By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Published: December 31, 2013 | Updated: December 31, 2013 at 04:38 PM
TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge ruled today that a 2011 law requiring welfare applicants to undergo drug tests is unconstitutional, striking a blow to Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over the controversial tests.
Scott quickly said he would appeal U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven’s ruling, the latest defeat for the governor in a drawn-out battle over drug testing some of the state’s poorest residents.
Scriven ruled that the urine tests violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
In a harshly worded, 30-page opinion, Scriven concluded that “there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied.”
A federal court has rejected the Obama Administration’s invocation of state secrets privilege in a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation challenging the NSA’s sweeping surveillance program.
The lawsuit, called Jewel vs. NSA, “challenges an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet communications surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency and other Defendants in concert with major telecommunications companies,” according to the initial complaint. Though the case was initially filed in 2008, The Guardian’s recent report on NSA surveillance programs, based on leaks by Edward Snowden, appear to support the EFF’s claims in the lawsuit.
The Obama Administration had asked for the suit to be dismissed because, it argued, state secrets privilege barred information about the case from being released without “jeopardiz[ing] national security,” and that information was central enough to the case that it could not continue without it. But U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White wrote in his opinion that “[g]iven the multiple public disclosures of information regarding the surveillance program, the Court does not find that the very subject matter of the suits constitutes a state secret.” Though White added in his opinion that there is additional evidence that should be “properly excluded” should the case proceed.
A federal judge has struck down Idaho’s law banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on beliefs held by physicians and others that the fetus is able to feel pain at that point.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled late Wednesday in favor of Jennie Linn McCormack, who was 33 at the time she decided to challenge the state’s so-called fetal pain law and other abortion laws.
Idaho was one of seven states to adopt fetal pain laws in 2011, following in the footsteps of Nebraska’s approval of the law in 2010. But those laws are no longer the most restrictive. This week, lawmakers in Arkansas overrode a veto of a near-ban on the abortion procedure starting from the 12th week of pregnancy.
In his 42-page decision, Winmill sided with McCormack and her attorney, Richard Hearn, declaring Idaho’s fetal pain law places an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion. The judge also took the Legislature - dominated by Republicans in both chambers - to task for the motives driving adoption of the law, finding that efforts to protect a fetus don’t outweigh a women’s right to choose.
The judge found “compelling evidence of the legislature’s `improper purpose’ in enacting it,” Winmill wrote. “The state may not rely on its interest in the potential life of the fetus to place a substantial obstacle to abortion before viability in women’s paths,” he said.
The ruling also finds unconstitutional at least two other Idaho laws dealing with abortion that Hearn and McCormack also challenged.
A judge on Friday rejected claims by the Mennonite owners of a Lancaster County furniture maker that new federal health-care mandates violate their free-speech and religion rights by making them pay for employees’ contraceptive services.
In a 34-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg said the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. did not prove that complying with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act amounted to a “substantial burden” on their religious rights or that they qualified as a “religious employer” for an exemption.
The decision was the latest in a string of conflicting rulings across the country, but the first in the Third U.S. Judicial Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Lawyers say the issue could end up before the Supreme Court.
Conestoga, an East Earl-based furniture maker owned and operated by Norman Hahn and his family, had previously excluded contraceptive services such as the morning-after pill from the insurance coverage it offered its 950 employees.
Last month, the Hahns claimed in a lawsuit that the new law would unconstitutionally force them to offer such options, which they called a “sinful and immoral” affront to the Mennonite Christian beliefs on which they run their company. Violating the law, they said, would subject them to crippling fines - $95,000 a day, or $100 for each employee nationwide.
They also argued that the free-speech rights that the Supreme Court recognized for corporations in the 2010 Citizens United case should be extended to corporations’ religious rights.
Citing the potential for significant harm against the company, Goldberg issued a 14-day temporary restraining order late last month, and barred government officials from imposing the fines. Lawyers for both sides appeared before the judge last week.
Attorneys arguing on behalf of the Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services countered that the claim was baseless because the new regulations apply to insurers and secular corporations, not their owners, and because the act gives workers options but does not force any to use them. The American Civil Liberties Union also filed an amicus brief siding with the government.
At last month’s sentencing of Jared Loughner in Tucson, U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns surprised some reporters by wading into the debate over guns.
On Thursday he showed that was no accident.
Burns, a self-described conservative appointed by Pres. George W. Bush, published a passionate op-ed in the Los Angeles Times Thursday calling for a ban on buying or even possessing “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines. He wrote:
Bring back the assault weapons ban, and bring it back with some teeth this time. Ban the manufacture, importation, sale, transfer and possession of both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Don’t let people who already have them keep them. Don’t let ones that have already been manufactured stay on the market. I don’t care whether it’s called gun control or a gun ban. I’m for it.
Burns, who normally presides over a courtroom in San Diego, tipped his hand on the issue Nov. 8 in Tucson. In what appeared to be spontaneous remarks he said, “I don’t understand the social utility of allowing the public to have magazines with 30 bullets” and went on to ask that the country “balance the social utility of having those things against the harm caused in this case.”
Read the rest here at the blog of Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star.