News

George Floyd’s brother: ‘Make sure that he is more than another face on a T-shirt’

WASHINGTON — George Floyd’s younger brother, Philonise Floyd, pleaded with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday to ensure that his brother didn’t die in vain.

“I can’t tell you the kind of pain you feel when you watch something like that. When you watch your big brother, who you looked up to your whole entire life die, die begging for his mom,” Philonise Floyd testified at a U.S. House hearing on police reform.

George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis last month has sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and racial discrimination.

“I couldn’t take care of George that day he was killed, but maybe by speaking with you today, I can make sure that his death will not be in vain,” Philonise Floyd said. “To make sure that he is more than another face on a T-shirt, more than another name on a list that won’t stop growing.”

He implored lawmakers: “Honor George and make the necessary changes that make law enforcement the solution and not the problem.”

Congressional Democrats unveiled sweeping legislation earlier this week that aims to dramatically overhaul law enforcement. It would increase police accountability, bar racial profiling and boost transparency surrounding officers’ actions.

“This is Congress’s most comprehensive effort in decades to substantially address police misconduct,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

But while she welcomed law enforcement legislation, “policing reform alone is not going to solve the crisis that we’re in today,” she said. She urged leaders to “envision a new paradigm” that involves shrinking the footprint of the criminal legal system in the lives of people of color and increasing investment in social services.

“When we stop using criminal justice policy as social policy, we will make communities safer and more prosperous,” Gupta said.

Although House Democrats are expected to pass the wide-ranging police reform bill in the coming weeks, it faces dim prospects of clearing the GOP-led Senate. There, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has asked Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to take the lead on a police reform package.

Scott wrote on Twitter Tuesday that he would soon release details on a police reform and retraining package. “I am hopeful that this legislation will bring much-needed solutions,” he said.

Democrats calling for massive overhauls are urging their colleagues to fundamentally rethink the nature of policing.

Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told lawmakers Wednesday that if the Democratic-backed bill had been law, “George Floyd would be alive because chokeholds would be banned.”

Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers in Louisville, Ky., in March, “would be alive because no-knock warrants for drugs would be banned,” Bass added. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed by police in Cleveland in 2014, “would have graduated high school this May.”

‘Defund the police’ 

President Donald Trump and GOP congressional leaders are seizing upon the “defund the police” movement to attack Democrats as the November elections approach.

“The vast, vast majority of law enforcement officers are responsible, hardworking, heroic first responders,” Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said at Wednesday’s hearing. Americans, he said, “know it is pure insanity to defund the police. And the fact that my Democrat colleagues won’t speak out against this crazy policy is just that — frightening.”

Trump praised Jordan’s comments on Twitter Wednesday and used the opportunity to slam the Democratic presidential nominee. “This Radical Left agenda is not going to happen. Sleepy Joe Biden will be (already is) pulled all the way Left. Many, like Minneapolis, want to close their Police Departments. Crazy!” Trump tweeted.

There’s a debate among advocates who want to “defund the police” about exactly what that would mean. Some are calling for steep cuts to police budgets while channeling that cash into social service programs; others want to eliminate police departments entirely.

Biden’s campaign told The New York Times this week that he is opposed to cutting police funding and believes more spending is necessary to help improve law enforcement and community policing.

Democrats accuse the GOP of using the debate to distract voters.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday that Trump and congressional Republicans “are going to play with that term ‘defund the police’ as if Democrats want to eliminate police departments. That’s clearly not true, but that’s what they’ll say.”

Brown added, “Defunding police doesn’t mean we disband police departments. It doesn’t mean we don’t spend money for law enforcement. It means we start thinking more about training police, about discipline, about making sure that mental health services are available in communities and some things aren’t police work that have kind of been defined that way.”

COVID-19, News

Trump plans July 4th celebration despite pandemic

Image: National Park Service

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t upended President Donald Trump’s plans to hold a Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital this summer.

The White House told the Associated Press this week that Trump intends to move ahead with a scaled-back version of last year’s massive “Salute to America” event on the National Mall. Those plans are taking place despite the pandemic and as lawmakers in the region have asked the administration to reconsider.

“As President Trump has said, there will be an Independence Day celebration this year and it will have a different look than 2019 to ensure the health and safety of those attending,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told the Associated Press. “The American people have shown tremendous courage and spirit in the fight against this global pandemic just as our forefathers did in the fight to secure our independence, and both deserve celebration on America’s birthday this year.”

On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., asked the administration to immediately suspend plans for such a celebration.

