Court Digest

Judge faces fine, reprimand for misconduct

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi judge could face a fine and a reprimand for violating state laws on judicial conduct for continuing to represent clients from his private practice past a state deadline.

The Sun Herald reported  the Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a recommendation from the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance to fine Jackson County Court Judge Mark Watts $2,500 and order him to face a public reprimand before a higher court judge at the beginning of the next court term in October.

Watts was accused of representing clients from his private practice after a six-month period.. State law says county court judges shall not practice law in any courts in the county or otherwise, other than bringing to a conclusion cases from private practice within six months of taking office.

Watts, the ruling said, did not dispute the claims and agreed to the fine and reprimand. However, Watts said in previous testimony that he had not accepted additional payments from the clients and did not realize he was violating the standard of professional conduct as a judge.

In its finding, the commission said it had found no evidence to suggest Watts had intentionally acted in bad faith. Watts admitted knowing about the six-month expiration period but didn’t think what he was doing violated the judicial mandates, the report said.

The commission said in one case where he went to court on behalf of a client that he his violations resulted from “acts of charity motivated by a desire to help.... clients avoid hiring new counsel and paying legal fees they could not afford.”

“I didn’t — I didn’t try to keep practicing law,” Watts testified. “That was not my intention. That is not what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to make money on the side. I didn’t take any new clients. I didn’t charge. I didn’t even get any money for any of the these cases other than what they paid me — maybe way before — to handle something.”

Man whose murder conviction was overturned faces retrial

AUBURN, Maine (AP) — Jury selection began Monday in the retrial of a Massachusetts man whose murder conviction was overturned by the state supreme court in Maine.

Marcus Asante, of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, was sentenced to 35 years as the convicted triggerman in a drug-related killing in Sherman, Maine, before his conviction was overturned last year.

It was the first murder conviction to be set aside in more than a decade in Maine.

Asante was accused of shooting Douglas Morin Jr., of Oakland, nine times during a drug deal in October 2016.

Asante testified that he fired in self-defense when Morin pulled out a gun after the deal was called off.

The supreme court ruled that a judge erred in instructions to jurors, allowing the jury to reach “a verdict based on impermissible criteria.”

The original trial was held in Aroostook County, where the crime took place, but the retrial was moved to Androscoggin County.

4 anti-abortion students sue Creighton over vaccine mandate

 OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Four students are suing Creighton University over its requirement to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to remain enrolled, arguing that some of them “feel coerced” to violate their religious beliefs against abortion.

The lawsuit filed this week in Douglas County District Court also alleges that some of the four students have medical conditions that make vaccines not recommended for them.

The university in Omaha is affiliated with the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. It mandated that all students get vaccinated in August, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to a vaccine mandated by Pfizer, according to local news reports. The university had previously allowed medical exemptions to its vaccine requirements, but not religious ones.

The lawsuit says all four students have “religious objections” to COVID-19 vaccines because “the vaccines were developed and/or tested using abortion derived fetal cell lines.” Attorney Robert Sullivan said in a statement that a Catholic university should not place students in the position of having to violate the church’s teachings.

The Vatican declared in December that it is “morally acceptable” for Roman Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses, when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available.

The university declined comment.

Deputy wins $7.5 million in lawsuit after spinal injury

WHEATON, Ill. (AP) — A federal jury has awarded $7.5 million in damages to a suburban Chicago sheriff’s deputy who sued after he was severely injured during a 2014 training exercise.

The  (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald reported that the jury found that the maker of law enforcement equipment was liable for a 12-gauge tactical knockout breaching round that penetrated into DuPage County Sheriff’s Deputy David Hakim’s spinal canal and did not disintegrate as intended.

Hakim was part of a team that was practicing breaching doors by firing special ammunition in to them when the round went through a door and a stair riser before striking the bottom edge of his body armor and deflecting it into his spine.

Attorneys for the manufacturer, Safariland LLC had argued that Hakim must not have been using the equipment properly.

Hakim underwent emergency surgery and he has recovered to the point that he’s been able to return to work for the sheriff’s office. But his attorney at the trial that ended with the jury’s award this month said that Hakim’s injury has affected his ability to run the martial arts studio that he operates.

Suit filed over Confederate statue in mostly black Tuskegee

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (AP) — A lawsuit has been filed that could decide the fate of a Confederate monument that has stood in a square at the center of nearly all-Black Tuskegee for 115 years.

WSFA-TV reported that the Macon County Commission has filed suit against both the local and state chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy arguing that the county owns the property where the statue is located and wants title to the plot.

While records show the county gave the land to the Confederate heritage group for use as a park for white people in 1906, the suit contends the property belongs to the county because the county’s action was illegal.

The county, which was joined in the suit by three Black residents, said it is willing to negotiate with the Daughters of the Confederacy. If someone comes forward, they could settle and give the statue to the group.

