Life upended for Americans as U.S. scrambles to contain coronavirus threat

By Jonathan Allen and Steve Holland

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – From Disneyland to the U.S. Supreme Court, from Wall Street to Dodgers Stadium, nearly every facet of American life fell into turmoil on Thursday as the coronavirus outbreak caused sweeping closures and economic disruption.

As concern grew over a rapid spread of the sometimes-fatal COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by the virus, the U.S. stock market cratered anew, professional and college sports leagues suspended play, Broadway theaters went dark and many schools from Ohio to Texas shuttered.

The unprecedented cascade of shutdowns reflected growing fears that the outbreak of the highly contagious pathogen, which has already killed at least 40 people in the United States, could race out of control unless authorities squelch large public gatherings.

As companies locked their offices and sent employees to work from home, fears of a recession rose in step with the number of U.S. infections, which jumped to more than 1,300 on Thursday. The concerns were reflected in U.S. stock markets, with major indexes now in bear-market territory – down at least 20% from their recent high.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency, granting him new powers as the number of confirmed cases rose to 95 in the nation’s most populous city.

“We are getting into a situation where the only analogy is war and a wartime dynamic,” de Blasio said, referring to an expected surge in demand for hospital beds.

From California to New York, officials banned large gatherings and closed museums and other institutions without saying how long the directives would stay in place, compounding the uncertainty.

After the Trump administration imposed sweeping restrictions on air travel between the United States and Europe, Gabriella Ribeiro, a Wayne, New Jersey-based travel consultant, said she was fielding a flood of panicked calls from customers.

“We call it the ‘C’ word,” Ribeiro said of coronavirus. “We’ve been through Ebola and SARS, but I haven’t seen this level of panic among travelers since 9/11.”

CANCELED: MARCH MADNESS AND BASEBALL

With cancellations hitting everything from Little League baseball to school fairs, the rituals of American life started to grind to a halt.

The NCAA canceled its annual “March Madness” college basketball tournament. Professional hockey and basketball seasons were halted indefinitely. Major League Baseball ended spring training and suspended the first two weeks of the season.

“Opening day is religion around here,” said Frank Buscemi, a self-described sports junkie and Detroit Tigers baseball fan. “It makes sense, and you’ve got to err on the side of caution – we get that. It doesn’t make it any easier and it doesn’t make it any more fun.”

Officials in hard-hit areas, including New York and Washington states, sought to balance the need to protect the public without crippling economic activity.

New York state banned gatherings of more than 500 people beginning on Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters. California placed the cap at gatherings of 250 people.

Hollywood postponed the release of several movies and theaters around the world closed over the health crisis.

The Walt Disney Company shuttered their large U.S. properties, including Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida.

In Washington, D.C., officials closed the U.S. Capitol complex to the public after a staffer for a senator from Washington state tested positive for the coronavirus. [L1N2B50S4] The Supreme Court closed to the public indefinitely, and the Kennedy Center canceled all performances.

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and at least one player in the National Basketball Association announced that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“WE’RE NOT SET UP”

The patchwork of state and local directives to stem the tide of infections came as U.S. health officials struggled to expand the country’s limited testing capacity.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. official on infectious diseases, said at a congressional hearing. “The idea of anybody getting it (testing) easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.”

Two U.S. senators, Rick Scott and Lindsey Graham, opted for self-quarantine after interacting with a delegation led by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Florida. One of Bolsonaro’s team has tested positive for the virus.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also met the Brazilian delegation, but White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said both of them had “almost no interactions with the individual who tested positive and do not require being tested at this time.”

Republicans initially balked at a sweeping coronavirus economic aid package crafted by Democrats in the House of Representatives. After a day-long negotiating session, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Thursday that they were close to a deal with the administration.

The Senate canceled a scheduled recess and will return next week to work on legislation.

The Trump administration spelled out details of new rules on U.S. citizens and permanent residents’ returning from Europe under restrictions that ban most Europeans from entering the United States.

“Americans coming home will be funneled through 13 different airports, they’ll be screened, and then we’re going to ask every single American and legal resident returning to the United States to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Pence said.

Trump defended his decision, which goes into effect at midnight on Friday and lasts for 30 days. He said the ban could be lengthened or shortened.

