U.S. Supreme Court wrestles over ‘D.C. Sniper’ life sentence appeal

U.S. Supreme Court wrestles over ‘D.C. Sniper’ life sentence appeal
By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday questioned whether a lower court sufficiently considered that a man convicted in the deadly 2002 “D.C. Sniper” shooting spree in the Washington area was a minor at the time of the crimes when he was sentenced to life in prison.

The nine justices heard arguments in an appeal by the state of Virginia objecting to the lower court’s decision ordering that Lee Boyd Malvo’s sentence of life in prison without parole be thrown out.

Malvo, now 34, was 17 during the shootings in which 10 people were killed. He participated with an older accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, who was given the death penalty.

If Malvo prevails, he and other prison inmates in similar cases involving certain crimes committed by minors could receive new sentencing hearings to allow judges to consider whether their youth at the time of the offense merits leniency.

Malvo’s best chance of victory appears to be an alliance of the court’s four liberal justices and at least one conservative justice. The most likely contender based on questions he asked during the argument would be Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The shootings occurred over three weeks in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, causing panic in the U.S. capital region. Muhammad also was convicted and was executed in 2009 at age 48 in a Virginia state prison.

Virginia appealed after the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that Malvo should be resentenced. The 4th Circuit cited Supreme Court decisions issued since the shooting spree finding that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional, and that this rule applied retroactively.

Malvo received four life sentences in Virginia, where he was convicted of two murders and later entered a separate guilty plea to avoid the death penalty. He also received a sentence of life in prison without parole in Maryland.

Virginia’s appeal concerns the scope of a 2012 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that mandatory life sentences without parole in homicide cases involving juvenile killers violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2016, the court decided that the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, enabling people imprisoned years ago to argue for their release.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan appeared convinced that the 2012 ruling, which she authored, dictates the outcome.

“It can be summarized in two words, which is that youth matters,” Kagan said.

Fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said the “odds are greater than 50-50” that the judge did not consider Malvo’s youth during sentencing.

Kavanaugh questioned whether the Virginia sentencing process gave judges leeway not to impose sentences of life without parole, a finding that would favor Malvo. Kavanaugh described that question as the “tough part of the case.”

President Donald Trump’s administration backed Virginia in the case. Among those backing Malvo’s claim in the case are Paul LaRuffa, who was shot and injured outside the restaurant he ran in Clinton, Maryland during the 2002 spree, and two relatives of people killed in shootings.

Malvo’s Maryland sentence would not be directly affected by the outcome in the Virginia dispute.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump says Congress would act if top court rejects ‘Dreamers’

By Susan Heavey and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday said the U.S. Congress could step in to protect the immigrants known as “Dreamers” if the Supreme Court endorses his plan to end a program protecting hundreds of thousands of these young adults who were brought into the country illegally as children.

“Republicans and Democrats will have a deal to let them stay in our country, in very short order,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Nov. 12 over Trump’s 2017 plan to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama in 2012. The immigrants protected under the program often are called “Dreamers.”

Trump and Congress have been unable to agree on legislation that would protect the “Dreamers,” with deep differences between the president’s fellow Republicans and Democratic lawmakers. The failure of Congress to pass a bipartisan immigration package is what prompted Obama to create DACA.

The DACA program currently shields about 700,000 immigrants, mostly Hispanic young adults, from deportation and provides them work permits, though not a path to citizenship.

Trump’s move to rescind DACA was blocked by lower courts.

A ruling by the Supreme Court is due by the end of June.

Trump said on Twitter that if the Supreme Court upholds DACA – which is not the legal question in the case before the justices – it would give the president “extraordinary powers.”

The Trump administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he bypassed Congress and created DACA.

Trump himself has sought to exercise broad presidential powers over immigration, including his travel ban on people entering the United States from several Muslim-majority countries. The Supreme Court upheld that policy in 2018, recognizing wide presidential authority in this area. Trump bypassed Congress in imposing the travel ban.

The legal question before the Supreme Court is whether Trump’s administration properly followed a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act in the president’s plan to end DACA. The Supreme Court does not have to decide whether the DACA program itself was lawful.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Alison Williams and Will Dunham)

Gay, transgender rights in spotlight as U.S. Supreme Court returns

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court kicks off its new term this week, with a major dispute on tap over whether a landmark decades-old federal anti-discrimination law that bars sex discrimination in the workplace protects gay and transgender employees.

