As conservative U.S. states pass abortion bans, Missouri’s sole clinic could close

People take part in a pro-choice march in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., May 30, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Ael Diehm/via REUTERS

By Pavithra George

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) – Missouri could become the only U.S. state without a legal abortion provider on Friday, as its only abortion clinic could lose its license to perform the procedure unless a St. Louis judge intervenes.

The legal battle in St. Louis comes a week after Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, signed a bill banning abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy, making Missouri one of nine U.S. states to pass anti-abortion legislation this year.

Planned Parenthood sued Missouri this week after state health officials said the license for Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis was in jeopardy because they were unable to interview seven of its physicians over “potential deficient practices,” documents filed in a St. Louis court showed.

The circuit judge in the case, Michael Stelzer, was expected on Friday to rule on Planned Parenthood’s request for a temporary restraining order and injunction against the state, according to local media.

Outside the clinic, a handful of anti-abortion protesters stood holding “Choose Life” signs early Friday.

If Stelzer rules against Planned Parenthood, the clinic’s license to perform abortions would expire at midnight, making Missouri the only U.S. state without an abortion clinic since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that established a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

Abortion is one of the most socially divisive issues in U.S. politics, with opponents often citing religious beliefs to call it immoral, while abortion-rights advocates say the bans amount to state control of women’s bodies.

On Thursday, abortion-rights demonstrators held a rally in downtown St. Louis, where police arrested Alderman Megan Ellyia Green and several Planned Parenthood board members during a sit-in at the Wainwright State Office Building, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

Anti-abortion activists say they aim to prompt the newly installed conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade by enacting laws that are virtually assured of facing court challenges.

A series of prominent U.S. media companies said they will rethink working in Georgia, if a new state law takes effect, banning abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected by doctors. That standard effectively bans abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy, before some women would even be aware they were pregnant.

Those companies include AT&T Inc’s WarnerMedia, CBS Corp, Viacom Inc, Comcast Corp’s NBCUniversal, AMC Networks Inc, Walt Disney Co and Netflix Inc.

(Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone, Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)

Louisiana governor to sign ‘heartbeat’ ban, latest move to curb U.S. abortion rights

FILE PHOTO - Missouri Governor Mike Parson signs Bill 126 into law banning abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy, alongside state House and Senate members and pro-life coalition leaders at his office in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S., May 24, 2019. Office of Governor Michael L. Parson/Handout via REUTERS.

By Gabriella Borter and Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – Louisiana’s Democratic governor said on Wednesday he would sign a bill passed earlier in the day to ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, the latest legislation in a movement in mostly Southern and Midwest states to curb abortion rights.

Earlier on Wednesday, Missouri’s governor renewed his intention to close a Planned Parenthood clinic and become the first state without a medical facility that performs abortions.

The Louisiana bill was approved on Wednesday by a 79-23 vote of the Republican-controlled Louisiana House of Representatives and had already passed in the state Senate.

Louisiana would join at least four other conservative-leaning states that have passed measures this year to prohibit abortion as early as six weeks. Alabama has approved a stricter law that would ban nearly all abortions in the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court may eventually be called upon to rule on the various state laws, which challenge the high court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards would become the first Democrat this year to sign a ban on abortion when a heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks from conception before a woman realizes she is pregnant, lending bipartisanship to the measure. The bill’s sponsor, state Senator John Milkovich, is also a Democrat.

Other states that passed similar measures this year, including Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri, are led by Republican governors.

“As I prepare to sign this bill, I call on the overwhelming bipartisan majority of legislators who voted for it to join me in continuing to build a better Louisiana that cares for the least among us and provides more opportunity for everyone,” Edwards said in a statement on Wednesday.

The measure would allow a woman to have an abortion, after detection of an embryonic heartbeat, to prevent her death or if she risks serious injury.

