Supreme courtThe U.S. Supreme Court has begun clearing the decks en route to the end of its term in late June, handing down six opinions yesterday.

Though none came in the high profile cases — Obamacare or same-sex marriage, for example, which will likely be handed down in the court’s last week — yesterday’s decisions still involved some issues worth noting.

In Henderson v. United States, a unanimous court held that convicted felons could sell or otherwise dispose of their guns to independent third parties.

More here at SCOTUSblog:

When people are arrested, they often surrender their firearms to police. Once those people are convicted of felonies, they can no longer lawfully possess their weapons. In this situation, the Supreme Court unanimously concluded, the felon can ask the government to transfer his firearms to an independent third party. This includes transfers to dealers for sale on the open market, but in some circumstances can also include directed transfers to specific people.

In Tibble v. Edison International, a likewise unanimous court held that employee retirement plan managers have a continuing duty to monitor investments and act “with prudence” to protect funds beyond that exercised when initially selecting such investments.

More here from Forbes:

“The Court’s decision confirms that fiduciaries cannot go on autopilot,” said John Donovan, a partner in the Boston office of Ropes & Gray, in an e-mailed comment. “Managing investments in ERISA plans involves not only prudently selecting those investments in the first place, but monitoring them to make sure that they remain prudent.”

In City of San Francisco v. Sheehan,  the court ruled in a narrow 6-2 decision that police officers have some leeway to fire their guns to subdue a mentally disturbed person who is violently threatening them. (Justice Stephen Breyer took no part because his brother, a federal judge in California, had ruled on the case in a lower court.)

More here from SCOTUSblog:

The Court provided little new guidance on the larger question of how the Fourth Amendment applies to claims that police used unnecessary force in carrying out arrests or other confrontations with the public — an issue that has gained new intensity in the wake of incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and other communities in recent months.

At most, the Court on Monday declared that it was not clearly established seven years ago, when the San Francisco incident occurred, that the Fourth Amendment requires police to take special precautionary steps to accommodate the mental disability of a person whom they are trying to subdue.   Because that was not the law at the time, the two officers had legal immunity from the woman’s claim that the Fourth Amendment require such an accommodation.

And in Comptroller v. Wynne, a divided court (5-4) held that Maryland’s personal income tax law violated the constitution because it doesn’t give residents a full tax credit for income tax paid out of state.

More here from the Washington Post:

[T]he state’s practice of withholding a credit on the county segment of the state income tax wrongly exposes some residents with out-of-state income to double taxation. The justices said the provision violated the Constitution’s commerce clause because it might discourage individuals from doing business across state lines.





Image of DENR commemorative coin

Duke Energy entered a guilty plea yesterday to misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with coal ash contamination at several of its plants here, but the federal investigation may not be over, according to this report in the Charlotte Business Journal.

U.S. Attorneys involved in the investigation would not confirm whether the investigation is ongoing, but they did admit that no further charges would be lodged against Duke Energy.

As reported in the Journal:

John Cruden, assistant attorney general for the Environmental Crimes Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, confirmed after court Thursday that Duke faces no further criminal charges. But he would not say the investigation is closed. Asked if he knew whether there could be any additional investigation, he said, “Yes, I do know, but I cannot tell you.”

Duke Energy’s attorney Jim Cooney pointed to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resource as a likely target.

“The government is still investigating the DENR side of the house,” Cooney told the Journal. “We have agreed to provide documents and to cooperate with that investigation.”

And DENR did not deny that the investigation is continuing.

“We continue to fully cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s office and our focus remains protecting the environment and holding Duke Energy accountable for its environmental violations,” the agency said in a statement yesterday.

Lax enforcement of environmental rules and regulations against Duke Energy in recent years is one of the areas the Justice Department intended to explore when it issued grand jury subpoenas last year.




Courts in crisisThe House released its proposed 2015-2017 budget this morning with some good news for the courts: an infusion of more than $18 million to finally bring the state judicial system into the digital age.

That’s way more than the $5 million former Administrative Office of the Courts director John Smith requested for technology for in his February letter to state budget director Lee Roberts.

