Supreme Court Sides With Colorado Baker Who Turned Away Gay Couple

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker on Monday in a closely watched case pitting gay rights against claims of religious freedom.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 7-2 decision, relied on narrow grounds, saying a state commission had violated the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom in ruling against the baker, Jack Phillips, who had refused to create a custom wedding cake for a gay couple.

“The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”

The Supreme Court’s decision, which turned on the commission’s asserted hostility to religion, strongly reaffirmed protections for gay rights and left open the possibility that other cases raising similar issues could be decided differently.

“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Elena Kagan and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority but would have adopted broader reasons.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented.

Read the complete article here.

Trump pardons Dinesh D’Souza on felony campaign contribution violation

From today’s CNBC “Politics” site:

Conservative commentator and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza revealed on Friday what he said President Donald Trump told him about why he was getting a pardon.

On Fox News, D’Souza said he didn’t know he was going to get it. “I was just in my office working away. And an operator came on the line and said, ‘Is this Dinesh D’Souza?’ Yes. ‘Hold the line for the president of the United States.’ And there was Trump.”

He said Trump said: “”You’ve been a great voice for freedom. I’ve got to tell you man to man, you’ve been screwed.’ He goes, ‘I’ve been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy.'”

D’Souza, who was convicted in 2014 of making an illegal campaign contribution, said, “[Trump] said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be out there and be a bigger voice than ever defending the principles that I believe in.”

A day earlier, Trump announced on Twitter his decision to pardon D’Souza, an outspoken critic of Democratic former President Barack Obama. D’Souza was prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, an Obama appointee who was later fired by Trump.

Read the complete article here.

Trump Changes Executive Regulations to Ease the Firing of Federal Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Seizing on a longtime ambition of many Republicans, President Trump on Friday overhauled rules affecting at least two million federal workers, making it easier to fire them and rolling back the workplace role of their unions.

Mr. Trump, furthering a goal cited in his State of the Union address this year, signed a series of executive orders affecting disciplinary procedures and contract negotiations and limiting the conduct of union business on government time.

Andrew Bremberg, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the president was “fulfilling his promise to promote more efficient government by reforming our Civil Service rules.”

Past administrations of both parties have argued that Civil Service rules are in need of modernization, but Mr. Trump zeroed in on aspects that create sharp partisan divisions. And the action follows growing acrimony between his supporters and the federal bureaucracy that they portray as the deep state.

Unions representing government workers were quick to denounce the actions. “This is more than union busting — it’s democracy busting,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a statement. “These executive orders are a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress has specifically guaranteed.”

The executive orders come after a series of prominent Republican victories against public employee unions in recent years at the state level and a rollback of Obama-era policies favorable to labor at the federal level.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will rule on a case, propelled by years of conservative philanthropy, that could end mandatory fees for public-sector unions in more than 20 states, dealing a body blow to union coffers.

The Trump administration portrayed its new rules as a needed remedy to make a sclerotic work force more efficient and responsive, but Newt Gingrich, who has been an informal adviser to the White House on Civil Service issues, has given a different explanation in the past.

In an interview last year, when the administration was considering action, Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, said that a major impetus was the federal bureaucracy’s ideological opposition to the Trump agenda.

Read the complete article here.

The face of political corruption in DC? Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Newly released emails show senior Environmental Protection Agency officials collaborating with a conservative group that dismisses climate change to rally like-minded people for public hearings on science and global warming, counter negative news coverage and tout Administrator Scott Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency.

Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

The emails were obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Southern Environmental Law Center through the Freedom of Information Act.

The emails show John Kokus, EPA’s deputy associate administrator for public affairs, repeatedly reached out to the conservative Heartland Institute.

EPA spokesman Lincoln Ferguson says the Heartland Institute is one of a broad range of groups the agency engages with.

Heartland’s Tim Huelskamp says it will continue to work with Pruitt and the EPA against a “radical climate alarmism agenda.”

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS Upholds Workplace Arbitration Contracts Barring Class Actions

From today’s New York Times:

 The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that companies can use arbitration clauses in employment contracts to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues.

The vote was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative justices in the majority. The court’s decision could affect some 25 million employment contracts.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court’s conclusion was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court’s precedents. If workers were allowed to band together to press their claims, he wrote, “the virtues Congress originally saw in arbitration, its speed and simplicity and inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a sign of profound disagreement. In her written dissent, she called the majority opinion “egregiously wrong.” In her oral statement, she said the upshot of the decision “will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well being of vulnerable workers.”

Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to address the matter.

Brian T. Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who studies arbitrations and class actions, said the ruling was unsurprising in light of earlier Supreme Court decisions. Justice Gorsuch, he added, “appears to have put his cards on the table as firmly in favor of allowing class actions to be stamped out through arbitration agreements.”

As a result, Professor Fitzpatrick said “it is only a matter of time until the most powerful device to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds is lost altogether.”

But Gregory F. Jacob, a lawyer with O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, said the decision would have a limited impact, as many employers already use the contested arbitration clauses. “This decision thus will not see a huge increase in the use of such provisions,” he said, “but it does protect employers’ settled expectations and avoids placing our nation’s job providers under the threat of additional burdensome litigation drain.”

Read the complete article here.

Trump Undercuts Giuliani’s Comments About Payments to Stormy Daniels

From today’s New York Times:

President Trump undercut his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani on Friday, and said the former New York mayor will eventually get the facts right regarding a payment to a pornographic actress who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump.