The Louisiana legislation will not go into effect until a U.S. Appeals Court rules on whether to allow a similar measure in neighboring Mississippi to take effect. Last week, a U.S. district judge blocked the Mississippi law from taking effect, and the Appeals Court that is expected to review the ruling also has jurisdiction over Louisiana.

DECADES-LONG FIGHT

The Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to restrict abortion from the time a fetus can viably survive outside the womb, which the opinion placed at 24 to 28 weeks from conception.

Anti-abortion campaigners have sought to overturn the decision ever since, and they see an opportunity with the newly installed 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

While some states have sought to ban abortion at six weeks from conception, at least three states have passed measures this year to ban abortion starting at some point between eight weeks and 18 weeks.

The Louisiana House on Wednesday rejected a proposed amendment that would have allowed exceptions to the ban if a woman became pregnant during a rape or through incest.

Other states that have passed abortion restrictions this year also declined to make exceptions for rape and incest, drawing criticism from Trump, who supports such exceptions.

Abortion rights groups this year are challenging a number of state restrictions in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood obtained an injunction from a judge in March blocking Kentucky’s ban on abortions, which would apply as early as six weeks from conception.

On another front in the battle, Planned Parenthood sued the Missouri Department of health on Tuesday after the department told the state’s only abortion clinic it could not approve a license until it interviewed seven doctors that worked there.

The license for the clinic, which Planned Parenthood operates, is due to expire on Friday.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, on Wednesday, reiterated his intention to close the clinic for failing to meet state licensing standards.

Planned Parenthood said in a statement that Parson’s remarks were “not based on medicine, facts or reality,” and it will do “everything to ensure our patients get the best medical care available.”

Last week, Parson signed into law a measure banning abortion in Missouri after the eighth week of a woman’s pregnancy.

(Story was refiled to remove “Bel” from governor’s name in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Alex Dobuzinskis, Editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool)

ACLU, Planned Parenthood sue over Alabama abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Flag and Alabama State Flag fly over the Alabama Governor's Mansion as the state Senate votes on the strictest anti-abortion bill in the United States at the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit on Friday challenging a law enacted by Alabama last week that bans nearly all abortions and makes performing the procedure a felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

The lawsuit is one of several the groups have filed or are preparing to file against states that recently passed strict anti-abortion measures in an effort to prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that guarantees a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

“This dangerous, immoral, and unconstitutional ban threatens people’s lives and well-being and we are suing to protect our patients’ rights,” Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

The ACLU’s Alabama chapter and Planned Parenthood of America filed their complaint in federal court in Alabama on behalf of the Southern state’s three abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Anti-abortion advocates expected legal challenges to Alabama’s new law, which will be the most restrictive in the nation when it takes effect in November, and say they welcome the chance to have a court test their conviction that a fetus’ right to life is paramount.

Also on Friday, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a bill into law that bans abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy.

Earlier this year, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio outlawed abortion after a doctor can detect an embryonic heartbeat, which can occur at six weeks, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

The wave of anti-abortion legislation reflects a boost of confidence among anti-abortion advocates after Republican President Donald Trump nominated two conservative judges, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, to the U.S. Supreme Court, tilting the court’s political balance to the right.

Alabama state Senator Clyde Chambliss, a Republican, supports his state’s new law and said the whole point of the ban was “so that we can go directly to the Supreme Court to challenge Roe versus Wade.”

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood obtained an injunction from a judge in Kentucky in March, blocking that state’s abortion ban. The organizations have filed lawsuits in Ohio and are preparing to do so in Georgia, they said in a statement on Friday.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

Missouri governor expected to sign new abortion restrictions into law

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with the Governor of Missouri Mike Parson as he arrives in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – Missouri’s Republican governor could sign a law as early as this week banning most abortions in the Midwestern state after the eighth week of pregnancy, part of a wave of restrictions aimed at driving a challenge of abortion to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Republican Governor Mike Parson told reporters on Friday he planned to sign the bill, which was approved by the Republican-controlled state legislature last week and would enact one of the United States’ most restrictive bans. He did not set a date for the signing but has until July 14 to do so, according to local media reports.