The nine-month term opens on Monday with three cases to be argued before the nine justices. On Tuesday, the court turns to one of the term’s biggest legal battles, with two hours of arguments scheduled in three related cases on a major LGBT rights dispute.

At issue is whether gay and transgender people are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.

President Donald Trump’s administration has argued that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

The court, whose 5-4 conservative majority includes two Trump appointees, will hear two cases about gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation. One involves a former county child welfare services coordinator from Georgia named Gerald Bostock. The other involves a New York skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda. He died after the case began and the matter is being pursued by his estate.

“I didn’t ask for any of this. I found myself in this situation. This is a national issue of importance that needs to be confronted head on,” Bostock said.

The third case involves a Detroit funeral home’s bid to reverse a lower court ruling that it violated Title VII by firing a transgender funeral director named Aimee Stephens after Stephens revealed plans to transition from male to female. Rulings in the cases are due by the end of June.

“It would be nice if our rights were formally protected, that we have the same basic human rights as everyone else. We are not asking for anything special,” Stephens said.

Trump, a Republican with strong support among evangelical Christian voters, has taken aim at gay and transgender rights. His administration has supported the right of certain businesses to refuse to serve gay people on the basis of religious objections to gay marriage, restricted transgender service members in the military and rescinded protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools.

The legal fight focuses on the definition of “sex” in Title VII. The plaintiffs, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, have argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers is inherently based on their sex and consequently is unlawful.

Trump’s Justice Department and the employers in the cases have argued that Congress did not intend for Title VII to protect gay and transgender people when it passed the law. Conservative religious groups and various Republican-led states back the administration.

Religious-based employers that expect workers to live in accordance with their religious beliefs are concerned about facing increased litigation.

“An expansion of the scope of Title VII will massively increase church-state conflict,” said Luke Goodrich, a lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious legal group.

ABORTION AND IMMIGRATION

The justices open the term on Monday with arguments in three cases on whether Kansas can abolish the insanity defense in criminal trials, whether the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts and on fees in patent litigation.

Abortion rights also will figure prominently for the justices. The court on Friday agreed to take up a major case that could lead to new curbs on access to abortion as it considers the legality of a Republican-backed Louisiana law that imposes restrictions on abortion doctors.

The law, which the Supreme Court in February prevented from going into effect while the litigation continues, includes a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of an abortion clinic.

The case will test the court’s willingness to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous states. The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas requirement in 2016 but the court has moved to the right since then. Anti-abortion activists are hoping the justices will scale back or even overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Other major cases on the horizon include Nov. 12 arguments over Trump’s move to end a program created by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants – mostly Hispanic young adults – who were brought into the United States illegally as children.

The court is also due in December to hear its first major gun rights case in decade, although the justices potentially could dismiss it because the New York City law being challenged by gun rights advocates has been amended since the litigation began. Other gun-related cases wait in the wings for possible action by the justices.

(For a graphic on major cases before the Supreme Court, click https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-COURT/0100B2E31KB/index.html)

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

With liberal bloc aging, Trump may get more Supreme Court appointments

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With 86-year-old liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg enduring a series of health scares, the question of whether President Donald Trump will get to make yet another U.S. Supreme Court appointment before the 2020 election lingers as the nine justices prepare to begin their new term next week.

The justices, set to hold a private conference on Tuesday to discuss taking new cases after a three-month summer break, open their next nine-month term on Monday, with arguments pending in the coming weeks in major cases involving gay and transgender rights, immigration and other issues.

Trump, who took office in 2017 and is seeking re-election next year, already has appointed two justices – conservatives Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch – who have pushed the court further to the right.

The court has a 5-4 conservative majority, and two of the four liberal justices are over 80 years old, including Stephen Breyer, who turned 81 last month. Ginsburg, a justice since 1993, underwent radiation therapy in August to treat a cancerous tumor on her pancreas after having two cancerous nodules in her left lung removed last December.

The stakes could not be higher for the Supreme Court.

With Trump’s fellow Republicans in control of the Senate, which wields confirmation power over federal judicial nominations, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is well placed to push through another Trump Supreme Court appointment even if the vacancy arises close to the November 2020 election.

If Trump, running for re-election, were to win a second four-year term next year, he potentially would be able to replace both Ginsburg and Breyer, leaving the court with a rock-solid 7-2 conservative majority, possibly for decades to come. That could mean a rightward shift on numerous matters including abortion restrictions, expanding gun rights, blunting the advance of LGBT rights, maintaining the death penalty and bolstering the interests of corporations.

