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A divided Supreme Court on Friday rejected an emergency appeal by a California church that challenged state limits on attendance at worship services that have been imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Over the dissent of the four more conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberals in turning away a request from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, in the San Diego area.

The church argued that limits on how many people can attend their services violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and had been seeking an order in time for services on Sunday. The church said it has crowds of 200 to 300 people for its services.

Roberts wrote in brief opinion that the restriction allowing churches to reopen at 25% of their capacity, with no more than 100 worshipers at a time, “appear consistent" with the First Amendment. Roberts said similar or more severe limits apply to concerts, movies and sporting events “where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in dissent that the restriction “discriminates against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment.” Kavanaugh pointed to supermarkets, restaurants, hair salons, cannabis dispensaries and other businesses that are not subject to the same restrictions. Lower courts in California had previously turned down the churches' requests.
 
The court also rejected an appeal from two churches in the Chicago area that objected to Gov. Jay Pritzker’s limit of 10 worshipers at religious services. Before the court acted, Pritzker modified the restrictions to allow for up to 100 people at a time. There were no recorded dissents.




A group of elected officials in southwest Virginia violated the state's open government law during meetings about dissolving a public library system, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in a case long delayed by a lawmaker's use of a privilege of his office.

State Del. Jeff Campbell, who is also an attorney in private practice, represented the Smyth County Board of Supervisors in the lawsuit brought by the head of a nonprofit that promotes the library.

The court ruled that the board had improperly entered into closed sessions and exceeded the scope of subjects it was allowed to discuss in closed meetings. The justices also found that the circuit court had erred by not awarding attorneys fees and costs to the group suing the board.

Paul Morrison, attorney for the president of the Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library, said while he was pleased with the decision, the fact that the case took so long to come to a resolution means the board now has many new members. The ones who made the error won't have to face the fallout, he said.

“It sounds so cliche to say justice delayed is justice denied, but it’s really true,” he said.

Attorneys who serve in Virginia’s General Assembly or work there have broad discretion to obtain continuances in their cases “as a matter of right” under certain conditions. The Associated Press, citing court records obtained through a public records request, has previously reported that Campbell routinely uses that privilege to delay court proceedings, and has done so at least nine times in a domestic violence case against a former NASCAR driver.



Big Oil lost a pair of court battles Tuesday that could lead to trials in lawsuits by California cities and counties seeking damages for the impact of climate change.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by energy companies and ruled state courts are the proper forum for lawsuits alleging producers promoted petroleum as environmentally responsible when they knew it was contributing to drought, wildfires, and sea level rise associated with global warming.

The lawsuits claim Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and other companies created a public nuisance and should pay for damage from climate change and help build sea walls and other infrastructure to protect against future impact ? construction that could cost tens of billions of dollars.

The ruling overturned a decision by one federal judge, who had tossed out lawsuits brought by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland.

“It is time for these companies to pay their fair share,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement applauding the ruling. “They should not be able to stick taxpayers with the bill for the damage they knew they were causing. We will continue to hold these companies accountable for their decades-long campaign of public deception about climate change and its consequences.”

While the rulings were victories for the coastal counties and cities ? all in the San Francisco Bay Area except for the tiny city of Imperial Beach in San Diego County ? and cheered by environmental groups, it could take years before they ever get to a jury, if they make it that far.




The Oregon Supreme Court has kept statewide virus restrictions in place by halting a judge’s order to end them in a lawsuit claiming the governor exceeded her authority when she shut down in-person religious services.

Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled Monday that Gov. Kate Brown erred by not seeking the Legislature’s approval to extend her stay-at-home orders beyond a 28-day limit. Brown’s lawyers appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which just hours later put a hold on Shirtcliff’s decree until the high court’s justices can review the matter.

Presiding Justice Thomas Balmer gave both sides until Friday to submit legal briefs. He did not give a timeline for a decision.

The lower court judge had issued his opinion in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by 10 churches around Oregon that argued the state’s social distancing directives were unconstitutional.

In a statement late Monday, Brown, a Democrat, praised the state Supreme Court action.

“There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic. Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced ourselves for hospitals to be overfilled,” she said.

Kevin Mannix, an attorney representing businesses in the case, said Tuesday that he was encouraged that the state Supreme Court seemed to be taking the case seriously. Normally, briefings in cases before the court wouldn’t be due until June 1, he said.

“Every day that the governor’s order remains in effect, people are prevented from being able to assemble peaceably, their free expression rights are limited … and most significantly, their freedom of religion rights are restricted,” he said. “This extraordinary power that she’s been exercising has a time limit on it.”

In his opinion, Shirtcliff wrote that the damage to Oregonians and their livelihood was greater than the dangers presented by the coronavirus. He also noted that other businesses deemed essential, such as grocery stores, had been allowed to remain open even with large numbers of people present and have relied on masks, social distancing and other measures to protect the public.




The U.S. Senate has confirmed President Donald Trump's appointment of Pima County Superior Court Judge Scott Rash as a U.S. District Court judge for Arizona.

The Senate's vote Tuesday on confirmation of Rash's appointment was 74-20..

Trump nominated Rash last September to fill a vacancy created in April 2018 by Judge Cindy Jorgenson's shift to senior status.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Rash's appointment last year and formally endorsed it in January.

Then-Gov. Jan Brewer appointed Rash as a Superior Court judge in 2010. He previously worked in private practice with a Tucson law firm and before that as an Arizona assistant attorney general.

Republican Sen. Martha McSally said Rash has a strong work ethic and is fair-minded and will be an excellent federal judge.


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