“The Administration, including your agencies, should be focusing on helping American families, not on a vanity project for the president,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

The letter was signed by Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, as well as Maryland Reps. David Trone, Anthony Brown, Jamie Raskin and Steny Hoyer. Virginia Reps. Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton and Gerry Connolly signed on, as did Washington, D.C., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

They warned that such an event would unnecessarily jeopardize health and safety and would cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

“Should the president continue with his plan to hold another ‘Salute to America’ event, it would have detrimental impacts on not only those that live in the National Capital Region, but all those who travel in from other areas of the country to attend,” they wrote.

They called it financially “wasteful,” pointing to the $5.4 million price tag for last year’s event. That event included a Trump speech from the Lincoln Memorial, tanks on display, a military flyover and a VIP section for GOP donors and supporters.

Trump told reporters in April that he planned to reprise the event this year, according to The New York Times.

“We’ll have to do that in a very interesting way. Maybe we’ll even do it greater. Leave a little extra distance,” Trump said.

News

Burr steps down as Intelligence chairman

Chairman Richard Burr, (R-NC), gives opening remarks at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on May 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr is leaving his post as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman after federal agents seized his cellphone Wednesday as part of an insider trading probe.

“Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday morning in a statement. “We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that agents had seized the North Carolina Republican’s cellphone Wednesday as part of a Justice Department investigation into stock sales he made ahead of the market drop caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Burr has faced a backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike since the allegations of insider trading surfaced. Critics allege that the North Carolina senator broke the law by using nonpublic information about the threat posed by the virus when he dumped up to $1.7 million of stocks in February.

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz previously slammed the North Carolina senator for remaining the intelligence chairman “after screwing all Americans by falsely reassuring us” with op-eds on COVID-19 “while he dumped his stock portfolio early.”

Burr’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters Thursday that he’d spoken to Burr about his decision. Warner thinks it’s appropriate and hopes it’s resolved quickly, according to Warner spokeswoman Rachel Cohen.

Dennis DeConcini, a former Arizona Democratic senator who served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he “never heard anything like that before,” regarding the seizure of Burr’s phone. Asked how serious the situation is for the North Carolina senator, DeConcini said: “One to 10? Ten.”

It’s not yet certain who would replace Burr as chairman on the committee. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho is the next Republican in terms of seniority, but he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the next Republican in line. Rubio appeared surprised when asked by reporters about Burr’s decision on Thursday. He quipped to reporters: “I wish they would time these things better,” The Hill reported.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said Burr’s resignation as chairman, “is rooted in political opportunism. Burr faces very serious allegations of self-dealing insider trading during the pandemic, which reflects very poorly not just on Burr himself but also the political party in which he has a leadership position.”

Prior to the announcement that Burr would step down as chairman, Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s junior GOP senator, told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt that it wasn’t his place to comment on whether Burr should keep the gavel.

“That’s … between Senator Burr and the leader. I do believe as I’ve said before he owes us all an explanation. … We just need to see where the investigation ends,” Tillis said, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Jennifer Haberkorn.

Critics stepped up their calls for Burr’s resignation from the Senate on Thursday.

Zach Hudson, spokesperson for the liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century urged Burr to resign from office immediately.

“Senator Richard Burr’s announcement is a blatant admission of guilt. He used privileged information to personally profit and is only acting now because he got caught. His actions today are still a day late and a million dollars short; he has lost the trust and confidence of his constituents and as a result, is incapable of serving in public office.”

If Burr were to resign from the Senate, a 2018 law approved by Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly specifies that Gov. Cooper would have to select from a list of three individuals submitted by the executive committee of the state Republican Party in naming a replacement. Previously, the governor only had to choose someone affiliated with the same political party as the outgoing senator.

Note/update: as the comment below from Stewart rightfully points out, the situation would be different if Burr were to resign from the Senate more than 60 days prior to this November’s election. In that case, a new election would be held to fill the remainder of his unexpired term on Nov. 3.

Courts & the Law, News

From hospital, Justice Ginsburg slams Trump birth control rules

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

WASHINGTON — Hospitalization for a gallbladder condition didn’t stop U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from assailing Trump administration’s birth control rules on Wednesday.

Ginsburg, 87, was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on Tuesday night, but was animated as she participated in an oral argument via teleconference surrounding a Trump administration policy that allows employers to opt out of a contraceptive coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

The Obama-era health care law requires employer-provided insurance plans to cover birth control, but the Trump administration finalized new rules that expand exemptions to employers based on religious or moral beliefs.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged the exemptions, and a federal judge in Philadelphia issued a nationwide injunction in January 2019 to block the rules from taking effect. A federal appeals court upheld that decision, prompting the Trump administration and the Roman Catholic organization — Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home in Pittsburgh — to appeal to the Supreme Court.

