Trump doubles down on Obamacare fight, asks court to overturn law

FILE PHOTO - A sign on an insurance store advertises Obamacare in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has stepped up its attack on the Obamacare health care law, telling a federal appeals court it agrees with a Texas judge’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional and should be struck down.

The Justice Department in a two-sentence letter to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit filed on Monday said it backed the December ruling by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth that found the Affordable Care Act violated the U.S. Constitution because it required people to buy health insurance.

O’Connor ruled on a lawsuit brought by a coalition of 20 Republican-led states including Texas, Alabama and Florida, that said a Trump-backed change to the U.S. tax code made the law unconstitutional.

The 2010 law, seen as the signature domestic achievement of Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, has been a flash point of American politics since it passed, with Republicans including Trump repeatedly attempting to overturn it.

Democrats made defending the law a powerful messaging tool in the run-up to the November elections when polls showed that eight in 10 Americans wanted to defend the law’s most popular benefits including protections for insurance coverage for people with preexisting conditions. The strategy paid off and Democrats won a broad 38-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“The Department of Justice has determined that the district court’s judgment should be affirmed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Joseph Hunt and other federal officials wrote in the Monday letter. They said they would file a more extensive legal briefing later.

Obamacare survived a 2012 legal challenge at the Supreme Court when a majority of justices ruled the individual mandate aspect of the program was a tax that Congress had the authority to impose.

In December, O’Connor ruled that after Trump signed a $1.5 trillion tax bill passed by Congress last year that eliminated the penalties, the individual mandate could no longer be considered constitutional.

A group of 17 mostly Democratic-led states including California and New York on Monday argued that the law was constitutional.

“The individual plaintiffs do not have standing to challenge the resulting law because they suffer no legal harm from the existence of a provision that offers them a lawful choice between buying insurance or doing nothing,” they wrote in court papers.

About 11.8 million consumers nationwide enrolled in 2018 Obamacare exchange plans, according to the U.S. government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

About 11.8 million consumers nationwide enrolled in 2018 Obamacare exchange plans, according to the U.S. government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Bill Trott)

Defiant U.S. sheriffs push gun sanctuaries, imitating liberals on immigration

A view of the Cibola County Sheriff's Department sign in Grants, New Mexico, U.S., February 28, 2019. Picture taken February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – A rapidly growing number of counties in at least four states are declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, refusing to enforce gun-control laws that they consider to be infringements on the U.S. constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Organizers of the pro-gun sanctuaries admit they took the idea from liberals who have created immigration sanctuaries across the United States where local officials defy the Trump administration’s efforts to enforce tougher immigration laws.

Now local conservatives are rebelling against majority Democratic rule in the states. Elected sheriffs and county commissioners say they might allow some people deemed to be threats under “red flag” laws to keep their firearms. In states where the legal age for gun ownership is raised to 21, authorities in some jurisdictions could refuse to confiscate guns from 18- to 20-year-olds.

Democrats took control of state governments or widened leads in legislative chambers last November, then followed through on promises to enact gun control in response to an epidemic of mass shootings in public spaces, religious sites and schools.

Resistance to those laws is complicating Democratic efforts to enact gun control in Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Illinois, even though the party holds the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature in all four states.

The sanctuary movement is exposing the rift between rural and urban America as much as the one between the Republican and Democratic parties, as small, conservative counties push back against statewide edicts passed by big-city politicians.

“If they want to have their own laws, that’s fine. Don’t shove them on us down here,” said Dave Campbell, a member of the board of Effingham County, Illinois, about 215 miles (350 km) south of Chicago.

Backers of the sanctuary movement say they want to take it nationwide. Leaders in all four states where it has taken hold have formed a loose alliance, sometimes sharing strategies or texts of resolutions. They also say they are talking with like-minded activists in California, New York, Iowa and Idaho.

As it grows, the rebellion is setting up a potential clash between state and local officials.

In Washington, nearly 60 percent of the voters in November approved Initiative 1639, which raises the minimum age to purchase a semiautomatic rifle to 21, enhances background checks and increases the waiting period to buy such guns to 10 days.

The law is due to take effect in July, but sheriffs in more than half of Washington’s 39 counties have pledged not to enforce it, pro-gun activists say, and five counties have passed resolutions to the same effect.

Governor Jay Inslee has firmly backed I-1639 and Attorney General Bob Ferguson has advised sheriffs “they could be held liable” if they allow a dangerous person to acquire a firearm later used to do harm.

Sheriff Bob Songer of Klickitat County, population 22,000, called Ferguson’s warning a “bluff” and said he would not enforce I-1639 because he considered it unconstitutional.

