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Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill in North CarolinaIn case you missed it, WRAL is reporting that Duke Energy disclosed negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh for a possible $100 million settlement of the pending coal ash criminal investigation that office is conducting.

Per WRAL:

The details were contained in an earnings report filed Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We believe we are close to an agreement that, if approved by the court, would resolve the U.S. government’s ongoing grand jury investigation into the February 2014 Dan River coal ash spill and ash basin operations at other North Carolina coal plants,” Chief Executive Lynn Good said in a news release to announce its 2014 earnings.

The release said the proposed agreement “could be reached and filed in the next several days for consideration by the court.”

Duke has set aside $100 million “related to the company’s assessment of probable financial exposure related to any agreement,” the release said.

Not surprisingly and likely not happy about Duke Energy getting out ahead of any official announcement, U.S Attorney Thomas Walker issued his own statement:  “No comment.”

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A federal judge in Texas has temporarily blocked implementation of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, saying that the president failed to adhere to basic administrative procedures when issuing orders that would have provided sweeping relief to as many as five million undocumented immigrants.

The order, which came a little before midnight from U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen in Brownsville, came as little surprise to many following the legal challenge to the president’s plan. Hanen, appointed to the bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush,  has been an outspoken critic of Obama’s immigration’s policies.

“The court finds that the government’s failure to secure the border has exacerbated illegal immigration into this country,” he wrote in his 123-page opinion. “Further, the record supports the finding that this lack of enforcement, combined with the country’s high rate of illegal immigration, significantly drains the states’ resources.”

As pointed out in the New York Times, the programs announced by the president in November would have offered three-year deportation deferrals and work permits to undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes, have been here at least five years and have children who are American citizens or legal residents.

The first of those programs was scheduled to open the application process on Wednesday.

In December, Texas and 25 other states, including North Carolina, filed suit opposing the programs, saying that they were adopted without adequate notice and provisions for comment and that they would impose huge burdens on state budgets.

But the state of Washington and 11 others, the District of Columbia, and the mayors of 33 cities including New York, Los Angeles and Brownsville — where the case was filed — supported the president’s actions, saying that they would benefit financially if undocumented workers obtained the relief offered.

In a statement released early this morning, the White House  said that the president had acted properly and consistent with decades of legal precedent.

“The Department of Justice, legal scholars, immigration experts and the district court in Washington, D.C., have determined that the president’s actions are well within his legal authority,” the White House said. “The district court’s decision wrongly prevents these lawful, common sense policies from taking effect, and the Department of Justice has indicated that it will appeal that decision.”

The case is expected to quickly ascend to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where many legal experts project Hanen’s order will be reversed on standing grounds.

“Federal supremacy with respect to immigration matters makes the states a kind of interloper in disputes between the president and Congress,” Laurence H. Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, told the New York Times. “They don’t have any right of their own.”

Read Hanen’s full decision here.

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UNC Not FairAffirmative action is headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case with implications for admissions policies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In a reprise of a case that the high court first addressed in 2013, attorneys for Abigail Fisher — a white student denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin allegedly because of her race — filed a petition for review on Tuesday from a decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the dismissal of her case.

In a 7-1 decision in the first go-around by Fisher, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit for a reconsideration of the university’s affirmative action policy under a strict scrutiny standard.

The appeals court did that and upheld the university’s admissions policies in July 2014, finding that they withstood the strict scrutiny test.

In the petition filed this week, Fisher’s attorneys argue that the appeals court failed to adequately give the university’s admissions policies strict scrutiny and asked the court to take the case, “strike down UT’s unjustified use of race, and once again make clear that the Equal Protection Clause does not permit the use of racial preferences in admissions decisions where, as here, they are neither narrowly tailored nor necessary to meet a compelling, otherwise unsatisfied, educational interest.”

How the high court proceeds next in Fisher will have some bearing on the case filed in federal court here against UNC-Chapel Hill in November, alleging similar flaws in the university’s admission policies. (A similar lawsuit was filed in Massachusetts federal court against Harvard by the same group on the same day.)

As SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston described the Harvard and UNC lawsuits:

The basic thrust of the new lawsuits is that Harvard and the flagship university in North Carolina are using admissions programs that cannot satisfy the tough constitutional test for judging race-based policy — “strict scrutiny.”  But their broader theme is that the Supreme Court’s affirmative action efforts beginning with the Bakke ruling have failed to end racial bias in admissions programs, so it is now time to overrule Bakke and at least one other decision.

In the lawsuits, filed under the name “Students for Fair Admissions Inc.,” attorneys for plaintiffs — selected after a nationwide search by backers of Project for Fair Representation – argue that diversity at the schools can be achieved by race-neutral alternatives and that public colleges and others receiving federal funds should be ordered to end the use of race in admissions altogether.

The same attorneys representing Fisher at the Supreme Court are representing the students in the UNC case here, which is pending in Winston-Salem and is now assigned to newly-commissioned U.S. District Loretta Copeland Biggs, who took her seat this past December.

 

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Supreme courtThis morning, a majority of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block same-sex marriages in Alabama pending the high court’s decision on the constitutionality of similar marriage bans in other states — making Alabama the 37th state in which such marriages are permitted.

The court is scheduled to hear cases out of Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in April, with a ruling expected in June.

Allowing yet another state to move ahead with gay marriage led many to speculate that a majority on the nation’s highest court were moving towards acceptance of the argument that state bans are in fact unconstitutional.

Fueling that speculation was a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, joined in by Justice Antonin Scalia, chastising his colleagues for not staying Alabama marriages.

Thomas wrote:

This court looks the other way as yet another federal district judge casts aside state laws without making any effort to preserve the status quo pending the court’s resolution of a constitutional question it left open in United States v. Windsor [the court’s 2013 decision striking down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act].

This acquiescence may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution of that question. This is not the proper way to discharge our . . . responsibilities. And, it is indecorous for this Court to pretend that it is.

A federal judge had already ruled in January that Alabama’s ban was unconstitutional, but stayed the ruling until today in order to give the state time to appeal. State Attorney General Luther Strange then headed straight to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking that relief.

With that deadline and the possibility of federally-sanctioned same-sex marriages looming, Alabama Chief Justice Roy S. Moore issued an order last night prohibiting state probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to such couples. 

(This was not the first time Moore defiantly tangled with the federal courts, as the New York Times noted earlier today. Readers may remember Moore’s refusal in the early 2000s to obey a federal judge’s order requiring the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from a Montgomery building — a move which led to his removal from the Chief Justice post. He became Chief Justice again in 2013.)

But once the high court refused to issue a stay order, probate judges across the state defied Moore’s order and began marrying gay couples.

As Robert Barnes at the Washington Post correctly points out, the dissent by two of the justices does not necessarily mean that the remaining seven all voted in favor of denying a stay.  Rather, it means only that Thomas and Scalia chose to give their reasons for voting otherwise.

Wrote Barnes:

Some justices may have thought Alabama should receive a stay, but did not join Thomas’s dissent. All that is clear from Monday’s action is that a majority of the nine justices turned down the request, and only Thomas and Scalia gave reasons for their actions. 

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(Graphic: Center for American Progress)

(Graphic: Center for American Progress)

Things at the U.S. Supreme Court may seem a bit quiet right now, with conferences and oral arguments not scheduled to start up again until later in the month, but don’t let that lull you into a sense of calm.

Once the justices reconvene, all hell could break loose, with same-sex marriage, Obamacare, lethal injection and redistricting among the issues being reviewed.

“The term went from being one of the more uneventful terms in recent years to potentially one of the biggest ones in a generation,” SCOTUSblog editor Amy Howe said.

For a look at what big issues have been argued and decided as well as what’s in queue, read the update by CNN’s Ariane de Vogue here.