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•  Recent Cases - Legal News


The upcoming Supreme Court argument about a baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple makes some civil rights lawyers think of South Carolina's Piggie Park barbecue.

When two African-Americans parked their car at a Piggie Park drive-in in August 1964 in Columbia, South Carolina, the waitress who came out to serve them turned back once she saw they were black and didn't take their order.

In the civil rights lawsuit that followed, Piggie Park owner Maurice Bessinger justified the refusal to serve black customers based on his religious belief opposing "any integration of the races whatsoever."

Federal judges had little trouble dismissing Bessinger's claim.

"Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens," U.S. District Judge Charles Earl Simons Jr. wrote in 1966.

By the time the Supreme Court heard the case in 1968, the issue was the award of fees to the lawyers representing the black South Carolinians who sued Bessinger's restaurants. But in a footnote to its unsigned 8-0 opinion, the court called the religious freedom argument and Bessinger's other defenses "patently frivolous."

Fifty years later, civil rights lawyers are pointing the Supreme Court to Bessinger's case in support of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the gay couple who were turned away by Colorado baker Jack Phillips, giving rise to the high court case that will be argued Tuesday.

"The logic of Piggie Park and other precedents overwhelmingly rejecting religious justifications for racial discrimination apply squarely to the context of LGBTQ discrimination," the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a Supreme Court brief. The fund also represented the people who sued Piggie Park.

Both cases involve laws intended to prevent discrimination by private businesses that open their doors to the public. In the case of Piggie Park, the law was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bake shop case involves the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses from refusing to sell their goods to people on the basis of sexual orientation among other things.

As the case has come to the justices, the focus is on Phillips' speech rights, not his religious beliefs. As a cake artist, he claims a right not to say something with which he disagrees.




An appeals court in Chicago says a lower court in Indiana was right to refuse to permit a couple to rescind their guilty pleas in a tax case on grounds their prosecution caused them severe stress.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said stress was common to anyone facing prosecution and wasn't sufficient reason to take back pleas. It added that neither George nor Barbara Gasich could claim they were under some "Napoleonic delusions" when they chose to plead guilty.

The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin reports the Gasiches were indicted in 2014 for making fraudulent claims. Prosecutors said they'd asked for $475,000 in refunds when they owed the IRS far more than that.

The Gasiches were formerly from St. John, Indiana, but lived in Florida when they were arrested.



A court in Belgium on Friday pushed back the extradition arguments of ex-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and four allies until at least Dec. 4, likely keeping the secessionist rebels in Belgium right through Catalonia's regional election campaign.

The court hearing in Brussels for the five Catalans is the latest step in their flight from Spain to Brussels and their refusal to return to face rebellion and sedition charges that could land them in jail for 25 years.

Before the court session, the prime ministers of Spain and Belgium discussed their bilateral relations, which have been strained over the case of the Catalan officials who are wanted on a Spanish arrest warrant.

Puigdemont lawyer Paul Bekaert said after the first court session Friday that "we will argue the case on Dec. 4." Whatever decision is made at that stage, two appeals will be possible and a final ruling could well only come only after the Dec. 21 election day in Catalonia.

Bekaert said even though the prosecutor asked for the execution of the extradition request from Spain for the five, the defense lawyers could still give written arguments until early next month.



To get the Supreme Court's attention these days, try saying your speech rights are being violated.

Whether the underlying topic is abortion, elections, labor unions or wedding cakes, the First Amendment is starting to dominate the Supreme Court's agenda.

The court on Monday granted three new speech cases, including a challenge to a California law that requires licensed pregnancy-counseling clinics to tell patients they might be eligible for free or discounted abortions. The nine-month term now features six cases, out of 44 total, that turn on the reach of the Constitution's free speech guarantee.

Several will be among the term's most closely watched. They include a high-profile fight over a Colorado baker who refuses to make cakes for same-sex weddings and a challenge to the requirement in some states that public-sector workers pay for the cost of union representation. Both of those cases offer the prospect of ideological divides that could put the court's five Republican appointees in the majority, backing free speech rights.

Free speech also plays a central role in what could be a watershed case involving partisan voting districts. The court's liberals could join with Justice Anthony Kennedy to allow legal challenges to partisan gerrymanders for the first time. During arguments in October, Kennedy suggested those challenges would be based on the First Amendment's protections for speech and free association.

The free speech clause has had a special resonance with the court's conservative wing under Chief Justice John Roberts. The court invoked the First Amendment in the landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, which said corporations could spend unlimited sums on political causes. Writing for the five-justice majority, Kennedy equated federal spending restrictions with using "censorship to control thought."

The court has also backed speech rights with more lopsided majorities in cases involving violent video games, depictions of animal cruelty, abortion-clinic buffer zones and anti-homosexual protesters.



Testimony is resuming in a criminal case against Michigan's health director, who is accused of keeping the public in the dark about Legionnaires' disease during the Flint water disaster.

Nick Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office. A judge must decide whether there is enough evidence to send him to trial. The case picks up again Wednesday.

Judge David Goggins hasn't heard testimony since Oct. 6. That's when urban affairs adviser Harvey Hollins said he told Gov. Rick Snyder about a Legionnaires' outbreak a few weeks before the governor made it public in January 2016.

Hollins' testimony contradicts what Snyder has said publicly. Nonetheless, the governor is sticking to his timeline.

Lawyers for Lyons say it's all irrelevant in the case against him.



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