U.S. Supreme Court lets Flint, Michigan residents sue over water contamination

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday let residents of Flint, Michigan pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the city and government officials that accused them of knowingly allowing the city’s water supply to become contaminated with lead.

The justices turned away two appeals by the city and the state and local officials of a lower court ruling that allowed the lawsuit to move forward. The lower court rejected a demand for immunity by the officials, finding that they violated the residents’ right to “bodily integrity” under the U.S. Constitution by providing the tainted water after switching water sources in a cost-cutting move in 2014.

The justices’ action comes as similar class-action cases are currently on appeal at the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Flint switched its public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River to reduce costs during a financial crisis. The corrosive river water caused lead to leach from pipes.

Lead poisoning can stunt children’s cognitive development. No level of exposure is considered safe.

The city switched back to Lake Huron water the next year. The contaminated river water also triggered an outbreak of bacteria-caused Legionnaires’ disease, which killed 12 people and sickened dozens of others

Lawsuits over Flint’s water have proliferated in recent years. The number of people who have reported being harmed through exposure to contaminants in Flint, including lead and bacteria, or who experienced ailments such as rashes and hair loss, has reached more than 25,000, including more than 5,000 children under 12, according to court records.

The cases center on the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of due process under the law, which can protect people from government-induced harm to their personal security or health, a legal principle known as “bodily integrity.”

Courts have previously enforced the right to confront abuses of power in cases of direct physical intrusion, such as non-consensual medical procedures or forced drug administration.

The defendants argued that the lower courts have dangerously expanded that right by applying it to policy decisions that result in public exposure to environmental toxins. They also argued they are protected from the claims through a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity” because they could not have known they could be held liable for “doing the best they could in difficult circumstances with limited information.”

The case before the justices was filed in 2016 by two Flint residents including Shari Guertin, who said that she and her child were exposed to high levels of lead.

Calling the water crisis a “government-created environmental disaster” in a 2019 ruling, the 6th Circuit green-lighted the constitutional claims and rejected immunity for the officials.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump rejects impeachment charges as an affront to U.S. Constitution

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday rejected the Democratic-led House of Representatives’ impeachment charges, describing the allegations that he had abused his power and obstructed Congress as affronts to the U.S. Constitution that must be rejected.

“The Senate should speedily reject these deficient articles of impeachment and acquit the president,” an executive summary of the Republican president’s pre-trial brief said in Trump’s first comprehensive defense before the start of his Senate trial.

Trump, only the fourth of 45 American presidents to face the possibility of being ousted by impeachment, is charged with abusing the powers of his office by asking Ukraine to investigate a Democratic political rival, Joe Biden, and obstructing a congressional inquiry into his conduct.

The executive summary asserted that the “House Democrats theory of ‘abuse of power’ is not an impeachable offense.” It rejected the obstruction of Congress charge as frivolous and dangerous, saying the president exercised his legal rights by resisting congressional demands for information.

It accused the House Democrats of conducting a rigged process and said they succeeded in proving that Trump had done nothing wrong.

While the Republican-controlled Senate is highly unlikely to remove Trump from office, it is important for the Republican president to diminish the Democratic accusations as a partisan witch-hunt. He needs to limit the political damage to his re-election bid as he seeks a second term in November.

Trump’s legal team says he was well within his constitutional authority to press Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year to investigate Biden and his son Hunter as part of what Trump says was an anti-corruption drive. The Bidens deny any wrongdoing and Trump’s allegations have been widely debunked.

Democrats say Trump abused his power by withholding U.S. military assistance to Ukraine as part of a pressure campaign and obstructed Congress by refusing to hand over documents and barring administration officials from testifying, even when subpoenaed by House investigators.

Trump’s team says he is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers provisions.

In a 111-page document filed before the Senate trial begins in earnest on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers laid out their arguments against Trump, saying the president must be removed from office to protect national security and preserve the country’s system of government.

Seeking to show he is still conducting presidential business despite the trial, Trump is scheduled to depart late on Monday for Davos, Switzerland, to join global leaders at the World Economic Forum. Some advisers had argued against him making the trip.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Ross Colvin, Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)

Democrats ask U.S. Supreme Court to save Obamacare

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and 20 Democratic-led states asked the Supreme Court on Friday to declare that the landmark Obamacare healthcare law does not violate the U.S. Constitution as lower courts have found in a lawsuit brought by Republican-led states.

The House and states including New York and California want the Supreme Court to heard their appeal of a Dec. 18 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the law’s “individual mandate” that required people to obtain health insurance ran afoul of the Constitution.

The petitions asked the Supreme Court to hear the case quickly and issue a definitive ruling by the end of June.