North Carolina is one of several states opposing the administration’s policies. Those states told the Supreme Court in an amicus brief that the administration’s exemptions “make women’s access to contraceptive coverage contingent on the religious and moral approval of their employers” and that Congress intended for women to have full and equal coverage for preventive health care.”

The justices appeared divided on the issue during the arguments, but Ginsburg made her disdain for the Trump rules clear.

The administration’s exemptions “toss to the wind entirely Congress’ instructions that women need and shall have seamless, no-cost comprehensive coverage,” Ginsburg said to Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who defended the administration’s policies.

The exemptions, she added, leave women “to hunt for other government programs that might cover them. And for those who are not covered by Medicaid or one of the other government programs, they can get contraceptive coverage only from paying out of their own pocket, which is exactly what Congress didn’t want to happen.”

Francisco argued that the administration had lawfully issued the rules, which exempt a small number of employers who have “sincere conscientious objections.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether it would indeed be a small number of women who would be impacted. “I understand the figure to be somewhere between 75,000 and 125,000 women,” she said.

Reproductive rights advocates have warned that the Trump rules could broadly hamper women’s access to birth control.

“People must have the ability to plan, space, and prevent pregnancy, without financial barriers — especially at a time when millions of people are losing their jobs and families have less money on hand for necessities,” National Women’s Law Center President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves said in a statement.  “The Court must protect access to health care, not allow employers to take it away.”

Pennsylvania’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Michael Fischer told the justices that the rules would allow “virtually any employer or college to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage entirely, including for reasons as amorphous as vaguely defined moral beliefs.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, seen as a potential swing vote in the case, questioned whether the exemptions might “sweep too broadly.” Justice Clarence Thomas appeared skeptical of the nationwide injunction and of states’ legal standing to challenge the rules in the first place.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said there “are very strong interests on both sides here, which is what makes the case difficult.” He noted the tensions between religious liberty and “the interest in ensuring women’s access to health care and preventive services, which is also a critical interest.” The question, he said, is “who decides how to balance those interests?”

Kavanaugh pointed to agencies’ discretion when writing rules and suggested it isn’t the role of the courts “to put limits on the agency discretion that Congress has not put there.”

The court is expected to issue a decision in the case before its term ends this summer.

News

U.S. Supreme Court tosses gun case as Kavanaugh urges future debate

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday avoided issuing a landmark Second Amendment ruling in a closely watched gun rights case, but set the stage for future legal battles.

A divided court ruled that a challenge to New York City gun restrictions was moot because the city had later changed its regulations.

The case had been billed as potentially the biggest gun rights lawsuit in a decade, and gun control advocates feared a broad ruling could spell doom for some local gun restrictions. But the court’s decision to toss out the case on procedural grounds allowed the justices to avoid the thornier legal issues over the scope of the Second Amendment — at least for now.

The dispute centers on a New York City regulation banning the transport of licensed, locked, and unloaded handguns to a home or shooting range outside city limits. Gun owners sued over the rule, but in the face of legal challenges, the city changed its regulations to remove the travel restrictions.

Several justices signaled during oral arguments in December that they’d reject the challenge on procedural grounds. “What’s left of the case?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked at the time.

In the per curiam, or unsigned, opinion issued Monday, the justices sent the case back to lower courts to determine whether the gun owners who brought the lawsuit could seek damages in relation to New York’s old regulation.

Three conservative justices — Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas — dissented, saying their colleagues were incorrectly dismissing the case as moot.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the majority in agreeing that the case was moot. But notably, he penned his own dissent stating that he agreed with Alito’s concern “that some federal and state courts may not be properly applying” a 2008 Supreme Court opinion in which “we held that the Second Amendment protects the right of ordinary Americans to keep and bear arms.”

Kavanaugh — a conservative justice whose confirmation was seen as a significant shift on the court toward limiting gun regulations — encouraged the court to promptly revisit the application of that major Second Amendment ruling.

“The Court should address that issue soon, perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari now pending before the Court,” he wrote.

Kavanaugh’s short statement was viewed by some of his critics as a sign that future rulings by the court’s conservative majority could imperil other gun control measures.

“Brett Kavanaugh just officially put everyone on notice that no gun safety measures are safe now that he is on the Supreme Court,” said Christopher Kang, chief counsel of the progressive group Demand Justice.