The restrictions will heap pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said.

American Airlines Inc <AAL.O> and Delta Air Lines Inc <DAL.N> said they were capping fares for U.S.-bound flights from Europe amid reports of exorbitant pricing as U.S. citizens flocked to European airports trying to return home.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert, Patricia Zengerle, David Morgan and Richard Cowan in Washington and Maria Caspani, Michael Erman and Dan Burns in New York, Steve Gorman in Culver City, California; Writing by Ginger Gibson and Paul Simao; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Cynthia Osterman, Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis)

Trump says he will block U.S. funds to ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday said he would withhold money from so-called sanctuary jurisdictions after a U.S. court ruled that his administration could block federal law enforcement funds to states and cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan granted the move on Feb. 26, but three other federal appeals courts have agreed to uphold an injunction against the withholding of such funds, setting up a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“As per recent Federal Court ruling, the Federal Government will be withholding funds from Sanctuary Cities. They should change their status and go non-Sanctuary. Do not protect criminals!” Trump tweeted, although he gave no other details.

The 2nd Circuit overturned a lower court ruling directing the release of federal funds to New York City and the states of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington. The states and city sued over a 2017 policy conditioning receipt of the funds by state and local governments on their giving federal immigration officials access to their jails, and advance notice when immigrants in the country illegally are being released from custody.

Three federal appeals courts in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco have upheld injunctions barring enforcement of at least some of the administration’s conditions on the funds. The latest ruling set up a possible battle at the U.S. Supreme Court, which often resolves legal disputes that divide lower courts.

The Republican president, who is seeking re-election in the Nov. 3 election, has taken a hardline stance toward legal and illegal immigration. His battle against Democratic-led “sanctuary” jurisdictions focuses on laws and policies making it harder for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to find and arrest immigrants they consider deportable.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court weighs major abortion case; demonstrators rally

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court returns to the issue of abortion rights on Wednesday when it considers a challenge to a Louisiana law that imposes restrictions on doctors in a major case that could make it harder for women to obtain the procedure, with a throng of demonstrators rallying outside the white marble building.

The court, with a 5-4 conservative majority, is set to hear an hour of arguments beginning at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) in an appeal by Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women seeking to invalidate the 2014 law. Two of Louisiana’s three clinics that perform abortions would be forced to close if the law is allowed to take effect, according to lawyers for the clinic.

The clinic sued to block the law, which requires that doctors who perform abortions have a sometimes difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic. A federal appeals court upheld the law. President Donald Trump’s administration supports Louisiana in the case.

Hundreds of demonstrators appeared outside the court on a cool and sunny day in the U.S. capital, with supporters of abortion rights outnumbering opponents. Some carried signs saying “Protect Safe, Legal Abortion” and “My Right, My Decision.”

“I remember a time when abortion wasn’t legal. It was illegal when I was a teenager. And we aren’t going back. We’re just not going back,” said demonstrator Bambi Nelms, 62, of Maryland. “My mother had an illegal abortion before I was born – coat hanger variety – and it darned near killed her. She had me after that.”

The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas admitting privileges requirement in 2016 when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, joined the four liberal justices to defend abortion rights. Trump has tightened the conservative grip on the court with his 2018 appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy, and his 2017 appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Neither Kavanaugh nor Kennedy ruled directly on abortion rights during their prior service as federal appellate judges. Trump promised during the 2016 presidential race to appoint justices who would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalized it nationwide. The Supreme Court in 1992 reaffirmed Roe v. Wade in a ruling that prohibited laws that placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

The Louisiana case will test the willingness of the court to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.

CHIEF JUSTICE IN SPOTLIGHT

Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who is considered the court’s ideological center, could be the pivotal vote. He cast the deciding vote when the justices last year on a 5-4 vote blocked Louisiana’s law from taking effect while the litigation over its legality continued.

That vote brings him into conflict with his position in the Texas case when Roberts was among the three dissenting justices who concluded that an admitting privileges requirement did not represent an undue burden.

Baton Rouge-based U.S. District Judge John deGravelles cited the undue burden precedent when he struck down Louisiana’s law in 2016, prompting the state to appeal to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 5th Circuit upheld the law despite the 2016 precedent, concluding there was no evidence any Louisiana clinic would close due to the admitting privileges requirement.