The statue has been the subject of periodic demonstrations for decades in Tuskegee, which is almost all Black and the home of Tuskegee University. The nation’s first Black military pilots trained in the city during World War II.

Protesters tried and failed to pull down the monument in the 1960s, and it has been the target of vandals and community opposition for years. In July, City Council member Johnny Ford and another man used an electric saw to cut into the statue, but the damage was later repaired by a crew hired by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The group hasn’t commented publicly on the lawsuit, filed Sept. 1, and court records do not show an attorney representing either the local or the state chapter of the heritage group.

Fred Gray, a longtime civil rights lawyer who filed the complaint, said officials have been trying to find members of the Tuskegee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Only one member, who resides in the Alabama town of Elba, has been located, he said.

State settles juvenile facility sexual abuse lawsuit for $2.1M

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The state of Washington has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by 10 people who said they were sexually abused at a juvenile rehabilitation facility when they were teenagers.

One of the plaintiffs lives in Pierce County, which is where the lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in 2018, The Olympian reported.

Some plaintiffs were at Green Hill School in the ‘70s while some were there as recently as the early 2000s. The state on Sept. 1 agreed to settle their lawsuit for more than $2.1 million.

The facility in Chehalis houses teenagers from across the state who are sentenced to juvenile rehabilitation treatment.

“Through numerous sources, the State knew or should have known that a culture of sexually inappropriate behavior pervaded the Green Hill School,” the lawsuit said. “The knowledge of this culture of abuse went all the way to the highest levels of management of Green Hill School and, upon information and belief, the highest levels of those State agencies charged with protecting the children sent there.”

Darrell Cochran, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said this week the settlement is “a fresh start” that gives his clients resources to support things such as education, stable housing and sobriety.

The Department of Social and Health Services previously ran Green Hill and other juvenile facilities. The recently created Department of Children, Youth and Families started administering juvenile rehabilitation programs in 2019.

“These claims all stem from events that occurred between 1976 and 2008 — 15-40 years ago, and do not reflect DCYF’s current practices, policies, or procedures,” department spokesperson Jason Wettstein said in a statement.
“DCYF hopes these settlements are a start to the healing process for these 10 individuals.”

The oldest plaintiff was 18 and the youngest was 14 when they went to Green Hill.

Cochran said law enforcement approached three of his clients about ongoing criminal investigations.

State agrees to $1.9M for attorneys who fought voting law

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas appears likely to pay $1.9 million to attorneys who succeeded in getting the federal courts to strike down a state law requiring new voters to show papers documenting their U.S. citizenship when registering.

Attorneys for the state and lawyers for Kansas residents challenging the law in two federal lawsuits agreed to the amount during negotiations. They filed a joint request Friday to have U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson sign off.

The attorneys suing the Kansas secretary of state’s office over the law would receive $1.53 million to cover their fees and another $370,000 for expenses. The lawyers had sought more than $3.3 million.

The law was championed by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who led former President Donald Trump’s now-defunct voter fraud commission. Kobach was a leading source for Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally may have voted in the 2016 election.

The lawsuits argued that the proof-of-citizenship requirement denied voting rights to thousands of citizens while doing little or nothing to stop fraud. Robinson and a federal appeals court agreed, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to intervene.

Kobach represented himself in much of the litigation. He left office after losing the 2018 governor’s race but is running for Kansas attorney general in 2022.

South Carolina
Lawsuit aims to end secrecy over ethics complaints

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A lawsuit filed in federal court is asking a judge to overturn a requirement in South Carolina ethics laws that makes it illegal for anyone who files a complaint against a public official from talking about it unless the complaint is found valid.

The lawsuit is filed by a whistleblower who says a state lawmaker broke ethics laws by voting in favor of a special interest that paid the legislator $108,000 over three years through contracts with firms with ties to the lawmaker.

The State Ethics Commission rejected the complaint after discussing it behind closed doors, saying the lawmaker taking money from a subsidiary of the special interest didn’t affiliate him with the interest, the whistleblower’s lawyer said in a lawsuit obtained by The Post and Courier.

In the lawsuit, attorney Chris Kenney called the finding a “legal absurdity.”

Kenney, who works in state Sen. Dick Harpootlian’s law firm, told the newspaper he can’t further identify the lawmaker or the special interest without a ruling in his favor from the court.

Ethics laws prevent people who file a complaint from talking about it publicly before the complaint is heard and also if the commission rules against it, even on a technical issue.

Critics of that provision have said it violates free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Meghan Walker said she wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, adding that lawmakers, and not her agency, write the state ethics laws.

Kenney wrote in his lawsuit that his client wants to push the Legislature to close the loophole, but can’t “without subjecting himself to criminal penalty” under South Carolina law.