Court Digest

Court requires lawyers in murder case challenges

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California prisoners are entitled to a lawyer when they challenge their murder convictions for killings that others committed, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The court’s ruling means that hundreds of inmates who want to use a 2-year-old law to fight their convictions have the right to court-appointed attorneys to argue their cases, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

SB1437, which took effect in 2019, narrowed a California law that permitted murder convictions for anyone involved in a robbery, burglary or other serious felony where someone died — regardless of whether they actually committed the killing.

SB1437 permitted a murder conviction only for someone who intended the killing and directed and aided in it or acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”

Hundreds of prisoners challenged their convictions and qualified for legal representation. However, most state appellate courts refused to require court-appointed lawyers before a lower court decided whether the challenge should be allowed to proceed.

More than 300 challenges that were dismissed are now before the California Supreme Court, the Chronicle said.

Monday’s ruling said that an inmate who hadn’t killed anyone and was fighting a murder conviction was entitled to an attorney to help them argue in the initial hearing that their case meets the basic requirements of the law.

The case was filed on behalf of Vince E. Lewis, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the 2012 gang shooting of a woman by another gang member while Lewis waited in a car.

“The Legislature designed this law to give it as broad application as possible, to identify people who should be serving sentences for lesser crimes that they actually committed and not for murders that someone else committed,” said his attorney, Robert Bacon. “Too many courts made it unreasonably hard for them to even get in the courthouse door.”

The author of the law, State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, argued in a court filing that many inmates weren’t capable of handling the complexities of legal issues on their own.

“Many people in our prisons cannot read. Many people in our prison system have a limited education. Many people in our prisons have limited English comprehension. Many people in our prisons have intellectual disabilities or have been diagnosed with a mental disorder,” Skinner said in the filing.

The state attorney general’s office, which argued for upholding Lewis’ conviction, declined to comment on the ruling, the Chronicle said.

New York
Judge: Ex-CIA worker can represent himself in espionage case

NEW YORK (AP) — A former CIA software engineer can represent himself at his upcoming retrial on espionage charges, a judge said Monday.

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty said in a written order that Joshua Schulte had shown that he was sure he wanted to act as his own lawyer.

Schulte, 32, faces an October trial on charges that he leaked CIA secrets to WikiLeaks, which published materials in 2017 that revealed how the CIA hacked Apple and Android smartphones  in overseas spying operations and efforts to turn internet-connected televisions into listening devices.

After a year-long investigation, authorities arrested Schulte, who had already left the CIA after falling out with colleagues and supervisors and moved to New York City to work at a news agency. Prior to the move, Schulte had worked as a coder at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Schulte has pleaded not guilty to charges alleging he made what prosecutors say was the largest leak of classified information in CIA history.

At a hearing last week, Crotty warned Schulte that he may be at a disadvantage because his incarceration without bail will prevent him from doing some things that lawyers might be able to do if they were representing him. To help Schulte, the judge appointed two attorneys as “standby” counsel.

At Schulte’s first trial, a jury deadlocked on espionage charges while convicting him of lesser charges of contempt of court and making false statements.

After the espionage trial, Schulte faces child pornography charges in a separate trial.

New York
Judge convicts lawyer who fought Chevron of contempt

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York lawyer who fought Chevron over oil pollution in Ecuador is guilty of criminal contempt of court for repeatedly and willfully defying a judge’s orders, a judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska in Manhattan wrote in a lengthy opinion that Steven Donziger’s conviction does not question the sincerity of his devotion to the cause of Ecuadorians who went to court decades ago over damage pollution caused to their land. And she said she did not question that he felt Chevron treated him unfairly.

“But ‘a lawyer, of all people, should know that in the face of a perceived injustice, one may not take the law into his own hands,’” Preska said of an attorney who has spent most of the last two years in home confinement in Manhattan.

A sentencing date was not immediately set.

Martin Garbus, an attorney for Donziger, predicted in a statement that Preska’s ruling will be reversed on appeal.

“We will file that appeal on the day of sentencing. Her decision is an attempt to cover up an unconstitutional prosecution funded by Chevron,” he said.

In a statement, Donziger called the ruling an “obvious travesty of justice.”

“The decision marks a sad day for the rule of law, for our democracy, and for our planet,” he said. “The United States has now become one of those countries where environmental advocates are attacked, put in jail, or even murdered for doing their jobs successfully.”

A message for comment was left with Chevron.

The contempt case was an offshoot of legal proceedings stemming from a 2011 ruling by an Ecuadorean judge who ordered Chevron to pay $19 billion in damages, later reduced by an appeals court to $9.5 billion, for damage Texaco caused to a rainforest when it operated an oil consortium from 1972 to 1990. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001.

In 2014, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in Manhattan invalidated the Ecuador judgment, finding it was obtained through fraud, bribery, witness tampering and other misconduct.