Abortion remains one of the most divisive social issues in the United States, with Christian conservatives – an important constituency for Trump – among those most opposed to it. A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Louisiana’s law could prompt other states to pass similar statutes.

Abortion rights advocates have argued that restrictions such as admitting privileges are meant to limit access to abortion not protect women’s health as proponents say.

Activists who oppose abortion are hoping the Supreme Court, with Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and perhaps additional Trump appointees on the bench if he wins re-election on Nov. 3, will scale back or even overturn Roe v. Wade.

[For a graphic on U.S. state abortion laws, see https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ABORTION-RESTRICTIONS/010092FK33J/index.html]

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

U.S. Supreme Court gives states latitude to prosecute illegal immigrants

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday widened the ability of states to use criminal laws against illegal immigrants and other people who do not have work authorization in the United States in a ruling involving identity theft prosecutions in Kansas.

The 5-4 ruling, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority, overturned a 2017 Kansas Supreme Court decision that had voided the convictions of three restaurant workers for fraudulently using other people’s Social Security numbers.

In the opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the high court found that Kansas did not unlawfully encroach on federal authority over immigration policy.

The court’s four liberal justices disagreed. While a 1986 federal law called the Immigration Reform and Control Act did not explicitly prevent states from pursuing such prosecutions, they said in a dissent written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the law’s overall purpose hands the policing of work authorization fraud “to the federal government alone.”

President Donald Trump’s administration backed Kansas in the case. Trump has made his hardline policies toward immigration a centerpiece of his presidency and 2020 re-election campaign. Kansas is one of several conservative states that have sought to crack down on illegal immigrants.

In the dissent, Breyer said allowing prosecutions like those pursued by Kansas “opens a colossal loophole” in allowing states to police federal work authorization.

Though immigration-related employment fraud is a federal matter, Kansas contended that its prosecutions were not immigration-related and did not conflict with federal immigration law. Kansas had argued that a ruling in favor of the immigrants would undermine its ability to combat the growing problem of identity theft.

Immigrant rights groups have said that giving states power to prosecute employment fraud would let them take immigration policy into their own hands.

The three men – Ramiro Garcia, Donaldo Morales and Guadalupe Ochoa-Lara – were not authorized to work in the United States and provided their employers Social Security numbers that were not their own.

A Social Security number is used to identify people for employment and tax purposes. People who enter the country illegally do not get assigned Social Security numbers, which are given by the U.S. government to all legal residents.

The case focused on the employment verification process under federal immigration law requiring employers, on a form known as the I-9, to attest that an employee is authorized to work. The law also states that the form “may not be used for purposes other than for enforcement of this act.”

While the federal government has the sole authority to prosecute individuals for providing fraudulent information during the I-9 employment verification process, the state prosecuted the three men for using the same false information on different forms used to withhold wages for tax purposes.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Alito wrote, “The submission of tax-withholding forms is fundamentally unrelated to the federal employment verification system.”

The ruling, by giving states some latitude in law enforcement affecting illegal immigrants, could provide ammunition to California in its defense of its so-called sanctuary policies. These policies limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities to protect certain illegal immigrants from deportation.

Trump’s administration sued California and is appealing to the Supreme Court after losing in a lower court. The justices could act in that case as early as next week. The administration also has sued other states and localities over sanctuary policies.

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

U.S. Supreme Court rejects challenge to ban on gun ‘bump stocks’

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rebuffed a bid by gun rights advocates to overturn President Donald Trump’s ban on “bump stocks” – devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly like a machine gun – implemented after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting.

The justices left in place a lower court’s decision that upheld the Trump administration’s action to define bump stocks as prohibited machine guns under U.S. law.

The ban, which went into effect in March 2019, was embraced by Trump following a massacre that killed 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas in which the gunman used bump stocks. It represented a rare recent instance of gun control at the federal level in a country that has experienced a series of mass shootings.

Numerous gun control proposals have been thwarted in the U.S. Congress, largely because of opposition by Republican lawmakers and the influential National Rifle Association gun rights lobby.