The state is one of eight where Republican-controlled legislatures this year have passed new restrictions on abortion. It is part of a coordinated campaign aimed at prompting the nation’s now conservative-majority top court to cut back or overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

The most restrictive of those bills was signed into law in Alabama last week. It bans abortion at all times and in almost all cases, including when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest but allows exceptions when the mother’s life is in danger. The Missouri bill also offers no exception for cases of rape or incest.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said it will sue to block Alabama’s law from taking effect. Last week, the ACLU joined Planned Parenthood, the women’s reproductive healthcare provider, in suing Ohio over its recent six-week abortion ban.

Abortion is one of the most bitterly contested social issues in the United States. Opponents often cite religious belief in saying that fetuses deserve rights similar to those of infants. Abortion rights advocates say the bans deprive women of equal rights and endanger those who end up seeking riskier, illegal methods to end a pregnancy.

Kentucky, Georgia, Utah, Mississippi and Arkansas have also passed new restrictions on abortion this year.

Conservative lawmakers have been emboldened in their efforts to roll back Roe v. Wade by two judicial appointments by President Donald Trump that have given conservatives a 5-4 majority on the court.

The Supreme Court could act as early as Monday on appeals seeking to revive two abortion restrictions enacted in Indiana in 2016.

Abortion rights activists on Sunday marched on the Alabama state capital in Birmingham to protest that state’s new law, which would take effect in two months.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Death penalty tensions flare again on divided U.S. Supreme Court

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talks in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court’s internal divisions over the death penalty were on full display again on Monday in fresh wrangling over how the justices handled recent attempts by two convicted murders in Alabama and Texas to put off their executions.

In both cases, there are signs that tensions over the death penalty – especially skepticism by the court’s conservative majority over last-minute bids by death row inmates to block executions – are coming to a boil after simmering for years.

In the Alabama case, Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the nine-member court’s five conservatives, wrote a 14-page opinion defending its middle-of-the-night April 12 decision to pave the way for the execution of Christopher Price, 46. The court’s order was released too late for Price’s scheduled execution to be carried out, and he remains on death row.

Minutes later, the court issued a new opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito criticizing its March 28 decision to issue a stay of execution for Texas inmate Patrick Murphy after the state had blocked a Buddhist spiritual adviser from accompanying him to the execution chamber.

Thomas, whose opinion was joined by Alito and fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, took aim at liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a frequent critic of the death penalty. Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion from the Price decision that was joined by the court’s three other liberals.

Price had a weak legal argument, Thomas wrote, meaning “it is difficult to see his litigation strategy as anything other than an attempt to delay his execution. Yet four members of the court would have countenanced his tactics without a shred of legal support.”

Breyer is the most vocal critic of the death penalty on the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment and arguing that it is imposed arbitrarily and differently in various parts of the country.

In the April vote, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed Price’s execution so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection. The Thomas opinion on Monday was issued as the court rejected Price’s underlying appeal.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 in the 1991 killing of William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama.

In the Texas case, Alito said Murphy waited too long to bring his claim and that the court’s action to delay his execution would encourage others to bring similar last-ditch actions. Murphy, a Buddhist, had argued his religious rights under the Constitution were violated by the state.

‘NO GOOD REASON’

“This court receives an application to stay virtually every execution; these applications are almost all filed on or shortly after the scheduled execution date; and in the great majority of cases, no good reason for the late filing is apparent,” Alito wrote.

Alito said Murphy’s religious claim might have merit, but prisoners must file such lawsuits “well before their scheduled executions.”

Texas has already changed its policy, which previously allowed only Christians and Muslims to be accompanied by their religious advisers. Now, no religious advisers are allowed in the execution chamber.

Murphy was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he and six other inmates broke out of prison in 2000 and went on a rampage in which a police officer was killed.

