out any error in our judgment and we’re ready to rectify it,” he said.

“You start declaring someone deserves to be killed just on the basis of false evidence.”

Hours before the Supreme Court announced its decision, Shafeeq Ameeni, acting head of the hardline Tehreek-e Labaik group, which led the protests last year, issued a new warning to the court not to rule in favor of the “blasphemer”.

Ameeni was not immediately available for comment after the ruling.

Bibi’s case attracted headlines around the world last year, highlighting Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy laws which campaigners have urged the government to repeal.

Rights group Amnesty International issued a statement calling for Bibi, who is staying at an undisclosed location, to be allowed to “reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice”.

“The authorities must also resist and investigate any attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court,” said Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner, Rimmel Mohydin.

“They have a duty to protect against threats of violence to harm religious minorities or the lives of judges or other government officials.”

If allowed to do so, Bibi is expected to seek asylum abroad. In November, Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping her.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)