News

Chief Justice Roberts Speaks at Belmont Law

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Belmont Law Dean Alberto Gonzales took questions from law students and faculty during a 45-minute conversation Wednesday at the school's Baskin Center. Gonzales, the former U.S. attorney general, led the discussion in front of an audience of law students, invited dignitaries and local judges. Roberts’ visit marks the second time a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice has appeared at the school, following Justice Samuel Alito’s address at Belmont Law's inaugural commencement in 2014.
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Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Trump AG Pick William Barr

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved William Barr’s nomination for attorney general today, The Associated Press reports. The vote now heads to the full Senate, where Barr is expected to be confirmed in a vote as soon as next week. Barr previously served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has been filling the position since Jeff Sessions departed last year.
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Poll: Faith in U.S. Supreme Court Reaches Decade Low

The U.S. Supreme Court has been the most trusted branch of government among voters for more than a decade, but a new poll shows faith in the court is now near its lowest, Fox News reports. When asked which of the three branches of government they trust the most, 35 percent of voters choose the U.S. Supreme Court, down from 45 percent in 2017. The poll found the court's most well-liked member to be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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EPA Civil Penalties for Polluters Fall Dramatically from Previous Years

Civil penalties for polluters dropped 85 percent this past fiscal year, falling to the lowest level since 1994, The Washington Post reports. Last year violators were fined $72 million, down from an average of $500 million annually, adjusted for inflation, over the past 25 years. In fact, former EPA official Cynthia Giles who conducted an analysis on the figures said they were the lowest since the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance was established. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said there had been “a lot of misleading information,” claiming that while fines were down, the number of criminal enforcement cases had risen from the previous year. EPA officials declined to disclose the exact figures for past fiscal year’s civil or criminal penalties, saying it could do so only after the government shutdown had concluded.

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Federal Government Reopens for 3 Weeks

President Trump agreed last week to reopen the federal government for three weeks while negotiations proceeded over how to secure the nation’s southwestern border, The New York Times reports. The decision paved the way for Congress to pass spending bills immediately that Trump will sign to restore normal operations at a series of federal agencies until Feb. 15 and begin paying again the 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed or forced to work for free for 35 days.
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Federal Judge Releases Injunction Regarding TennCare Application Hearings

U.S. District Judge William Campbell Jr. recently released Tennessee’s Medicaid program from a 2014 injunction requiring hearings for people whose applications were not processed in a timely manner, The Associated Press reports. The lawsuit maintained that thousands of TennCare applicants were left in limbo because of a software design flaw, which led to long delays in processing. The plaintiffs asked for a permanent injunction, arguing that the organization’s system is still not fully functional. In his ruling, Campbell said that "the law does not require that a state Medicaid agency implement a flawless program,” and that applicants will continue to receive hearings when delays occur, without the necessity of a court order. The required timeframe for processing Medicaid applications is 45 days or 90 days for those based on a disability.
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SCOTUS to Allow Transgender Military Ban

The U.S. Supreme Court today allowed the Trump administration to go ahead, for now, with its plan to ban transgender military service, NBC News reports. The court, without comment, granted a request from the Justice Department to allow the government to enforce the ban while challenges to the policy play out in the lower courts. The earliest the Supreme Court could act on the issue would be during its next term, which begins in October.
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ABA Offers Free CLE to Attorneys Affected by Government Shutdown

As the government shutdown continues and federal employees face the first Friday without a paycheck, the American Bar Association is offering five free CLE courses to any lawyer affected by the partial government shutdown, The ABA Journal reports. “The ABA, as the largest representative of the legal profession, looked at how we could quickly mobilize to help lawyers affected by the government shutdown,” ABA Executive Director Jack Rives said. Interested attorneys can register throughout the month of February and have six months to complete the courses.
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Justice Ginsburg Cleared to Return to Bench

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will return to work and needs no further medical treatment, NBC News reports. Ginsburg missed court arguments for the first time in her 25 years in the Supreme Court this past week as she recuperates from cancer surgery. Doctors removed a portion of her lung on Dec. 21 after cancerous nodules were detected.
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Justice Kavanaugh Issues First SCOTUS Opinion

