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XmasLightsMaybe it’s the time of year, but it seems that there’s been more than a handful of reports these past few weeks about judges who are taking critical look at how court decisions are impacting their communities.

There’s this story out of South Carolina, where yesterday Judge Carmen Tevis Mullen vacated the 1944 conviction of a black 14-year-old boy charged with allegedly murdering two white girls.

As Reuters reports, George Stinney Jr. was convicted by an all-white jury after a one-day trial and a 10-minute jury deliberation and died soon after in the electric chair.  He was the youngest person executed in the United States in the past century.

Finding that Stinney did not receive a fair trial, Judge Mullen wrote:

From time to time we are called to look back to examine our still-recent history and correct injustice where possible. I can think of no greater injustice than a violation of one’s constitutional rights, which has been proven to me in this case by a preponderance of the evidence standard.

Then there’s this — one judge’s regrets about harsh sentences he was forced to hand down under federal sentencing guidelines.

Recalling how those guidelines came about, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn spoke to NPR this week as part of that organization’s ongoing look at their impact.

As NPR describes its efforts:

We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge that they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

Here’s what Gleeson had to say about the underpinnings of the guidelines:

This was a different time in our history. Crime rates were way up, there was a lot of violence that was perceived to be associated with crack at the time. People in Congress meant well. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it just turns out that policy is wrong. It was wrong at the time.

 

News

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court handed their counterparts in North Carolina a victory this week, affirming the state Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Heien and holding that that a traffic stop is justified if based upon an officer’s reasonable but mistaken belief that a violation of law has occurred.

Heien, you may recall, involved an officer’s stop of an Hispanic man driving a vehicle with a broken tail light, on the ostensible but mistaken belief that having only one tail light working was against the law in North Carolina.  A vehicle search followed, then an arrest and ultimately a conviction for cocaine trafficking.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday came down with barely a nod to the current climate of racial unrest and minority suspicion of policing in the community — except for the lone dissent by Justice Sonia Sostmayor — and added yet another layer of ambiguity to the bounds of reasonable policing at a time when just the opposite is needed, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick aptly points out in this essay.

Says Lithwick:

Why does any of this matter? Because Vasquez wasn’t stopped by the cops for having a broken tail light. He was trailed by an officer because he was driving while looking “stiff and nervous” and for “gripping the steering wheel at a 10 and 2 position, looking straight ahead.” In other words, he was a Hispanic man driving a beat-up car in North Carolina, and the officer followed him for doing what the rest of us do every single day: driving while holding on to a steering wheel and looking forward.

Justice Sotomayor tried to point this out during argument, but to no avail.  Lithwick adds:

You would think that we had not just lived through a summer in which we were painfully reminded of the realities of militarized police, civil asset forfeiture, racial profiling, relentless police harassment of citizens, and frivolous stops for trivial infractions. These infractions can lead to mounting debts which in many minority communities turn the criminal justice system into something like a series of debtors’ prisons. The discussion in Heien never reflects the fact that a long, sordid history of pretextual and harassing traffic stops have fostered fear and anxiety in minority communities. As President Obama put it, there is a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” But from the perspective of the high court, it’s as if the summer of 2014 was happening in an alternate universe.

News

Loretta BiggsJust before midnight, the U.S. Senate confirmed by voice vote a slew of pending Obama judicial candidates, including Loretta Copeland Biggs, who will serve in the state’s Middle District.

Biggs will take the seat opened up by Judge James Beaty, who nows serves on senior status.

Her addition to the court is welcome news and will begin to address the stunning lack of diversity on the state’s federal bench. She will be the first African-American woman to serve as a lifetime appointed federal judge in North Carolina.

But the state’s Eastern District continues to operate with a district court vacancy that has been pending for more than nine years.

The president’s nominee for that slot, Jennifer Prescod May-Parker — who would have been the first African-American to serve as a federal judge in that part of the state — failed to get even a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That’s because Sen. Richard Burr has inexplicably withheld the “blue slip” indicating his approval, even though he initially supported her nomination and despite his public statements condemning delays and other obstructive tactics interfering with judicial confirmations.

Read more about Biggs here.

 

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School vouchersLate last week the state Supreme Court moved on the school voucher case now pending there, allowing the State Education Assistance Authority to undertake administrative steps needed to get the program on track for an August 2015 disbursement of funds, but otherwise keeping in place an order preventing any such disbursement until the justices say otherwise.

The court also expedited the appeal process and set February 17, 2015 for argument.

In papers filed Dec. 10,  Sen. Pres. Phil Berger,  Speaker Thom Tillis and parents who intervened in the case asked the court to allow the program to move ahead full throttle while the appeal is pending — including the disbursement of funds in August 2015 in the event the court has not rendered its decision.

The court granted that request only to the extent of allowing program administration to move forward — including the application process scheduled to run from Jan. 20 – Feb. 27, 2015.