A month before the Supreme Court’s Murphy decision, the justices voted 5-4 to allow an execution in Alabama to proceed and denied a request by the condemned inmate, a Muslim, for an imam’s presence in the execution chamber. Alito voted to deny both requests.

Gorsuch also complained about last-minute execution challenges when the court ruled on April 1 against Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew, who had sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition. Gorsuch said the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court conservatives sympathetic toward Trump census citizenship query

Advertisements for 2020 Census Jobs are posted at a restaurant in Concord, New Hampshire, U.S., February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday appeared sympathetic toward a bid by President Donald Trump’s administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a plan opponents have called a Republican effort to deter immigrants from taking part in the population count.

During an extended, 80-minute argument session, the court’s liberal justices voiced skepticism over the need for the question to enforce a federal voting rights law – the administration’s stated justification.

Lower courts have blocked the question, ruling that the administration violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution in seeking to include it on the census form.

The court has a 5-4 conservative majority, and conservative justices signaled support toward the administration’s stance.

Chief Justice John Roberts challenged New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, whose state sued the administration over the plan to add the question, saying citizenship is critical information for enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

The case comes in a pair of lawsuits by a group of states and localities led by New York state, and a coalition of immigrant rights groups challenging the legality of the question. The census forms are due to be printed in the coming months.

The official population count, as determined by the census, is used to allot seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and distribute some $800 billion in federal funds.

Opponents have said inclusion of the question would cause a sizeable undercount by frightening immigrant households and Latinos from filling out the census, fearful that the information would be shared with law enforcement. This would cost Democratic-leaning areas electoral representation in Congress and federal aid, benefiting Republican-leaning parts of the country, they said.

Trump, a Republican, has pursued hardline immigration policies. His administration said the citizenship question would yield better data to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects eligible voters from discrimination.

The Supreme Court, with includes Trump’s conservative appointees Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, has handed the Republican president victories on some major policies, including last year allowing his travel ban targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries.

Business groups and corporations such as Lyft, Inc, Box, Inc, Levi Strauss & Co and Uber Technologies Inc also opposed the citizenship question, saying it would compromise census data that they use to make decisions including where to put new locations and how to market products.

Manhattan-based U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman on Jan. 15 ruled 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 prohibited the question’s inclusion in subsequent rulings, saying it would violate the Constitution’s mandate to enumerate the population every 10 years.

In November, when the Supreme Court allowed the trial before Furman to proceed, three of the court’s conservative justices – Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – said they would have blocked it, indicating they may be sympathetic to the administration’s legal arguments.

Furman found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau, concealed his true motives for his March 2018 decision to add the question.

The Census Bureau itself estimated that households corresponding to 6.5 million people would not respond to the census if the citizenship question is asked, leading to less accurate citizenship data.

Citizenship has not been asked of all households since the 1950 census. It has featured since then on questionnaires sent to a smaller subset of the population. While only U.S. citizens can vote, non-citizens comprise an estimated 7 percent of the population.

 

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

Supreme Court rejects gun rights advocates over bump stocks

FILE PHOTO: A bump fire 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., October 4, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday handed another setback to gun rights advocates challenging President Donald Trump’s ban on “bump stock” devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly.

With two conservative justices dissenting, the court refused to temporarily exempt from the ban a group of plaintiffs including the Firearms Policy Foundation while their legal challenge continues to be litigated in Washington.

The Supreme Court twice previously rejected requests by gun rights advocates – in the case in the U.S. capital and a similar one in Michigan – to temporarily block the ban while legal challenges proceed in lower courts.

The ban, which went into effect on March 26, was embraced by Trump following a 2017 massacre in Las Vegas that killed 58 people in which the gunman used bump stocks.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had temporarily blocked the ban’s enforcement against the specific challengers in the litigation it was handling, but on April 1 ruled in the administration’s favor and refused to lift the ban.

The challengers then returned to the Supreme Court to try to prevent the policy from applying specifically to them. In Friday’s order, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they would have granted the request to exempt the challengers.

