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Media lawyers in Australian court over Cardinal gag order
Court Line | 2019/04/11 00:05

Dozens of high-profile Australian journalists and major media organizations were represented by lawyers in a court on Monday on charges relating to breaches of a gag order on reporting about Cardinal George Pell's convictions for sexually molesting two choirboys.

Reporting in any format accessible from Australia about the former Vatican economy chief's convictions in a Melbourne court in December was banned by a judge's suppression order that was not lifted until February.

Such suppression orders are common in the Australian and British judicial systems, and breaches can result in jail terms. But the enormous international interest in a criminal trial with global ramifications has highlighted the difficulty in enforcing such orders in the digital world.

Lawyers representing 23 journalists, producers and broadcasters as well as 13 media organizations that employ them appeared in the Victoria state Supreme Court for the first time on charges including breaching the suppression order and sub judice contempt, which is the publishing of material that could interfere with the administration of justice. Some are also charged with scandalizing the court by undermining public confidence in the judiciary as well as aiding and abetting foreign media outlets in breaching the suppression order.

Media lawyer Matthew Collins told the court that convictions could have a chilling effect on open justice in Australia. He described the prosecutions as unprecedented under Australian law.

"This is as serious as it gets in terms of convictions, fines and jail time," Collins said. Justice John Dixon urged lawyers to consider whether all 36 people and companies would face a single trial or whether there should be 36 trials.

He ordered prosecutors to file detailed statements of claim against all those charged by May 20 and defense lawyers to file responses by June 21.


Texas bans clergy from executions after Supreme Court ruling
Court Line | 2019/04/03 05:50

Texas prisons will no longer allow clergy in the death chamber after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the scheduled execution of a man who argued his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual adviser couldn’t accompany him.

Effective immediately, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will only permit prison security staff into the execution chamber, a spokesman said Wednesday. The policy change comes in response to the high court’s ruling staying the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the “Texas 7” gang of escaped prisoners.

Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates into the room where they’d be executed, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics.

In light of this policy, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas couldn’t move forward with Murphy’s punishment unless his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing accompanied him.

One of Murphy’s lawyers, David Dow, said the policy change does not address their full legal argument and mistakes the main thrust of the court’s decision.

“Their arbitrary and, at least for now, hostile response to all religion reveals a real need for close judicial oversight of the execution protocol,” Dow said

Murphy’s attorneys told the high court that executing him without his spiritual adviser in the room would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The 57-year-old — who was among a group of inmates who escaped from a Texas prison in 2000 and then committed numerous robberies, including one where a police officer was fatally shot — became a Buddhist while in prison nearly a decade ago.


Philippine Supreme Court orders release of drug war evidence
Court Line | 2019/04/02 05:51

The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the release of police documents on thousands of killings of suspects in the president’s anti-drug crackdown, in a ruling that human rights groups said could shed light on allegations of extrajudicial killings.

Supreme Court spokesman Brian Keith Hosaka said the court ordered the government solicitor-general to provide the police reports to two rights groups which had sought them. The 15-member court, whose justices are meeting in northern Baguio city, has yet to rule on a separate petition to declare President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign unconstitutional.

Solicitor-General Jose Calida had earlier agreed to release the voluminous police documents to the court but rejected the requests of the two groups, the Free Legal Assistance Group and the Center for International Law, arguing that such a move would undermine law enforcement and national security.

The two groups welcomed the court order. “It’s a big step forward for transparency and accountability,” said Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, who heads the Free Legal Assistance Group.

He said the documents will help the group of human rights lawyers scrutinize the police-led crackdown that was launched when Duterte came to office in mid-2016, and the massive number of killings that the president and police say occurred when suspects fought back and endangered law enforcers, Diokno said.

“This is an emphatic statement by the highest court of the land that it will not allow the rule of law to be trampled upon in the war on drugs. It is a very important decision,” said Joel Butuyan, president of the Center for International Law.

“These documents are the first step toward the long road to justice for the petitioners and for thousands of victims of the ‘war on drugs’ and their families,” Butuyan said.

More than 5,000 mostly poor drug suspects have died in purported gunbattles with the police, alarming Western governments, U.N. rights experts and human rights watchdogs. Duterte has denied ordering illegal killings, although he has publicly threatened drug suspects with death.

The thousands of killings have sparked the submission of two complaints of mass murder to the International Criminal Court. Duterte has withdrawn the Philippines from the court.

After holding public deliberations on the two groups’ petitions in 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the solicitor-general to submit documents on the anti-drug campaign, including the list of people killed in police drug raids from July 1, 2016, to Nov. 30, 2017, and documents on many other suspected drug-linked deaths in the same period that were being investigated by police.


Group takes oil refinery fight to North Dakota's high court
Court Line | 2019/03/28 01:05

An environmental group is taking its battle against an oil refinery being developed near Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

The National Parks Conservation Association argued in its Wednesday filing that an air quality permit issued by the state Health Department for the $800 million Davis Refinery and upheld by a state judge violates the federal Clean Air Act.

The Health Department after a two-year review determined the refinery will not be a major source of pollution that will negatively impact the park just 3 miles (5 kilometers) away. The permit the agency issued in June 2018 cleared the way for construction to begin. Meridian Energy Group began site work last summer and plans to resume construction this spring with a goal of having the refinery fully operational by mid-2021.

State District Judge Dann Greenwood ruled in January that the Health Department had effectively supported its position. Greenwood refused to declare the permit invalid and send the case back to the agency for a more rigorous review. The NPCA wants the Supreme Court to overrule him.

"Although the underlying permit contains a requirement for the Davis Refinery to keep monthly logs of its actual emissions ... the permit contains no requirement that the Davis Refinery install monitors to actually collect this data," association attorney Derrick Braaten said.

The group fears that pollution from the refinery will mar the park's scenery and erode air quality for wildlife and visitors. The park is North Dakota's top tourist attraction, drawing more than 700,000 people annually.

"With the decision to appeal, NPCA is fighting to protect the park that has inspired generations of conservationists," Stephanie Kodish, clean air program director for the association, said in a statement.

Roosevelt ranched in the region in the 1880s and is still revered by many for his advocacy of land and wildlife conservation.

Meridian maintains the facility will be "the cleanest refinery on the planet" thanks to modern technology and will be a model for future refineries. The company in a statement Wednesday said it does not comment on pending litigation.

State Air Quality Director Terry O'Clair said he had not had a chance to review the appeal but that "we're confident in the permit that was issued."

Meridian in late January obtained a needed state water permit . It still faces a separate state court battle related to the refinery's location. Two other environmental groups are challenging a decision by North Dakota regulators who concluded they were barred by state law from wading into the dispute over the site.


Supreme Court won't stop bump stock ban
Court Line | 2019/03/27 01:06

The Supreme Court won't stop the Trump administration from enforcing its ban on bump stock devices, which allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns.

The ban took effect Tuesday. Gun rights groups asked the court on Monday to stop the government from enforcing the ban for now. Chief Justice John Roberts declined one request for the court to get involved on Tuesday and a second request was declined by the court on Thursday. That was the only remaining request.

The administration's ban puts it in the unusual position of arguing against gun rights groups.

President Donald Trump said last year that the government would move to ban bump stocks. The action followed a 2017 Las Vegas shooting where bump stocks were used. Fifty-eight people were killed.


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