Texas and 17 other conservative states – backed by President Donald Trump’s administration – filed a lawsuit challenging the law, which was signed by Democratic former President Barack Obama in 2010 over strenuous Republican opposition. A district court judge in Texas ruled in 2018 that the entire law was unconstitutional.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; 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 rebuffs bid to expand legal protections for gun silencers

FILE PHOTO: SilencerCo CEO Joshua Waldron shows guns with suppressors in West Valley City, Utah February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away a bid to widen legal protections for gun silencers in a case involving two Kansas men convicted for failing to register the devices as required by federal law, as the justices again sidestepped a chance to rule on the scope of the right to bear arms.

The justices declined to hear appeals by the two men, Shane Cox and Jeremy Kettler, and left in place their convictions in cases brought by federal prosecutors. The men had asked the court to decide whether silencers – muzzle attachments that suppress the sound of a gunshot – are covered by the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which protects the right to keep and bear arms.

The court’s action came in the aftermath of a May 31 mass shooting in the Virginia coastal city of Virginia Beach in which a gunman who killed 12 people used weapons including a handgun equipped with a silencer.

President Donald Trump, a Republican with a close relationship to the National Rifle Association pro-gun lobby, said in an interview aired on June 5 that he does not like silencers and would be open to considering banning the devices. His administration this year imposed a ban on “bump stock” attachments that enable semi-automatic weapons to be fired rapidly, with the Supreme Court in March permitting the policy to take effect.

Kettler and Cox were prosecuted together in 2014 after Kettler purchased a silencer from Cox’s military surplus store in Chanute, Kansas. Both were prosecuted under a federal law called the National Firearms Act, which requires registration of certain firearms, with silencers included in a list of covered items along with grenades, machine guns and bombs.

Cox was convicted of possessing an unregistered silencer as well as an unregistered short-barreled rifle and transferring unregistered silencers. Kettler was convicted of possessing an unregistered silencer.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld both men’s convictions last year, prompting them to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear its biggest gun rights case since 2010, taking up a challenge to New York City’s strict limits on handgun owners transporting their firearms outside the home.

New York officials are considering revising the measure, which may lead to the Supreme Court case becoming moot before the justices hear arguments in their next term, which begins in October.

The court in recent years has been reluctant to take up gun cases and has yet to decide whether the Second Amendment protects a right to carry guns in public, a question left unanswered in its two most recent gun-related decisions.

In its 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling, the court held that the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual right to bear arms. In its 2010 McDonald v. City of Chicago ruling, the court held that the earlier ruling applied to the states.

The court currently has two appeals pending that ask for the justices to rule that the right to bear arms extends outside the home, as well as two other gun-related cases. The justices may be waiting for the New York case to be resolved before deciding what moves to take on the other cases.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court takes no action in Indiana abortion cases

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday took no action on appeals seeking to revive two restrictive Republican-backed abortion laws from Indiana, even as debate rages over a new measure in Alabama that would prohibit the procedure almost entirely.

Neither Indiana case was on the list of appeals on which the court acted on Monday morning. The court could next announce whether or not it will hear the cases on May 28.

If the nine-justice court takes up either case, it would give the conservative majority an opportunity to chip away at the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and recognized a right under the U.S. Constitution for women to terminate pregnancies.

One of the Indiana laws requires fetal remains to be buried or cremated and bans abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus. The other law requires women to undergo an ultrasound examination at least 18 hours before they undergo an abortion.

Both Indiana measures were signed into law in 2016 by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor and were struck down by federal judges the following year. The state of Indiana is appealing to the Supreme Court.

The Alabama law was signed by Republican Governor Kay Ivey last week but is not set to go into effect for six months. It would outlaw almost all abortions, including in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Exceptions would be allowed only to protect the mother’s health. Doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison.

The Alabama law was written with the assumption that it would face legal challenges and could ultimately end up at the high court.

Conservative activists have long denounced the Roe v. Wade decision and hope that the conservative Supreme Court justices, who hold a 5-4 majority, will undermine or even overturn it.

Their chances of success were given a boost last year by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had backed abortion rights in two key cases. Kennedy was replaced by President Donald Trump’s conservative appointee Brett Kavanaugh, who has a thin record on abortion.

Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states. Four governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts, who has voted against abortion rights in previous cases, are seen by legal experts as the key votes to watch.

The high court has two other abortion cases on its docket that it will also act on in the coming months – attempts by Alabama and Louisiana to revive other previously blocked abortion restrictions.

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

NRA sues Los Angeles over law requiring that contractors reveal ties to gun group

An attendee speaks to representatives of the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) annual meeting at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland

(Reuters) – The National Rifle Association sued Los Angeles on Wednesday over a new law requiring that contractors seeking to do business in the second most-populous U.S. city must disclose their ties to the gun rights group.

The NRA said the law violates its First Amendment free speech and association rights and its equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution, according to its complaint filed in Los Angeles federal court.

Mayor Eric Garcetti was also named as a defendant.

The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office and Garcetti’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit challenges an ordinance passed on Feb. 12 by the Los Angeles City Council that requires companies that want city contracts to disclose NRA contracts or sponsorships.