“Unfortunately for the governor and the attorney general, they’re not my boss. My only boss is the people that elected me to office,” Songer said.

GAINING MOMENTUM

Support for Second Amendment sanctuaries has gained momentum in recent weeks, especially among county boards in New Mexico and Illinois.

Sixty-three counties or municipalities in Illinois have passed some form of a firearms sanctuary resolution and more are likely to, Campbell said.

Twenty-five of New Mexico’s 33 counties have passed resolutions to support sheriffs who refuse to enforce any firearms laws that they consider unconstitutional, according to the New Mexico Sheriffs Association. In some cases hundreds of pro-gun activists have packed county commissioner meetings.

Grants Mayor Martin Hicks speaks during the county commission meeting in Grants, New Mexico, U.S., February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

Grants Mayor Martin Hicks speaks during the county commission meeting in Grants, New Mexico, U.S., February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

In Oregon, voters in eight counties approved Second Amendment Preservation Ordinances last November that allow sheriffs to determine which state gun laws to enforce.

Organizers in Oregon plan to put even more defiant “sanctuary ordinance” measures on county ballots in 2020 that will direct their officials to resist state gun laws.

Such sanctuary resolutions could face legal challenges but backers say they have yet to face a lawsuit, in part because the Washington initiative has yet to take effect and the Illinois and New Mexico legislation has yet to pass.

The chief counsel for a leading U.S. gun-control group questioned the legality of the sanctuary movement, saying state legislatures make laws and courts interpret them, not sheriffs.

“It should not be up to individual sheriffs or police officers deciding which laws they personally like,” said Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “This attitude shows a disrespect for the way our system of government is supposed to operate.”

In New Mexico, the legislature is moving forward with a slate of gun-control bills. One would enhance background checks and another would create a red-flag law keeping guns out of the hands of people deemed dangerous by a judge.

The New Mexico Sheriffs Association is leading the resistance, saying the red-flag law would violate due process rights and was unnecessary given current statutes.

Tony Mace, sheriff of Cibola County and chairman of the statewide group, said the background check law would impose regulations on hunting buddies or competitive shooters every time they share guns, and he refuses to spend resources investigating such cases.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham accused the rebellious sheriffs of falsely promoting the idea that “someone is coming for their firearms,” saying none of the proposed laws infringe on Second Amendment rights.”It’s an exhausting charade,” Lujan Grisham said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Grant McCool)

Iowa’s ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion ban ruled unconstitutional

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Iowa’s “fetal heartbeat” law, the most restrictive abortion ban in the United States, was declared unconstitutional Tuesday, as it violates the Iowa state constitution, a state judge ruled.

Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature passed the restriction in May 2018, outlawing the procedure after a fetal heartbeat is detected, often at six weeks and before a woman realizes she is pregnant.

In the ruling, posted online, District Court Judge Michael Huppert wrote, “It is undisputed that such cardiac activity is detectable well in advance of the fetus becoming viable.”

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, usually at 24 weeks, is widely considered the threshold in the United States to prohibit an abortion.

The district court decision is a victory for supporters of abortion rights, but abortion opponents have vowed to take the fight to Iowa’s appellate courts, the Des Moines Register and other media reported.

The legislation is aimed at triggering a challenge to Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision which established that women have a constitutional right to an abortion, activists on both sides of the issue previously told Reuters.

Iowa state Sen. Janet Petersen of Des Moines, the Democrats’ leader in the Iowa Senate, praised the ruling.

“The extreme law should have been overturned, because it restricted the freedom of Iowa women and girls to care for their bodies, and it forced motherhood on them,” she told the Register. “The governor and legislative Republicans should stop attacking women’s health care.”

Proponents of the law had expected a long court fight.

The ultimate goal, abortion opponents have told multiple media outlets, is to get the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has become more conservative under President Donald Trump.

When the Iowa law was first passed, Republican state senator Rick Bertand of Sioux City told Reuters, “We created an opportunity to take a run at Roe v. Wade – 100 percent.”

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

Health insurers, hospital operators fall as Obamacare ruled unconstitutional

FILE PHOTO: A sign on an insurance store advertises Obamacare in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

(Reuters) – Shares of health insurers, hospitals, and healthcare companies fell in early trading on Monday, after a federal judge ruled the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, unconstitutional late last week.

The ACA, introduced by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010 to provide affordable healthcare to all Americans, mandates that all individuals have health insurance or pay a tax.

But on Friday, Texas District Judge Reed O’Connor agreed with a coalition of 20 states that a change in tax law last year eliminating a penalty for not having health insurance invalidated the entire Obamacare law.