McConnell, who has made confirmation of Trump judicial appointees a paramount priority, made clear his intentions when asked in May at an event in his home state of Kentucky what he would do if a Supreme Court vacancy arose in 2020.

“Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell said.

McConnell in 2016 refused to allow the Senate to act when Democratic former President Barack Obama nominated federal appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill a vacancy created by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – a move Democrats have described as the theft of a Supreme Court seat.

In justifying their inaction on Garland, McConnell and other Republicans argued that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court nominee during a presidential election year. Trump won the 2016 election and in 2017 named Gorsuch to replace Scalia.

‘ON MY WAY’

Ginsburg, who previously underwent treatment for colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009, is expected to be on the bench when the new term opens.

“I am on my way to being very well,” Ginsburg said on Aug. 31 during an appearance at a Washington event.

The diminutive and frail-looking justice also appeared in recent weeks alongside Justice Sonia Sotomayor at an event celebrating retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 89, the first woman to serve on the court.

Compared to Ginsburg, who was a pioneering women’s rights lawyer before becoming a justice and has become something of an icon to American liberals, Breyer keeps a lower profile. His most recent public appearance was in London on Sept. 16. He is not known to have had any health scares since a bicycle fall in 2013 in which he fractured a shoulder.

Former senior Republican Senate aide Mike Davis, who runs a group called the Article III Project that he set up to support Trump’s judicial nominations, said he would expect Republicans to be energized by any potential election-year vacancy. But Davis said he also would expect Democrats to put up a fight.

“If people thought that Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation fight was ugly, just wait until the next one,” Davis said, referring to contentious Senate hearings in which Kavanaugh denied allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct.

No president since Republican Ronald Reagan has appointed more than two justices to the Supreme Court. Reagan named three in his eight years as president, from 1981 to 1989. The last president to have had more than two Supreme Court appointments in his first term in office was Republican President Richard Nixon, who named four in that term running from 1969 to 1973.

Since Nixon was first elected, Republican presidents have filled 14 of the 18 Supreme Court vacancies that have arisen.

Liberal activists are resigned to the idea that Republicans would seize on any opening to expand the court’s conservative majority, even if a vacancy occurs close to the 2020 election.

“They would jump at the chance to make it (the conservative majority) 6-3. I don’t think it matters to them. It’s a raw power grab on their part,” said Christopher Kang, chief counsel at the liberal legal activist group Demand Justice.

If Senate Republicans push through a nomination – in particular in a scenario in which a Trump selection is confirmed after he loses the election but before a new president takes office – it would build momentum among Democrats for an idea promoted by some liberals for adding more seats to the court to loosen the conservative stranglehold, Kang said.

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

Abortion front and center as new U.S. Supreme Court term nears

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With new abortion cases on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court, the nine justices will get an opportunity within weeks to take up legal fights over Republican-backed laws that could lead to rulings curbing a woman’s ability to obtain the procedure.

The big question is not so much whether the court, with its 5-4 conservative majority that includes two justices appointed by President Donald Trump, will take up an appeal that could permit new restrictions on abortion rights, but when it will do so, according to legal experts.

The court’s new nine-month term starts on Oct. 7.

Anti-abortion advocates are hoping the court will chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and recognized a woman’s constitutional right to the procedure – or even overturn the landmark decision.

Appeals already are pending in cases challenging the legality of Republican-backed abortion restrictions in Indiana and Louisiana, with legal fights also brewing over laws in other states including an Alabama measure that would effectively ban all abortions.

The court is scheduled to discuss the Louisiana and Indiana appeals in private on Oct. 1 and announce within days of that meeting whether it will hear the cases, which could lead to rulings by next June.

Whether the court proceeds quickly on abortion or takes a slower approach could depend upon conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, who has emerged as the court’s ideological center amid its rightward shift with Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

“I have to believe they will take one sooner rather than later. It’s clear notwithstanding all the decades since Roe v. Wade that there is intense disagreement among Americans,” said John Bursch, a lawyer with conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes abortion.

“Anytime you have that much turmoil in the political process it’s going to create conflicts the court must address,” Bursch added.

Abortion opponents are hoping the 2018 retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who was pivotal in defending abortion rights, has created an opening for more restrictions to secure Supreme Court approval. Kennedy as recently as 2016 cast the decisive vote in blocking strict regulations on abortion clinics and doctors in Texas.