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh issued his first opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, The ABA Journal reports. The unanimous opinion held that federal judges don’t have the authority to decide whether a dispute can be arbitrated when the contract gives the decision to the arbitrator. The Supreme Court ruled in a dispute between a dental equipment manufacturer and a distributor, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc.
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House Files Motion to Intervene in Texas ACA Case

The U.S. House of Representatives recently filed a motion in federal court requesting intervention in the Texas court case that found the Affordable Care Act (ACA) unconstitutional, CNBC reports. U.S. District Court Judge Reed O'Connor last month ruled that the law was unconstitutional after the 2017 Tax Act eliminated penalties for adults without health insurance. A lawyer for the House said in the filing that federal legal rules give “the House an unconditional right to intervene,” given the ACA was passed into law by Congress and that the Trump administration is not defending the law, maintaining that “interest in this action ... is not adequately represented by the existing parties.” O’Connor has stayed his ruling pending appeal.

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Federal Courts Add 1 Week of Funding Amid Government Shutdown

Federal courts have added on a week to the amount of time they hope to continue paid operations during the government shutdown, The ABA Journal reports. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said in a release today it was now working toward a goal of sustaining paid operations through Jan. 18. If the shutdown continues after that date, nonessential workers will be sent home and judges and key staff members will work without pay to handle criminal and other essential cases.
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Justice Ginsburg Misses Arguments for First Time Following Surgery

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not take part in today’s oral arguments before the court, marking the first time she has missed since she was confirmed in 1993, NPR reports. Ginsburg is recovering from surgery she underwent last month due to lung cancer. She is expected to make a full recovery and return to the court.
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EPA Proposes Changes to How it Evaluates Health, Safety Benefits in Mercury Emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency last Friday announced proposed changes to how the federal government evaluates the health and safety benefits versus cost of compliance regarding the limitation of mercury emissions from coal plants, The Washington Post reports. While the proposal will not dissolve the Obama Administration’s 2011 rule limiting the mercury emissions for the plants, it would reconfigure the formula used when doing a cost-benefit analysis for future rules by accounting for only benefits that be measured in real dollars and omitting “co-benefits” such as abstract health effects. Mercury exposure is known to cause neurological disorders, cardiovascular harm, endocrine disruption and cognitive impairment in children.

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Trump Administration Outpaced Last 5 Presidents on Judicial Confirmations

The Trump administration more than doubled the number of judges it confirmed to federal appeals courts in 2018, exceeding the pace of the last five presidents, NPR reports. Five of the country's 12 circuit courts are now composed of more than 25 percent of Trump-appointed judges. The report concludes that the 8th Circuit, which covers Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, has experienced the "most significant transformation," followed by the 7th Circuit across the U.S. Midwest and the 5th Circuit, which spans Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
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AG Slatery Defends Participation in ACA Lawsuit

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is defending his participation in the lawsuit that led to a federal judge to rule the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as unconstitutional, saying “the Commerce Clause of our Constitution that, according to the court, prevents Congress from compelling Tennesseans to buy insurance, especially if they can't afford it or don't want it,” The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. U.S. District Court Judge Reed O'Connor last December ruled in favor of the 19 Republican state attorneys general, who argued that the law was unconstitutional after the 2017 Tax Act eliminated penalties for adults without health insurance. The U.S. Supreme Court had previously upheld the mandate, saying it was constitutional because it fell under Congress's taxing power. State Democrats have blasted the ruling, warning of consequences for the 1.7 million Tennesseans with pre-existing health conditions and the quarter of a million people in the state who obtain their insurance coverage through the ACA.

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SCOTUS to Consider Hot-Button Issues in 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018-2019 term has had a quiet start with only three decisions issued; all unanimous. However, the court is likely to hear a number of high-profile cases that will be more divisive. Issues before the court may include separation of church and state, citizenship questions related to the 2020 Census, power of executive agencies, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the military ban against transgender individuals and partisan gerrymandering. The Hill and the Economist have more on the cases and possible outcomes.

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All Civil Cases Involving U.S. Attorneys in West Tennessee Stayed Due to Shutdown

Due to the federal government shutdown, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee issued an order today staying "all proceedings in civil cases where the U.S. Attorney is counsel of record" until Congress restores its funding. Watch websites for the Middle District of Tennessee and the Eastern District of Tennessee for updates from those courts.