Centene Corp fell 7.8 percent to $117.5, while Molina Healthcare slumped 10.1 percent to $118.4. The companies are among health insurers with exposure to ACA.

WellCare Health Plans and Anthem Inc declined 4.7 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively.

“While we are disappointed in the recent Northern District of Texas court’s ACA ruling, we recognize that this is a first step in what will be a lengthy appeals process,” Molina Healthcare said.

“Regardless, the ACA will remain in effect for 2019, and we are optimistic that it will remain in effect thereafter.”

Brokerage Evercore ISI said it expected no immediate impact from the ruling, calling it only a declaratory judgment and not an injunction.

Even in case of an eventual injunction, the defendants would certainly seek and most likely get a stay pending appeal, Evercore said.

Hospitals and healthcare services providers Community Health Systems, Tenet Healthcare Corp and HCA Healthcare Inc fell between 4 percent and 8 percent.

(Reporting by Manogna Maddipatla in Bengaluru)

India aims for law that could jail Muslim men who instantly divorce wives

Television journalists report from the premises of India's Parliament in New Delhi, India, February 13, 2014.

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s lower house of parliament passed a bill on Thursday aimed at prosecuting Muslim men who divorce their wives through the “triple talaq”, or instant divorce.

The bill now moves to the upper house of parliament, where it is likely to be approved.

In August, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional a law which allows Muslim men to divorce their wives simply by uttering the word “talaq”, which means divorce in Arabic, three times.

Muslim women had petitioned the court, arguing the practice of husbands divorcing them through triple talaq not only violated their rights but left many women destitute.

“Only a law can explicitly ban triple talaq, we have to enforce legal procedures to provide for allowances and protect custody of children,” said Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The bill would make the practice a non-bailable offense with a possible three-year jail term.

Muslims are the biggest religious minority in Hindu-majority India and relations between the communities have sometimes been strained since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a 2014 election.

India is one of the few countries where the practice of instant divorce has survived in law, and while some Muslim groups have said it is wrong, they believe it should be reviewed by the community itself.

Members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board said the government had no right to outlaw instant triple talaq, as it was directly interfering with Muslim personal law.

India’s civil codes are designed to protect the independence of religious communities. Unlike most Hindu civil laws, which have been codified and reformed, Muslim personal laws have largely been left untouched.

Zakia Soman, founder of a Muslim women’s group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, said that once triple talaq became a legal offense, victims could approach the police and the legal system to initiate action against offenders.

(Reporting by Nigam Prusty, Rupam Jain; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Malini Menon, Robert Birsel and Andrew Bolton)

Kenyan court says closing Dadaab refugee camp would be unconstitutional

makeshift shelters in Kenyan refugee camp

By Humphrey Malalo

NAIROBI, Feb 9 (Reuters) – A Kenyan court said on Thursday it would be unconstitutional for the government to close a sprawling refugee camp housing mostly people who have fled unrest in neighbouring Somalia.

Nairobi has vowed to shut Dadaab, once seen as the world’s largest refugee camp, because it says the complex has been used by Islamist militants from Somalia as a recruiting ground to launch a string of attacks on Kenyan soil.

But rights groups argued it would hurt Somalis fleeing violence and poverty and accused Kenya of forcibly sending people back to a war zone. The government has dismissed that allegation.

“The government’s decision specifically targeting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional,” High Court judge John Mativo said in a ruling.

At its peak, as Somalis fled conflict and famine in 2011, Dadaab’s population swelled to about 580,000, earning it a reputation at the time as the world’s largest refugee camp.

Early last year, U.N. officials said the number had fallen to 350,000, while a Kenyan official later in the year put it at 250,000.

The government originally wanted to shut down Dadaab last November, but delayed the closure after international pressure to give residents more time to find new homes.

The court’s action was welcomed by rights groups.

“The High Court sent a strong message that at least one of Kenya’s branches of government is still willing to uphold refugee rights,” said Laetitia Bader, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“After months of anxiety because of the camp closure deadline hanging over their heads, increasingly restricted asylum options and the recent US administration suspension of refugee resettlement, the court’s judgement offers Somali refugees a hope that they may still be have a choice other than returning to insecure and drought-ridden Somalia.”

The government has 30 days to appeal, Mativo said. There was no immediate comment from the interior ministry.

The government spokesman was due to hold a news conference later on Thursday to address the ruling.

Somalia’s Western-backed government is battling an Islamist insurgency as it oversees a fragile reconstruction effort after decades of conflict. Swathes of the country do not have basic services.

(Reporting by Humphrey Malalo; Editing by Clement Uwiringiyimana and Tom Heneghan)