Trump, who vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, appointed Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy.

‘NO REASON’

“There should be no reason for the Supreme Court to revisit Roe, but we know this is exactly what some of the states are trying to do and what President Trump was looking for in his Supreme Court nominees,” said Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in litigation challenging various abortion restrictions.

Broadly speaking, Republican-controlled states have enacted two types of abortion laws: measures that impose burdensome regulations on abortion providers and those that directly seek to 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 the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks of gestation or soon after.

The Louisiana law imposes restrictions that abortion providers have said would force them to close. It requires that doctors who perform abortions have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic. The legal issue is similar to the 2016 case in which the court struck down a Texas admitting privileges requirement.

In February, the court on a 5-4 vote prevented the Louisiana law from taking effect while litigation continued, with Roberts joining the court’s four liberals. Roberts dissented in the Texas case but his vote in February indicates he may have some doubts about the court reversing course on a precedent it set only three years ago.

The Indiana case involves the state’s attempt to revive a Republican-backed law that requires women to undergo an ultrasound at least 18 hours before undergoing an abortion, a requirement critics call medically unnecessary.

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 may not reach the court in time for it to act during its coming term.

In addition to the Alabama ban, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia passed measures that would prohibit abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Missouri has a similar law that would prohibit abortion after eight weeks. Facing legal challenges, none of the laws has yet taken effect.

Other cases that could reach the court sooner include fights over abortion restrictions in Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas that are pending in appeals courts.

Since Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court last October, it has sent mixed signals on abortion. The court in June declined to hear a bid by Alabama to revive another Republican-backed law that would have effectively banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In May, it refused to consider reinstating Indiana’s ban on abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus while upholding the state’s requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated after an abortion.

Julie Rikelman, a lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports abortion rights, said the Supreme Court is likely to take up a case on one of the restrictive laws rather than a measure that directly bans abortion, meaning it could avoid having to decide for now on overturning Roe v. Wade.

“What’s important for people to know,” Rikelman said, “is that even while Roe is the law, there is a great deal of harm that can be done.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court to review Montana dispute over religious school subsidies

A man stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a case that could once again test boundaries for the separation of church and state, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide the legality of a Montana state tax credit that could help students attend private schools including religious ones.

The justices took up an appeal by three mothers of Christian private school students of a decision by Montana’s top court striking down the program because it ran afoul of a state constitutional ban on aid to religious institutions.

Churches and Christian groups have pushed for expanding access to public dollars for places of worship and religious schools, testing the limits of secularism in the United States.

The decision to hear the case could give the justices an opportunity to build on a major 2017 ruling that sided with a Missouri church and opened the door to more taxpayer funds going to religious entities.

In that case, the justices ruled that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states where constitutions explicitly ban such funding, siding with a church that sued after being denied access to a state grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.

Much litigation over the years has involved school “voucher” programs and other subsidies to help parents pay for children to attend private religious schools, in states whose constitutions explicitly ban such funding. Republican President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court throws out ruling that blocked Florida cross on public land

Pensacola, Florida Cross on public land

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday threw out a lower court ruling that declared that a 34-foot (10 meters) Christian cross standing on public land in Pensacola, Florida violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion.

The justices sent the case back to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in light of the high court’s June 20 ruling in a similar case in which it upheld the constitutionality of a 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland.

The high court’s 7-2 ruling said that long-standing monument was permissible under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which calls for the separation of church and state. The justices were divided over whether other types of religious displays and symbols on government property would be allowed.

A cross in Pensacola has stood on the site in Bayview Park since 1941, although the most recent version was erected in 1969. At times the site has been used for Easter services.

In a September 2018 ruling, the Atlanta-based court said the Pensacola law was unconstitutional, citing its own precedents on the issue.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court rejects limits to partisan gerrymandering

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung)

Supreme Court faults Trump bid to add census citizenship question

FILE PHOTO: An informational pamphlet is displayed at an event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that President Donald Trump’s administration did not give an adequate explanation for its plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, delivering a victory to New York state and others challenging the proposal.

The justices partly upheld a federal judge’s decision barring the question in a win for a group of states and immigrant rights organizations that challenged the plan. The mixed ruling does not definitively decide whether the question could be added at some point.

The Republican president’s administration had appealed to the Supreme Court after lower courts blocked the inclusion of the census question.