The governor had no funding for technology in his proposed budget.

The court system would also get a much-needed boost in its operating budget — technology aside — with $15.6 million allotted over two years to cover things such as interpreters, expert witnesses, juries and other “constitutionally and legally mandated legal services as necessary to operate the State court system.”

Here’s what AOC chief legal counsel Tom Murry says the latter category includes:


That amount aligns closely with what Judge Smith and the governor had requested ($15.9 million and $16 million respectively).

One glaring omission from both the House and the governor’s budget?  Funding to bring court system staffing up to workload needs — 536 new positions, according the AOC request.

Here’s a snapshot of the House proposal:

House judicial budget



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Jon Rapping’s at it again.

Watch the founder of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that trains and supports public defenders, talk about how his young proteges are taking on what he calls the biggest civil rights issue of our time — ensuring that those who can’t afford an attorney get the representation they need to navigate the criminal justice system — in the above TEDx talk given in Atlanta in April.

Policy Watch first highlighted Rapping’s work back in 2013 when director Dawn Porter’s award-winning documentary, “Gideon’s Army” — about some of those young public defenders trying to make a difference in the South — aired as a feature film at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Festival.

As we wrote at the time:

Those attorneys are part of a new wave of public defenders coming of age as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision guaranteeing poor people the right to counsel, Gideon v. Wainwright, turns 50.

They are burdened with caseloads numbering in the hundreds, grossly underpaid and laden with student loan debt and, in many circles, overlooked and unappreciated as the fine lawyers they’re becoming.

Yet they are undaunted. They are more committed than ever to the mission of Gideon and hell-bent on waking those in the criminal justice system who’ve been slumbering under the blanket of efficiency to the injustices they are fostering.

They’ve been radicalized, said Kevin Tully, the head of the Mecklenburg County public defender’s office.

“Many of them want to commit their life to this work; they see the meaning in the work itself, not in what’s in it for them in terms of a stepping stone. They have tremendous options to make money, and they’re choosing to do this, and the sacrifices they’re making financially are really astounding. Many of them are working second or third jobs. They do that for the privilege of being public defenders.”

Watch a clip from the movie “Gideon’s Army” below.

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Voter IDA new analysis of voter registration data shows that under the McCrory administration, North Carolina may be systematically failing to provide state residents with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for public assistance — such as food stamps or welfare — in violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

Commonly called the “Motor Voter Law,” the Act requires public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices to provide voter registration services whenever someone applies for benefits, renews or recertifies benefits, or changes an address with the agency, unless the person declines these services in writing.

Affected programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”), the Medicaid program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”).

According to Democracy NC, voter registration applications initiated at public assistance agencies have dropped dramatically since McCrory took office. They fell from an annual average of 38,400 between 2007 and 2012 to an average of only 16,000 in the past two years, a decline of more than 50 percent.

The organization also reports that last fall it and other voting-rights groups checked out 19 public assistance agencies across the state  and found after interviews that up to 75 percent of the clients at the agencies did not see a registration question on agency forms and were not asked whether they would like to register to vote, as required by federal law.

Also, according to this piece in the The Daily Kos:

From 1995 through 2012, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBOE) published on its web site annual summaries (in the form of Excel spreadsheets) of its NVRA compliance data. But, beginning in 2013 (when McCrory took office), that practice appears to have come to a halt, and no annual summaries are available there for McCrory’s term (2013-2014).

Here’s a graph from that article showing the apparent decline:

(Source: DocDawg for Daily Kos)

(Source: DocDawg for Daily Kos)

Democracy NC, Action NC, and the A. Philip Randolph Institute sent a notice letter today to the State Board of Elections  and the Department of Health and Human Services, advising both of their findings and giving the state 90 days to comply with the law or face yet another voting rights lawsuit.

North Carolina is already in the throes voting rights battles in the courts. Three federal lawsuits — including one brought by the Justice Department — and another action in state court, all concerning the state’s so called “Monster Voting Law,” are now pending.

The state is also fighting a challenge to its 2011 voter redistricting plan, a case that is now back in state Supreme Court after being remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court.