Court rejects several gun rights cases for next term

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday passed up several challenges to federal and state gun control laws, over the dissent of two conservative justices.

Gun rights advocates had hoped the court would expand the constitutional right to “keep and bear arms” beyond the home.

Instead, the justices left in place restrictions on the right to carry weapons in public in Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. They also declined to review Massachusetts’ ban on some semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines, a California handgun control law and a half-century-old federal law banning interstate handgun sales.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, wrote a dissent in the court’s denial of a New Jersey resident’s appeal seeking the right to carry a gun in public for self-defense.

Rather than take on the constitutional issue, Thomas wrote, “the Court simply looks the other way.”

Oklahoma man can present evidence in 1999 murder case

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that an Oklahoma death row inmate convicted of murder in 2001 can present evidence to a federal judge to determine whether his attorney’s assistance was ineffective.

Jimmy Dean Harris, now 63, was convicted of murder for fatally shooting Merle Taylor in 1999 at a transmission shop in Oklahoma City. He also shot his ex-wife, who worked at the shop, and she survived, The Oklahoman reported.

The high court on Monday upheld a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted Harris a hearing before a judge in Oklahoma City to argue whether his attorney should have sought a pretrial hearing to assess if Harris was intellectually disable.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last October that Harris’ attorney should’ve requested the hearing because if Harris was determined intellectually disable, he would have been ineligible for the death penalty under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The Oklahoma attorney general’s office requested that the Supreme Court reverse the appeals court decision, contending that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had determined that the evidence already showed Harris was not intellectually disabled.

Harris was first convicted of murder in 2001, but it was thrown out because the trial judge mistakenly answered a question from the jury. He was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty again in 2005.

Bid to void California sanctuary law rejected

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected the Trump administration’s bid to throw out a California immigrant-sanctuary law that limits local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

The justices’ order leaves in place lower court rulings that upheld the law. Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas voted to hear the administration’s appeal.

The administration said the 2017 state immigrant-sanctuary measure conflicts with federal immigration law and makes it harder to deport people who are in the country illegally.

California argued that encouraging local police to participate in federal immigration enforcement is counterproductive because it makes people less likely to report crimes if they believe they’ll be deported for doing so.

The case is at the heart of long-running tensions between the state and the Trump administration over immigration enforcement. California adopted the measure — which bars local law enforcement from collaborating with immigration enforcement agents except in cases involving more serious crimes — shortly after President Donald Trump took office and stepped up efforts to deport immigrants in the country without legal permission.

Local law enforcement was split on the law. Some felt it tied their hands and allowed criminals to re-offend who previously might have been deported, while others welcomed being able to sever themselves from the administration’s immigration crackdown to preserve the trust of immigrant communities.

On Monday, California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra said decisions concerning public safety are best made in California, not by the administration, and ensuring residents can trust police is critical.

“The last thing we need to do is to erode that trust,” Becerra said in a statement. “Today, America is experiencing the pain and protest that occurs when trust is broken.”

A message seeking comment was left for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Justices revive permit for pipeline under Appalachian Trail

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday paved the way for a critical permit for a proposed natural gas pipeline that would cross under the Appalachian Trail, siding with energy companies and the Trump administration.

The justices ruled 7-2 to reverse a lower court ruling that had thrown out the permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It would bring natural gas from West Virginia to growing markets in Virginia and North Carolina. Its supporters say the pipeline would bring economic development, thousands of jobs and reduced energy costs for consumers.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a majority of the court that the “Forest Service had the authority to issue the permit here.” Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.

Other legal issues remain before construction of the pipeline could begin. The narrow question before the Supreme Court was whether the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to grant rights-
of-way through lands crossed by the Appalachian Trail within national forests, as project developers Dominion Energy and Duke Energy and the Trump administration argued.

The pipeline would run in part through the George Washington National Forest, where a 0.1-mile segment of the pipeline would cross about 600 feet (about 183 meters) beneath the Appalachian Trail.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline spokeswoman Ann Nallo said in a statement that the decision is an “affirmation for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and communities across our region that are depending on it for jobs, economic growth and clean energy” and that they “look forward to resolving the remaining project permits.”

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups had argued that because the 2,200-mile (3,540-kilometer) scenic trail from Georgia to Maine is considered a unit of the National Park System, no federal agency can grant a right-of-way for the pipeline. They say only Congress can approve such a crossing.

The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the environmentalists in 2018 and threw out a special-use permit  for the 605-mile (974-kilometer) natural gas pipeline.

D.J. Gerken, program director for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the environmental groups before the Supreme Court, said they were disappointed with the ruling but that it “doesn’t mean much for this pipeline in the near term” because it is still missing a total of eight required permits.

Gerken said the Forest Service will now need to restart the environmental review process and then decide if it will reissue a permit for the pipeline. The Forest Service still needs to address three other issues cited by the 4th Circuit when it tossed out the permit, including the court’s finding that the agency had failed to fully consider alternative routes to avoid national forests.

“The practical, real-world requirement of having to look for a different route for this thing is still very much on the table,” he said.

The project has had numerous setbacks since plans were first announced in 2014. Legal challenges brought by environmental groups have prompted the dismissal or suspension of eight permits and halted construction for more than a year.

The project is more than three years behind schedule and its original price tag has nearly doubled to $8 billion.

Dominion says the pipeline will bring a critical new gas supply to Virginia and North Carolina to support the shift away from coal and toward intermittent natural resources like solar. The company also says greater availability of natural gas will attract manufacturing businesses.

Environmental groups say the pipeline would scar pristine landscapes, put numerous rivers and streams at risk of increased sedimentation and harm sensitive species.
Associated Press reporter Denise Lavoie contributed to this report from Richmond, Virginia

Court for now stays out of police immunity debate

By Jessica Gresko
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is for now declining to get involved in an ongoing debate by citizens and in Congress over policing, rejecting cases Monday that would have allowed the justices to revisit when police can be held financially responsible for wrongdoing.

With protests over racism and police brutality continuing nationwide, the justices turned away more than half a dozen cases involving the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which the high court created more than 50 years ago. It shields officials, including police, from lawsuits for money as a result for things they do in the course of their job.

As is usual the court didn’t comment in turning away the cases, but Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a 6-page dissent saying he would have agreed to hear one of the cases.

“I have previously expressed my doubts about our qualified immunity jurisprudence,” he wrote, explaining he believes the court’s “qualified immunity doctrine appears to stray from the statutory text.”

As a result of qualified immunity, even when a court finds that an official or officer has violated someone’s constitutional rights, they can still be protected from civil lawsuits seeking money. The Supreme Court has said that qualified immunity protects officials as long as their actions don’t violate clearly established law or constitutional rights which they should have known about.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to wade into the qualified immunity debate follows nationwide protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the death in Minnesota of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died May 25 while being restrained by a white officer.

In Congress, a bill introduced by House Democrats in the wake of Floyd’s death would make it easier for injured individuals to claim damages in civil suits against police offices. The White House, however, has said that provision is a nonstarter and not likely to be part of a Senate Republican bill that’s in the works.

The push for the court to reexamine qualified immunity has come both from the left and right, including Thomas, a conservative, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal. In 2018, when the court said that an Arizona police officer who shot a knife-wielding woman four times was immune from being sued, Sotomayor said the decision “sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public.”

Since then, the court has been asked to take a number of different cases involving qualified immunity. Some of the cases the court rejected Monday were filed at the court more than a year ago and many others had been pending for months, before Floyd’s death and the protests it prompted. The incidents themselves that sparked the lawsuits go back years and in some cases almost a decade.