SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK

Justices won't review award to Calif. couple that deputies shot

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court is leaving in place a roughly $4 million judgment for an innocent couple shot while California deputies searched for a wanted man.

The high court on Monday declined to again take up the case involving Angel and Jennifer Mendez. Their case had previously been before the justices in 2017. At that time, the high court unanimously overturned the $4 million award and ordered a lower court to revisit the case. On second look, the appeals court again sided with the couple.

The pair were shot in 2010 when deputies searching for a parolee entered a backyard shack in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles, where the couple was living. Deputies fired shots after seeing Angel Mendez pick up what looked like a gun. It was a BB gun.

Nominating-law challenge denied

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court is declining to hear the Utah Republican Party's challenge to a state law overhauling how political parties nominate candidates.

The Monday decision halts the long court battle over the law allowing candidates to bypass GOP nominating conventions and instead gather signatures to participate in a primary.

Utah's GOP argued the 2014 law violated their Frist Amendment right to choose candidates as they saw fit.

But the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, finding it balances the state's interest in managing elections while allowing political parties and residents a way to express their political choices.

Opponents of the law could now turn to the Legislature. Republican Sen. Dan McCay considered sponsoring a proposal to change the law this year, but decided to wait until the court battle was done.

County owes $28M for wrongful convictions

By Mark Sherman and Grant Schulte
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a rural Nebraska county's appeal of a $28 million court judgment aimed at compensating six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 slaying.

The justices turned away Gage County's last-ditch effort to avoid the hefty judgment, after a federal appeals court in St. Louis found the award was justified because of egregious law enforcement conduct. In August, the county raised its local property tax levy as high as state law allows to pay off the debt - a move that could become a major drag on the local economy.

All six people were wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of Helen Wilson. They spent more than 75 years combined in prison until DNA evidence cleared them in 2008. Wilson's death has since been linked to a former Beatrice, Nebraska, resident who died in 1992. Beatrice is about 100 miles (161 kilometers) southwest of Omaha.

Jeff Patterson, an attorney for four of the six who were wrongfully accused, said his clients "are just happy that things are moving along" with the case.

The lawsuit alleged that law enforcement officials recklessly strove to close the case despite contradictory evidence and coerced false confessions. The three people who gave false confessions all had histories of psychological problems. One of the six, Joseph White, died in a workplace accident in Alabama in 2011.

Gage County expects to spend roughly $3.8 million per year over eight years to cover the legal debt, attorney fees and interest, said Myron Dorn, a former county supervisor who helped approve the payment plan.

Because the county is mostly rural farmland, Dorn said roughly half of the total burden will fall on land-rich farmers whose incomes have plummeted because of low crop prices.

For a typical mid-sized farmer, the 12-cent increase per $100 of taxable value could mean an extra $14,000 in property taxes owed over the next eight years. Dorn said one major producer is bracing to pay nearly $100,000 in additional taxes.

Homeowners will feel the feel the pinch as well. The owner of a $100,000 home will pay an additional $120 in property taxes each year - nearly $1,000 in total - until the county pays its debt.

"We're going to notice it, big time," said Don Schuller, a farmer who has lobbied state lawmakers for help with the debt. "That's a big chunk of money out of the economy of Gage County."

Schuller said he was concerned the sharp increase could make voters more reluctant to approve bond measures for school construction and other projects that might help the economy. He argued that state officials should shoulder some of the burden because the six were threatened with the state-sanctioned death penalty , prosecuted under state law and served their time in state prisons.

Some officials say the tax increase is the price residents should pay for a badly botched investigation that put innocent people in prison for a combined 75 years. State Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, has said residents "made their bed, now they have to sleep in it."

Dorn, who is now a state senator, introduced legislation this year that would allow the county to apply for state assistance to help pay off the judgment, but he isn't optimistic lawmakers will approve it given the state's budget troubles.

"The probability of that happening is probably pretty slim this year," he said.

Many residents have complained they weren't responsible for the wrongful conviction, and some argue they didn't even live in Gage County at the time. Art Nietfeld, who owns farmland near the Kansas border, told a legislative committee last month that he'll owe an estimated $10,000 in additional property taxes to pay his share of the judgment.

"I sure didn't have anything to do with it," he said.

After the first trial ended in a mistrial in 2015, the 8th Circuit ruled that there was substantial evidence to support allegations that Gage County officials conspired to convict the six people. That included evidence that investigators conducted unreported interrogations, ignored verifiable alibis and suggested that three of the six had repressed memories of the crime.

The wrongfully accused, known as the Beatrice Six, are Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez. White was killed in a factory accident in 2011, about less than three years after winning his freedom.

Maren Chaloupka, a Scottsbluff attorney who represented Shelden, said all of the wrongfully convicted were thankful that the case had come to a close.

"This is a day our clients have waited for for a very long time," she said.

Court declines N.J. preservation grants case

By Jessica Gresko
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Three conservative Supreme Court justices say barring synagogues, temples, churches and mosques from programs that award money for preservation work is discrimination.

The statement from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came as the court declined Monday to take up a case from New Jersey that raised the issue of preservation grants to religious buildings.

Kavanaugh wrote that he agreed with the court's decision not to hear the New Jersey case, but he said that at some point the justices "will need to decide whether governments that distribute historic preservation funds may deny funds to religious organizations simply because the organizations are religious."

"Barring religious organizations because they are religious from a general historic preservation grants program is pure discrimination against religion," he wrote.

Kavanaugh wrote that there were two main reasons to wait on taking the issue. He said the factual details of the Morris County program "are not entirely clear." And he said the justices should wait until more courts have had a chance to apply a 2017 Supreme Court decision involving the exclusion of a church from a state program. That decision said a Missouri church had the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for a new playground surface and couldn't be denied money solely because it is a religious institution.

The case the justices had been asked to hear comes from New Jersey's Morris County. In 2002, county voters authorized the creation of a historic preservation program funded by a county property tax. Religious institutions were among those eligible for grants.

The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued, and New Jersey's highest court ruled that the grant program violated the state's constitution. New Jersey's constitution says that no person should have to pay taxes "for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry."

The Supreme Court's decision not to take the case leaves that ruling in place.

Published: Wed, Mar 06, 2019

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