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6th Circuit Panel Strikes Down Tennessee's Punitive Damage Cap

A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in a recent decision that a 2011 Tennessee law that caps punitive monetary damages in civil lawsuits is unconstitutional, The Times Free Press reports. The ruling strikes at a provision in the 2011 Tennessee Civil Justice Act, which sharply curtailed monetary damages, including punitive damages. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Attorney General's office said the state is reviewing whether to appeal or not.
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DOJ Says Shutdown Complicating Court Orders, Deadlines

The U.S. Justice Department is asking federal courts nationwide to pause proceedings in cases, saying the government shutdown has restricted the ability of lawyers to perform their duties, including meeting court-ordered deadlines and communicating with attorneys across agencies, Law.com reports. “The government hereby moves for a stay of all proceedings in this case until Department of Justice attorneys are permitted to resume their usual civil litigation functions,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in papers filed today in courts across the country. The shutdown prohibits agency lawyers from working, save for limited circumstances that include “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,” according to the notices. The federal courts themselves said they have sufficient funding to remain open for at least three weeks.
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Government Shutdown Could Affect Federal Courts, U.S. Attorney’s Offices

If Congress and the Trump Administration can’t come to an agreement on a budget by midnight tonight, the federal government could shut down, closing the U.S. Justice Department and potentially affecting the local legal community, The Tennessean reports. Federal district courts have the funding to remain open for approximately three weeks, after which they could eventually close. The U.S. Attorney’s offices will operate only with “essential” personnel, according to a spokesperson for the office in the Middle District of Tennessee.
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Justice Ginsburg Undergoes Surgery for Early Stage Lung Cancer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery Friday for early stage lung cancer, NPR reports. Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in New York performed a lobectomy, removing one of the five lobes of the lung. Prospects look good for a full recovery, and Ginsburg hopes to be back on the court for the start of the next argument session in early January.

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Federal Judge Questions Racial Bias by Prosecutors

A federal judge in Memphis is questioning whether prosecutors are issuing more onerous charges against black defendants than white defendants for comparable crimes, The Commercial Appeal reports. U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. has raised concerns of racial discrimination in at least three separate cases — most recently one involving two drug dealers who traveled together when selling MDMA. In that case, the white defendant got out of the car that the men were traveling in to transfer the drugs, while the black defendant remained in the vehicle with another woman. A gun was found in the car between the legs of the black defendant, who was charged with a gun crime mandating an automatic five-year sentence. The white defendant was not charged with a gun crime and received a drastically lighter sentence. Representatives of the prosecutor's office say they do not discriminate based on race and the white man received a lesser sentence because of his limited criminal record. Fowlkes, a former state and federal prosecutor who has also served as a Shelby County public defender, is one of the few black federal judges, which make up only 10 percent of that judiciary.

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Masterpiece Cakeshop Owner Returns to Court

The Colorado cake baker who refused service to a gay couple on religious grounds is back in court, NBC News reports. Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, is suing the state of Colorado and attempting to halt actions against him after another allegation of discrimination by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In this case, Phillips refused to bake a cake for Denver attorney Autumn Scardina’s gender transition celebration. Scardina ordered the cake the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear Phillips' appeal of the previous ruling against him. Phillips’ lawyers maintain that the state is treating him with hostility because of his Christian faith and pressing a complaint that they call an "obvious setup." The Supreme Court in June ruled that the Colorado commission showed anti-religious bias when previously sanctioning Phillips for refusing to make a cake, deciding 7-2 that it violated Phillips' First Amendment rights. You can view the initial complaint regarding the current suit here.

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Judiciary Dismisses 83 Complaints Against Justice Kavanaugh

A judicial council has dismissed 83 complaints filed against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, The Washington Post reports. The order filed by a Colorado-based appeals court states the complaints are “serious” but must be dropped because ethics rules for the judiciary do not extend as high as the Supreme Court. The claims were filed by lawyers, doctors and others who accused Kavanaugh of making false statements during his Senate confirmation hearings, displaying a lack of judicial temperament, making inappropriate partisan statements and treating members of the Senate Judiciary Committee with disrespect.
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