SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK

Challenge to open primaries rejected

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has turned away challenges to open primaries in Hawaii and Montana that allow voters to take part in party primary elections regardless of their political affiliations.

The justices did not comment Monday in leaving in place rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the states' open primaries.

Democrats in Hawaii and Republicans in Montana had challenged the open primaries as a violation of the parties' constitutional right to freedom of association.

Voters do not have to be affiliated with a political party to cast ballots in primary elections.


Court sides with nursing home in arbitration case

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court says a Kentucky nursing home can require the families of two former residents to pursue claims against the home outside of court.

The justice ruled 7-1 on Monday that the home could enforce contracts signed by relatives of the residents that subjected all disputes involving the home to arbitration. The relatives had been authorized to sign the admission documents.

Kentucky's highest court had refused to enforce the agreements, saying the relatives lacked the power to waive a "divine God-given right" to a jury trial.

The nursing home argued that such agreements are allowed under federal law, which overrides state laws that protect the right to sue in court.


Mexican man on Texas death row loses appeal

By Michael Graczyk
Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to review an appeal from a Mexican national sentenced to death for the sledgehammer killings of his wife and two children, who were found buried under the bathroom floor in their Texas home.

The high court didn't include an explanation of its decision not to review the capital murder conviction of 62-year-old Robert Moreno Ramos. His attorneys have argued that Ramos wasn't told when he was arrested for the 1992 killings that he could get legal help from the Mexican government and that he had deficient legal help at his trial and in earlier appeals. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected their arguments last year.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, found that Ramos, from Aguascalientes, Mexico, and more than four dozen other Mexican citizens awaiting execution in the U.S. weren't advised of their consular rights under the Vienna Convention when they were arrested. It recommended that they be tried again to determine if consular access would have affected their cases. President George W. Bush agreed and directed states to reopen the cases.

The Supreme Court overruled that directive, saying that only Congress can require states to follow the international court's ruling. That has not happened and several Texas inmates named in the international court ruling have since been executed.

Ramos, who also is identified in some court documents as Roberto Moreno Ramos, does not have an execution date.

Evidence at his 1993 trial in Hidalgo County showed he used a sledge hammer to kill his 42-year-old wife, Leticia, their 7-year-old daughter, Abigail, and their 3-year-old son, Jonathan, at their home in Progreso, which is along the Mexico border about 20 miles southeast of McAllen.

According to court records, Ramos told a cousin they were killed in a car wreck and their bodies were cremated. After providing other conflicting explanations, though, another relative went to police to report the woman and children missing. Their bodies were found buried under a freshly tiled floor in the home's bathroom.

Evidence also showed Ramos remarried three days after they were killed, telling his new wife that the woman who had been living in his house was a widow and that he'd been providing shelter for her and her two children.


Justices rule against consumer in debt collection case

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that debt collection companies can't be sued for trying to recover years-old credit card debt from people who seek bankruptcy protection.

The 5-3 ruling is a blow to consumer groups that complain debt collectors are unfairly misleading people into repaying old debts even when they are not required to under the law.

The court sided with Midland Funding, which was trying to collect $1,879 in debt an Alabama woman had incurred more than 10 years earlier. Aleida Johnson argued that Midland was wrong to go after the debt because Alabama law has a six-year statute of limitations for a creditor to collect overdue payments.

While Johnson ultimately avoided paying the debt, a federal appeals court said she could sue Midland for trying to collect it as a violation the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That law prohibits collection companies from making a "false, deceptive, or misleading representation" or trying to recover debt through "unfair or unconscionable means."

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer broke with his liberal colleagues to say efforts to recoup old debt during the bankruptcy process do not violate the law. He said it wasn't false or misleading because bankruptcy law technically allows such claims.

And Breyer said it wasn't unfair or unconscionable since a bankruptcy trustee can object to any claims that are so old they don't have to be repaid. That's what happened in Johnson's case, and Breyer said that reduces any concern that consumers might unwittingly pay a debt that is too old.