A group of states including New York and immigrant rights organizations sued to prevent the citizenship question from being included in the decennial population count. Opponents have said the question would instill fear in immigrant households that the information would be shared with law enforcement, deterring them from taking part.

The census, required by the U.S. Constitution, is used to allot seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and distribute some $800 billion in federal funds. The intent of the citizenship question, opponents said, is to manufacture a deliberate undercount of areas with high immigrant and Latino populations, costing Democratic-leaning regions seats in the House, benefiting Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

The administration argued that adding a question requiring people taking part in the census to declare whether they are a citizen was needed to better enforce a voting rights law, a rationale that opponents called a pretext for a political motive.

Manhattan-based U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on Jan. 15 that the Commerce Department’s decision to add the question violated a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act. Federal judges in Maryland and California also have issued rulings to block the question’s inclusion, saying it would violate the Constitution’s mandate to enumerate the population every 10 years.

Furman said the evidence showed that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross concealed his true motives for adding the question and that he and his aides had convinced the Justice Department to request a citizenship question.

Businesses also rely on census data to make critical strategic decisions, including where to invest capital. Citizenship has not been asked of all households since the 1950 census, featuring since then only on questionnaires sent to a smaller subset of the population.

The Census Bureau’s own experts estimated that households corresponding to 6.5 million people would not respond to the census if the citizenship question were asked.

While only U.S. citizens can vote, non-citizens comprise an estimated 7 percent of the population.

Evidence surfaced in May that the challengers said showed that the administration’s plan to add a citizenship question was intended to discriminate against racial minorities.

Documents created by Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, who died last year, showed that he was instrumental behind the scenes in instigating the addition of the citizenship question. He was an expert in drawing electoral district boundaries that maximize Republican chances of winning congressional elections.

Hofeller concluded in a 2015 study that asking census respondents whether they are American citizens “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” in redrawing electoral districts based on census data.

Hofeller suggested the voting rights rationale in the newly disclosed documents.

The Trump administration called the newly surfaced evidence “conspiracy theory.”

A federal judge in Maryland is reviewing the Hofeller evidence.

Most people living in the United States will be asked to fill out the census, whether online or on paper, by March 2020.

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

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

Conservative U.S. Justice Gorsuch again sides with liberals in criminal case

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participates in taking a new family photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For the second time in three days, conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch on Wednesday sided with his four liberal colleagues in a 5-4 ruling in favor of a criminal defendant, on this occasion an Oklahoma man convicted of possessing child pornography.

The court ruled that the right of Andre Haymond to face a jury trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment was violated when a judge unilaterally imposed an additional prison sentence after Haymond violated the terms of his supervised release.

Haymond originally was sentenced to just over three years in prison and 10 years of supervised release after being convicted by a jury in 2010 of possessing pornographic images involving children. He was arrested in 2007 after an undercover agent caught him sharing images online.

After completing his sentence, Haymond was found in 2015 in possession of 59 additional images. A judge then imposed a new five-year sentence without a jury’s participation.

Gorsuch, appointed to the court by President Donald Trump in 2017, found that the federal sentencing law under which the judge acted – which required the judge to send Haymond to prison without a jury’s involvement or the requirement that the government prove his guilt – ran afoul of the Constitution as applied in Haymond’s case.

“Only a jury, acting on proof beyond reasonable doubt, may take a person’s liberty. That promise stands as one of the Constitution’s most vital protections against arbitrary government,” Gorsuch wrote.

Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberal justices, did not join Gorsuch’s opinion, but agreed with the outcome.

In dissent, conservative Justice Samuel Alito appeared alarmed that the court might in a future case endanger the entire concept of supervised release. Federal judges in 2018 handled almost 17,000 cases involving revocation of supervised release, Alito said, citing court statistics.

If Gorsuch’s opinion were to be applied more broadly in the future, “the whole system of supervised release would be like a 40-ton truck speeding down a steep mountain road with no brakes,” Alito wrote.

Gorsuch joined the four liberal justices on Monday in a 5-4 ruling striking down as unconstitutionally vague a law imposing stiff criminal sentences for people convicted of certain crimes involving firearms. [nL2N23V0N5]

In both cases, the court’s four other conservative justices were in dissent including Trump’s other appointee, Brett Kavanaugh.

Gorsuch and the liberal justices have been in the majority on four occasions in 5-4 rulings in the current Supreme Court term, which began in October and ends on Thursday.

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

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)