The Firearms Policy Foundation, a gun rights group, and other plaintiffs sued in federal court to try to reverse Trump’s action. The Supreme Court last year refused to block the ban from going into effect while the legal challenges against it were considered in the courts. The justices also refused to temporarily exempt from the plaintiffs in the case from the ban.

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 ban required owners to turn in or destroy the attachments and those caught in possession of them could face up to 10 years in prison.

The Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, was found to have fired more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition in about 11 minutes, employing semi-automatic rifles modified with bump stocks.

The plaintiffs challenged a new rule issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at Trump’s direction that classified bump stock devices as forbidden machine guns under the 1934 National Firearms Act.

A federal court refused to issue an injunction against the ban, saying the plaintiffs would likely lose the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld that decision, deferring to the bureau’s new interpretation of the National Firearms Act.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative member of the court appointed by Trump, issued a statement agreeing with the decision to deny the appeal. But he criticized the lower court’s deference to a federal agency – the bureau – that had changed its interpretation of a longstanding law.

“How, in all this, can ordinary citizens be expected to keep up?” Gorsuch asked, adding that the bump stock dispute may return to the Supreme Court at a later date.

The Supreme Court in December heard arguments in the first major gun dispute to come before the justices since 2010 – a challenge backed by the NRA to a handgun transport restriction in New York City.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Democratic bid to save Obamacare

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a politically explosive case on whether Obamacare is lawful, taking up a bid by 20 Democratic-led states to save the landmark healthcare law.

The impetus for the Supreme Court case was a 2018 ruling by a federal judge in Texas that Obamacare as currently structured in light of a key Republican-backed change made by Congress violates the U.S. Constitution and is invalid in its entirety. The ruling came in a legal challenge to the law by Texas and 17 other conservative states backed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court skeptical of law against encouraging illegal immigration

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday signaled skepticism toward a federal law that made it a felony to encourage illegal immigrants to come or stay in the United States as they heard a bid by President Donald Trump’s administration to revive the measure after it was struck down by a lower court.

The nine justices heard arguments in the administration’s appeal after the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the law as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Conservative and liberal justices alike expressed concern that the decades-old law may be too broad, repeatedly pressing the administration about what kind of speech could be criminalized.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, asked whether it would be illegal for a grandmother to tell a grandchild who was in the United States unlawfully, “I encourage you to stay.” Other justices wondered about the work of lawyers or charities and whether their speech could be impaired.

The case involves Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, a U.S. citizen who ran an immigration consultancy in San Jose, California, and was convicted of violating the law.

It is one of a number of immigration-related appeals the Supreme Court is handling during its term that ends in June. The justices in November heard Trump’s bid to rescind a program that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of young people known as “Dreamers” who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

Trump has made restricting both legal and illegal immigration a centerpiece of his presidency and his re-election bid this year.

Sineneng-Smith was convicted in 2013 of violating the law, which bars inducing or encouraging an illegal immigrant to “come to, enter or reside” in the United States, including for financial gain. She also was convicted of mail fraud, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison and three years of supervised release.

A federal grand jury in 2010 charged Sineneng-Smith, accusing her of making money by duping illegal migrants into paying her to file frivolous visa applications while remaining in the country indefinitely. Her business primarily served Filipinos who worked as home healthcare providers.

The 9th Circuit in 2018 ruled that the law must be struck down because it is overly broad, prompting the Trump administration’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

The administration said the law is not meant to catch protected speech, but rather to stop people who would facilitate or solicit illegal immigration and enrich themselves by doing so.

The law threatens anything that could inspire or embolden illegal immigrants, including the thousands of messages of support for Dreamers that flooded the internet after the justices heard arguments in that case last November, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group, said in a court filing.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court turns away religious bias claim against Walgreens

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to Walgreens, turning away an appeal by a fired former Florida employee of the pharmacy chain who asked not to work on Saturdays for religious reasons as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The justices declined to review a lower court ruling in Darrell Patterson’s religious discrimination lawsuit that concluded that his demand to never work on Saturday, observed as the Sabbath by Seventh-day Adventists, placed an undue hardship on Walgreens.

Patterson, who had trained customer service representatives at a Walgreens call center in Orlando, was fired in 2011 after failing to show up for work on a Saturday for an urgent training session.