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 requires owners to turn in or destroy the attachments. People caught in possession of them could face up to 10 years in prison. The ban represents a rare recent instance of gun control at the federal level in a country that has experienced a series of mass shootings.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court leans toward limiting federal agency power

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is pictured in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday expressed skepticism toward the wide latitude courts give federal agencies to interpret their own regulations in a case that could bolster President Donald Trump’s push toward curbing agency power.

The case, involving a Vietnam War veteran’s fight with the Department of Veterans Affairs over retroactive disability benefits, focuses on whether the high court should overrule its own precedents dating back to 1945 that call for judges to defer to administrative agencies’ views on what their own regulations mean.

Ridding judges of a duty to defer could undercut agencies’ ability to issue certain informal policies and rules.

During an hour of arguments, the court’s 5-4 conservative majority seemed more willing to limit such judicial deference – as suggested by U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer – rather than eliminate it entirely.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh told Francisco that under the legal doctrine known as “Auer deference,” judges must sometimes side with an agency even when they feel it has made the wrong call on a regulation.

“Doesn’t that trouble you?” Kavanaugh asked.

Liberal justices said judicial deference is important because agencies often have technical expertise that judges do not possess.

Retired U.S. Marine James Kisor, 75, challenged a lower court’s ruling that deferred to an interpretation by the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, of its regulations in denying his disability benefits arising from battle-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In his appeal, Kisor said the justices should get rid of Auer deference as courts are best equipped to resolve the meaning of regulations.

Paring back the authority of federal agencies – which can control regulation in many critical areas including energy, climate change and the workplace – has been a key goal of many business and conservative groups, which complain about what they call the “administrative state.”

These critics have said judicial deference has allowed agencies to accumulate power by enabling them to issue vague or burdensome regulations and then enforce them according to the policy preferences of unelected administrators.

The Trump administration has pursued an aggressive policy of scaling back government regulations including on environmental protections, financial services and other industries.

‘IMPORTANT SAFEGUARDS’

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer questioned Kisor’s lawyer, Paul Hughes, on whether the “possibly millions” of interpretations involving intricate matters that agencies make would have to go through a long, complex process of rulemaking that involves notifying and accepting public comment.

That process “provides important safeguards for the regulated public,” Hughes replied.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, a fierce critic of agency deference, said people affected by regulations, including veterans and immigrants subject to deportation proceedings, deserve an independent judge to decide what the law means in their cases.

“That seems to me a significant promise, especially to the least and most vulnerable among us, like the immigrant, like the veteran, who may not be the most popular or able to capture an agency the way many regulated entities can today,” Gorsuch said.

Auer deference refers to a 1997 Supreme Court ruling in the case Auer v. Robbins, which extended a 1945 precedent in the case Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co that had accepted an agency’s take unless it was plainly wrong or inconsistent with the regulation.

Kisor, who served during the Vietnam War installing field telephone networks, participated in a 1965 battle in which several of his fellow soldiers were killed. The VA granted him disability benefits for PTSD in 2006, but refused to pay Kisor retroactively going back to 1983, when he was first denied benefits. At that time, he had not been diagnosed with PTSD.

The case hinges on the VA’s interpretation of records of an individual’s military service it considers “relevant” in order to reconsider a denied claim. The Washington-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 2017 applied Auer deference to side with the VA over Kisor.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. high court takes up sentencing appeal in ‘D.C. Sniper’ case

FILE PHOTO : 18-year old sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo is surrounded by deputies as he is brought into court to be identified by a witness during the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad at the Virginia Beach Circuit Court in Virginia Beach, Virginia, U.S., October 22, 2003. REUTERSDavis Turner/POOL/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider whether a man serving life in prison over his role in a deadly 2002 shooting spree in the Washington area should be resentenced because he was only 17 years old at the time.