Chevron has long argued that a 1998 agreement Texaco signed with Ecuador after a $40 million cleanup absolves it of liability and says that Ecuador’s state-run oil company is responsible for “any existing environmental and social conditions in the area.”

The Ecuadorean plaintiffs say the cleanup was a sham and didn’t exempt third-party claims.

An international arbitration tribunal in the Hague has ruled that the $9.5 billion judgment obtained by Ecuadorian plaintiffs represented by a legal team led by Donziger violated Chevron’s rights. It said the judgment should not be recognized or enforced because parts of it were “corruptly ghostwritten” in return for the promise of a bribe. The tribunal did not, however, absolve Chevron of potential liability for pollution.

Chevron has insisted there is no merit to the allegations of environmental harm.

Couple latest charged in Capitol breach

CHICAGO (AP) — A northern Illinois couple is facing federal charges alleging they breached the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, authorities said Monday.

John Schubert, 71, and Amy Schubert, 61, of Crest Hill were charged in a criminal complaint filed in Washington, D.C. with misdemeanor unlawful entry of a government building and misdemeanor disorderly conduct. They were arrested and appeared separately in U.S. District Court in Chicago, where Magistrate Judge Gabriel Fuentes ordered the pair released on their own recognizance.

Federal prosecutors say the couple were identified in part by a plumbers and pipefitters local union jacket Amy Schubert was seen wearing in a video posted on social media by an unknown person.

Investigators found six records of Google accounts associated with Joliet, Illinois’ area code near the Capitol building on Jan. 6. Two of them were connected to female subscribers, and one of them was for “Amy Schubert,” according to the complaint.

Photos and videos taken on a device linked to Amy Schubert’s Gmail account show her husband standing inside the Capitol rotunda during the unrest, according to prosecutors.

The Schuberts are among about a dozen individuals from Illinois facing federal charges as a result of the breach. According to the Justice Department, hundreds arounds the country have been charged in the U.S. Capitol breach, when Congress was certifying the Electoral College vote in favor of President Joe Biden.

It wasn’t immediately known if the Schuberts have retained legal representation.

Court ruling halts logging project in grizzly habitat

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal court has temporarily halted a northern Idaho logging project in grizzly bear habitat following a lawsuit contending the U.S. Forest Service violated environmental laws.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Friday in favor of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and issued a preliminary injunction on the 2,500-acre (1,000-hectare) Hanna Flats Logging Project in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

The Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands are partnering on the project under a program called the Good Neighbor Authority intended to speed up logging and forest restoration projects on U.S. Forest Service land by allowing state officials to take care of some of the work.

The Forest Service said it doesn’t have to follow certain environmental laws because the project qualifies for a categorical exclusion under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

The act allows the Forest Service to avoid some environmental studies if an area is designated as “wildland urban interface,” an area where homes and wildland intermingle, and that can leave homes vulnerable to wildfires.

The Forest Service cited Bonner County’s wildfire protection plan that designates the area as wildland urban interface in saying the logging project qualified for the categorical exclusion.

However, Winmill ruled that the project does not appear to qualify for an exclusion and halted logging until it rules on the merits of the case.

Specifically, Winmill said that the Forest Service had to meet requirements outlined in the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to designate an area a wildland urban interface and not just cite a county’s designation.

Winmill cited a previous ruling in a related case involving the logging project where a different judge noted a county could simply designate the entire county a wildland urban interface to avoid environmental laws with the categorical exclusion.

“The area is home to a dwindling population of endangered Selkirk grizzly bears,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Roads and logging are the greatest threat to this population on these public lands. Yet the Forest Service refuses to follow its own rules and conserve this imperiled grizzly population.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, which represents federal agencies in court cases, didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry sent through its online portal on Monday.

Logging on the project had been scheduled to start in early August, but is now suspended until a further order from the court.

Of the roughly 2,500-acre (1,000-hectare) project, about 1,100 acres (445 hectares) includes clear-cutting or modified clear-cutting, according to the court ruling.

“In addition to providing habitat for this rare grizzly bear, the Upper Priest River has the largest contiguous area of old-growth cedar, hemlock, and grand fir in the interior western United States and the largest concentration of ancient cedar stands in northern Idaho,” Garrity said.

Stitt appoints Tulsa woman to Supreme Court

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Gov. Kevin Stitt on Monday chose a Tulsa woman to fill an Oklahoma Supreme Court vacancy, marking for the first time in decades that most of the nine court members were Republican appointees.

In a statement, Stitt said Judge Dana Kuehn of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals would fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by retiring Justice Tom Colbert.

Kuehn has been serving on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals since her 2017 appointment by former Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. She previously served as an associate district judge in Tulsa County and was a prosecutor before that for nearly a decade.

Colbert was appointed by former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, and was the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court.

Kuehn is the Republican governor’s third Supreme Court appointment in as many years. He previously appointed Justices M. John Kane IV and Dustin Rowe. Five members of the court have been appointed by Republicans, while Democrats appointed four.