Breyer's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the practice "is both unfair and unconscionable."

"Professional debt collectors have built a business out of buying stale debt, filing claims in bankruptcy proceedings to collect it, and hoping that no one notices that the debt is too old to be enforced by the courts," Sotomayor said.

Her dissent was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the case.


Order unlikely to deter voting restrictions

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court's refusal to breathe new life into North Carolina's sweeping voter identification law might be just a temporary victory for civil rights groups.

Republican-led states are continuing to enact new voter ID measures and other voting restrictions, and the Supreme Court's newly reconstituted conservative majority, with the addition of Justice Neil Gorsuch, could make the court less likely to invalidate the laws based on claims under the federal Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.

The justices on Monday left in place last summer's ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the law's photo ID requirement to vote in person and other provisions, which the lower court said targeted African-Americans "with almost surgical precision."

But Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the court's decision to stay out of the case rested on a partisan dispute over who had the authority to present North Carolina's case to the court, not the justices' views on the substance of the issue.

Indeed, before Gorsuch joined the court, the other eight justices split 4-4 over whether to allow the challenged provisions to remain in effect despite the court ruling striking them down.

In January, when the high court rejected a Texas appeal over its voter ID law, Roberts practically invited Texas Republicans to bring their appeal back to the Supreme Court after lower court consideration of the issue is finished. "The issues will be better suited for certiorari review at that time," Roberts wrote, using the Latin term for the court's process of deciding whether to hear a case.

Two earlier Supreme Court decisions paved the way for the wave of voter ID laws that are now in place in 32 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Roberts was part of a conservative-led decision upholding Indiana's voter ID law in 2008 and he was the author of the court's 5-4 decision in 2013 that gutted a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act that had required North Carolina, Texas and other states, mainly in the South, to get approval before changing laws dealing with elections.

Republicans in North Carolina and Texas moved to enact new voting measures after the Supreme Court ruling. Voters, civil rights groups and the Obama administration quickly filed lawsuits challenging the new laws.

Advocates of requiring voters to show identification at the polls say it is a prudent, painless way to deter voter fraud. Opponents contend that in-person voter fraud has historically not been a problem and that poorer and minority voters, who tend to support Democrats, are more likely to lack driver licenses and other acceptable forms of identification.

Roberts' and the other conservatives' track record in voting cases suggests they'll be "quite skeptical of voting rights claims," said election law specialist Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine.

"You could certainly see a five-justice majority overturning a case like this," Hasen said of the North Carolina appeal. He acknowledged that Gorsuch himself has yet to weigh in on the topic.

A conservative defender of the voting laws agreed. "I'd think challengers to voter ID laws would be extremely nervous about any such case coming to the court," said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Already this year, Arkansas, Iowa and North Dakota have approved voter ID laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Georgia and Indiana are among states that have added other voting restrictions to their identification laws, the Brennan Center said.

The voter ID issue itself could return to the court in the next year or two in cases from Texas and Wisconsin. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already has ruled that Texas' law violates the Voting Rights Act, but a broader challenge to the law is pending at the New Orleans-based appeals court.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals appeared inclined to uphold Wisconsin laws requiring voter ID and limiting early voting when it heard arguments in February. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the measures into law in 2011.


Appeal of student arrested for burping turned down

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has declined to hear a New Mexico mother's appeal over her son's arrest for disrupting his seventh grade gym class with fake burps.

The justices on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that said the police officer who arrested the boy in 2011 was immune from liability.

The appeals court's ruling drew a sharp dissent from then-Judge Neil Gorsuch just six months before he was picked for the Supreme Court vacancy.

The mother featured Gorsuch's dissent prominently in her appeal to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch said arresting a "class clown" for burping was going "a step too far."

Justices typically are recused from cases they heard before joining the court, and Gorsuch had no role in considering the case when it came before the high court.

Published: Wed, May 17, 2017

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