The case tested the allowances companies must make for employees for religious reasons to comply with a federal anti-discrimination law called Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Under Title VII, employers must “reasonably accommodate” workers’ religious practices unless that would cause the company “undue hardship.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

As Florida, Georgia battle over water, panhandle oystermen struggle to survive

By Rich McKay

APALACHICOLA, Fla. (Reuters) – Standing in his boat in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, Michael Dasher lowered a long pair of tongs into the water, pulling up a muddy mass of oysters that his son sorted, keeping those big enough to sell and tossing the rest back into the brackish bay.

His 53-year-old calloused hands grasped not just the 12-foot-long (3.7-m-long) tool but a way of life that Florida panhandle oystermen say is dying: Last year, they hauled in 16,000 pounds (7,257 kg) of oysters worth $130,000, according to state figures, a fraction of the 2012 catch of 3 million pounds (1.4 million kg) worth $8.8 million.

“It’s like dumping sacks of rocks every day, but I don’t know how to do anything else,” said Dasher, who fretted that his 32-year-old son nicknamed “Little Mike,” a fifth-generation oysterman in the family, may also be its last.

Their future may be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule later this year on a seven-year-long legal battle between Florida and Georgia.

Florida accuses its northern neighbour — and particularly the fast-growing city of Atlanta — of drawing too much water from the rivers that feed the bay, causing its salinity to rise and driving down the oyster population.

Georgia rejects that claim, saying it has made great strides in water conservation. It says that what has really hurt the oyster population is a surge of over-harvesting since the 2010 BP plc Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which Florida had feared would foul the bay but ultimately did not.

The oystermen have reason to be worried: U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Kelly of Santa Fe, a state water rights expert who was named a “special master” by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, has recommended that the court side with Georgia.

But the court can ignore his recommendation, if it’s swayed by Florida’s arguments.

Florida says Georgia uses too much water.

‘EQUITABLE SHARE’

The swelling 6-million-strong population of the nine-county greater Atlanta area, as well as Georgia’s peanut and cotton farms, all draw on the same fresh water sources that flow to the Apalachicola Bay.

State officials and farmers say they are conserving more water than ever, and that they aren’t to blame for crash of the oyster beds.

Katherine Zitsch, manager of natural resources for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said the metropolitan area now uses 10% less water than it did 20 years ago, even though the population has risen by 1.2 million people.

But the oystermen and environmentalists in both states say that same water is needed in the bay.

Federal court precedent dating back more than 100 years dictates how states must share fresh water that flows across their borders, but does not set precise standards for water allocation. Water is divided based on proven needs, populations, agriculture and other factors.

“Even though Florida is entitled to an equitable share, that’s a moving target,” said John Draper, a Santa Fe attorney and expert in this sort of litigation. “It’s not a 50-50 split.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it was hopeful the court would rule in its favour.

“The state of Florida remains committed to restoring the historic flows of the Apalachicola River,” for the families who rely on the river for their livelihood, it said in a statement.

Officials declined to comment.

‘WE NEED THAT WATER’

Upstream and down, residents who have long relied on the water to support their sources of income say they can’t make do with less.

Farmer Murray Campbell, 64, a third-generation peanut farmer in Pebble City, Georgia, about 150 miles (240 km) north of Apalachicola Bay, says he has sympathy for the oystermen.

“Lord knows I love oysters, especially those Apalachicolas,” Campbell said. “I’d love to see them successful. But truth is, we need that water. Once you put a crop in the ground, the banker wants his money.”

“We’d be a dust bowl without irrigation,” he said.

The dozen or so oystermen left working the Apalachicola Bay — a sliver of the more than 400 that once worked its waters — likewise say they can’t do without.

“We’re counting on the court seeing it our way, or we’re sunk,” said Shannon Hartsfield, the 50-year-old president of the local Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.

Hartsfield has been reduced to oystering part time, making the rest of his living fishing for shrimp.

Many of his former counterparts had left their boats and gone to Tallahassee or Panama City to work in construction or the hospitality industry, he said.

“But it’s not too late to reclaim it,” Hartsfield said of the oystering way of life. “If we get that water back, our men will be back. The bay can bounce back.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

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)