That ordinance was passed in the wake of a series of recent mass shootings in the United States.

The NRA said Los Angeles adopted the ordinance “intending to silence NRA’s voice, as well as the voices of all those who dare oppose the city’s broad gun-control agenda.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

States sue U.S. over the census, fight against reporting if citizen

FILE PHOTO: An attendee holds her new country's flag and her naturalization papers as she is sworn in during a U.S. citizenship ceremony in Los Angeles, U.S., July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of U.S. states on Tuesday filed a lawsuit to stop the Trump Administration from asking people filling out their 2020 census forms whether they are citizens.

The lawsuit was filed in Manhattan federal court, and challenged the U.S. Department of Commerce’s alleged “unconstitutional and arbitrary decision” to add the citizenship question.

All U.S. residents are required under the U.S. Constitution to be counted every 10 years. The results are used to draw political boundaries, and allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of funding.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Trump backs effort to improve gun background checks: White House

Placards and letters are shown, signed by worshipers at Christ Church United Methodist Church in response to shootings in nearby Parkland, Florida which will be sent to legislators and officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

By Jeff Mason

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – The White House said on Monday that President Donald Trump supports efforts to improve federal background checks for gun purchases, days after a shooting at a Florida school killed 17 people.

Trump spoke to Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, on Friday about a bi-partisan bill that he and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy introduced to improve federal compliance with criminal background checks, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

“While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system,” Sanders said in a statement.

Previous mass shootings in the United States have also stirred outrage and calls for action to tighten U.S. gun laws, with few results in Congress.

Students are mobilizing around the country in favor of stronger gun laws after the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history took place on Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a former student is accused of murdering 17 people using an assault-style rifle.

Trump, who visited survivors of the shooting and law enforcement officials on Friday night, is a strong supporter of gun rights and won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby group, for his 2016 presidential campaign.

Many Republicans generally oppose measures to tighten gun restrictions, citing the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment protection of the right to bear arms.

Former President Barack Obama and many of his fellow Democrats unsuccessfully pushed to pass gun control legislation after a gunman killed 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

Cornyn and Murphy introduced their bill to improve federal background checks last November, days after a gunman killed more than two dozen people in a church in Texas.

The bill, called the Fix NICS Act, would ensure that states and federal agencies comply with existing law on reporting criminal history records to the national background check system.

Cornyn, of Texas, had complained when introducing the legislation that compliance by agencies was “lousy.”

Students are planning a “March For Our Lives” in Washington on March 24 to call attention to school safety and ask lawmakers to enact gun control.

Some students reacted with caution to Trump’s support on background checks.

“We want to prevent mass shootings from happening and while this could have happened with other types of weapons, NeverAgain believes school safety should be priority right now, not just background checks,” said Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Kali Clougherty, 18, referring to a campaign for gun control. “This is about the victims. Don’t forget that, we never will.”

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington and Katanga Johnson in Florida; Editing by Alistair Bell)

South Carolina capital could be first U.S. city to ban gun bump stocks

An example of a bump stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S. on October 4, 2017.

By Harriet McLeod

(Reuters) – South Carolina’s capital on Tuesday could become the first U.S. city to ban the use of bump stocks, a gun accessory that has drawn national scrutiny after being found among the Las Vegas mass shooter’s arsenal of weapons in the October rampage.

Last month, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law that explicitly bans bump stocks.

Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, the South Carolina capital, said the city council was expected in a vote on Tuesday night to approve an ordinance barring the devices, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds a minute like fully automatic machine guns.

“One of the common refrains that you hear, whether it was in Texas or Vegas or Sandy Hook, is that a good guy with a gun could have stopped the carnage,” Benjamin, a Democrat, said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s time for the good guys with guns to begin to pass some really good policy.”

Authorities said Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had 12 rifles outfitted with bump stocks in the hotel room where he launched his attack on an outdoor concert, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Since then several states and cities have proposed measures outlawing or restricting the attachments, and the U.S. Justice Department said earlier this month it was considering a ban on certain bump stocks.

California and New York do not prohibit bump stocks outright, but the devices fall under the definition of an automatic weapon, which are illegal in those states, according to Anne Teigen, who covers firearm legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some other states and the District of Columbia have assault weapons bans that could include bump stocks.

“We are not aware of any cities that have passed ordinancesbanning bump stocks,” said Tom Martin, a spokesman for the National League of Cities.

In Columbia, four of the council’s six members approved the city’s proposed ordinance on a first reading earlier this month.

The measure also would ban the use of other gun attachments that allow rifles to fire faster. Owners would be required to keep them stored separately from any weapon.

Trigger-enhancing devices are not gun parts, gun components, weapons or ammunition, which state law prohibits cities from regulating, Benjamin said.

The mayor, who has a background in law enforcement and said he owns guns, said the measure had drawn support from local police and council members who support the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting gun ownership rights.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)