The nine justices will hear an appeal filed by the state of Virginia objecting to a lower court’s decision ordering that Lee Boyd Malvo’s sentence of life in prison without parole in the so-called D.C. Sniper crimes be thrown out. If Malvo wins, he and other prison inmates in similar cases involving certain crimes committed by minors could receive more lenient sentences.

Malvo and an older accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, shot dead 10 people over three weeks in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. Muhammad also was convicted and was executed in 2009 at age 48 in a Virginia state prison.

Virginia appealed in the Malvo case after the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June 2018 that he should be resentenced. The appeals court 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, 34, 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.

The appeals court called these crimes “the most heinous, random acts of premeditated violence conceivable.” Malvo and Muhammad were arrested when police found them sleeping at a Maryland rest area in a Chevrolet Caprice after a frantic search over crimes that panicked the U.S. capital region.

The 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.

Malvo’s appeal concerns whether the earlier rulings do not apply only to people facing automatic life without parole sentences but also to instances in which a judge had discretion over what sentence to impose. Courts across the United States are divided on that question.

The justice who cast the pivotal vote in the 2012 case, Anthony Kennedy, retired last year. His replacement, President Donald Trump’s conservative appointee Brett Kavanaugh, could have an important role in the eventual ruling.

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

The justices on Monday also took up two other criminal cases.

One centers on whether the Constitution requires jury verdicts to be unanimous. In that case, 10 of 12 jurors agreed the defendant was guilty in a 2016 Louisiana murder conviction.

Louisiana and Oregon at the time were the only states that allowed such split verdicts – which would end in a hung jury elsewhere – but Louisiana voters last November approved a state constitutional amendment to end the practice for serious felonies, starting this year.

The other case, involving a death sentence for a 2009 murder in Kansas, challenges limitations that some states impose on the defense arguing that the accused person was insane when committing a crime.

The Supreme Court will decide the cases in its next term, which begins in October and ends in June 2020.

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

U.S. high court turns away religious rights case over church grants

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building in seen in Washington, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday bypassed a chance to further expand the ability of religious entities to receive public funding, leaving in place a lower court ruling that blocked a New Jersey county from giving historic preservation grants to churches.

The justices opted not to hear appeals of the ruling by New Jersey’s top court that Morris County violated a state constitutional ban on using public funds to repair places of worship when it gave millions of dollars to 12 churches under its grant program for local historic preservation projects.

The dispute could have given the justices an opportunity to build on a major 2017 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to more taxpayer funds going to religious institutions.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, appointed to the court last year by President Donald Trump, urged his fellow justices to take up a future case that raises similar issues, though he agreed with the decision not to take up the New Jersey dispute because of a lack of clarity about certain matters.

“Barring religious organizations because they are religious from a general historic preservation grants program is pure discrimination against religion,” Kavanaugh wrote in a statement, joined by conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.

Morris County and a dozen county churches that received $4.6 million in historic preservation grants had asked the justices to overturn the state court’s ruling against them.

A group that promotes secularism, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and a local resident who is a member of the group sued in 2015 challenging the northern New Jersey county’s policy of giving grant money to churches.

The Supreme Court in 2017 sided with a Missouri church that had been denied state funds under a program to make playgrounds safer because the state’s constitution prohibited spending public money “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church.” Trinity Lutheran had sought state money to install a recycled rubber surface on its playground.

The New Jersey dispute pitted two provisions of the Constitution’s First Amendment against each other: the guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state.

Dotted with historic sites from the 18th century American Revolutionary War against Britain, Morris County is located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of New York City and is home to churches reflecting hundreds of years of U.S. history and many architectural styles.

New Jersey’s top court last year found that the program violated the state’s constitution, which forbids taxes for “repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship,” since some of the funds would be used to restore buildings so that they could continue as active places of worship.

The county and the churches said the program served a secular purpose to preserve historically significant structures and that excluding them would amount to religious discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in another case touching on religion last week. The justices signaled a willingness to let a 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross-shaped war memorial stay on public land in Maryland despite a legal challenge that called it an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)