“And virtually everything said has been said incorrectly, and it’s been said wrong, or it’s been covered wrong by the press,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Giuliani, who joined Mr. Trump’s legal team last month, “just started a day ago,” Mr. Trump said, speaking to reporters on Friday as he left Washington to attend a National Rifle Association convention in Dallas.

“He is a great guy,” Mr. Trump said. “He’ll get his facts straight.”

It was the first time the president addressed the inconsistent narrativeabout the payment made by his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to the actress, Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. Mr. Trump did not offer any details on Friday to clarify the confusion, but said, “It’s actually very simple. But there has been a lot of misinformation.”

Mr. Giuliani released a statement Friday trying to clarify the confusion, saying that his “references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters.” He also said there had been no campaign violations in the matter.

The comments capped a week of evolving facts surrounding the Oval Office.

The American public learned its president, once described by a doctor as “the healthiest individual ever elected,” actually wrote that description himself, leaving his health ranking among those who held the office before him a mystery. Mr. Trump also hired an attorney he previously had deniedrecruiting. And the president contradicted himself when, this week, he said he paid back Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 given to Ms. Clifford just days before the election. Last month, the president said he did not know anything about the transaction.

Mr. Giuliani kicked off the confusion about the payment with an interviewon Fox News on Wednesday, surprising even some of Mr. Trump’s other attorneys.

Read the complete article here.

Striking teachers in Arizona win 19 percent raise and end walkout

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The Arizona governor signed a plan Thursday to give striking teachers a 19% pay raise, ending their five-day walkout after a dramatic all-night legislative session and sending more than a million public school students back to the classroom.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s signature awarded teachers a 9% raise in the fall and 5% in each of the next two years. Teachers did not get everything they wanted, but they won substantial gains from reluctant lawmakers.

Striking Arizona teachers win 19% raise, end walkout

“The educators have solved the education crisis! They’ve changed the course of Arizona,” Noah Karvelis of Arizona Educators United shouted to several thousand cheering teachers. “The change happens with us!”

Hours after Ducey acted, strike organizers called for an end to the walkout. Some schools planned to reopen Friday, with others likely to resume classes next week.

The Senate approved the pay raises just before dawn as hundreds of red-shirted teachers followed the proceedings from the lobby, many sitting on the cold stone floor.

The night before, the teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, held a candlelight vigil in a courtyard outside the original neoclassical Capitol building. They stood together with their right hands over their hearts and sang “America the Beautiful.”

Wrapped in blankets or sleeping bags, they napped on the ground or in folding metal chairs, occasionally using cellphones to monitor an online video stream of the legislative debate in the chambers.

Ducey said the teachers had earned a raise and praised the legislation as “a real win” for both teachers and students. The pay increases will cost about $300 million for the coming year alone.

Some teachers returned to the Capitol on Thursday as lawmakers debated the rest of the state’s $10.4 billion budget plan. Among them was Wes Oswald, a third-grade teacher from Tucson who made the two-hour drive for a sixth day.

Oswald said the budget still does not address serious issues such as the need for higher per-pupil spending, raises for support staff and a smaller-student-to-counselor ratio.

Teachers must still fight for those problems to be addressed, Oswald said, adding that “the worst thing would be for this movement to dissolve.”

Arizona Education Assn. President Joe Thomas said Thursday that educators now should focus on a campaign for a November ballot measure that would seek more education funding from an income tax increase on the wealthiest taxpayers.

“The budget is a significant investment, but it falls far short” of what the movement demanded, Thomas said.

Education cuts over the last decade have sliced deeply into Arizona’s public schools. Teachers wanted a return to pre-recession funding levels, regular raises, competitive pay for support staff and a pledge not to adopt any tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

Read the complete article here.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt’s Trip to Australia Organized by Foreign Lobbyist

From today’s New York Times:

A Washington consultant and onetime lobbyist for foreign governments played a central role in attempting to set up a trip to Australia by Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, while the consultant took steps to disguise his role, new documents released this week show.

The disclosures add to the list of individuals from outside the government who have worked to influence foreign travel by Mr. Pruitt. The Australia trip, which was planned for late last year but never took place, was being promoted by Matthew C. Freedman, the chief executive of a consulting firm, Global Impact Inc.

Mr. Freedman has spent decades as an international political consultant and lobbyist, starting in the 1980s as an employee of Paul Manafort when the two men worked together to help the embattled Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Mr. Manafort later became Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman, and many of his former lobbying associates entered Mr. Trump’s orbit.

Mr. Freedman worked on Mr. Trump’s transition team in late 2016. He was removed after he was found to be conducting government business using an email address associated with his consulting firm.

Mr. Freedman could not be reached for comment. The E.P.A. did not immediately respond to questions about Mr. Freedman’s involvement in the Australia trip.

Read the complete article here.

Teachers’ strikes: meet the leaders of the movement marching across America

From today’s The Guardian:

When teachers in West Virginia went on strike in February, there was little indication that a swath of other states would follow suit.

But that action in the Appalachian state, which resulted in teachers winning a 5% pay rise, has spurred on educators in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona.

Teachers in Oklahoma have been on strike since 2 April, while school districts have also walked out in Kentucky. In Arizona, teachers are demanding a 20% pay rise and could go on strike at the end of April.

In some states the protests are being driven from the bottom up, rather than by unions, as teachers and school districts take matters into their own hands.

Here are some of the leaders of the teachers’ strike movement.

Cindy Gaete is a 25-year-old teacher at Marshall elementary school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The daughter of Chilean immigrants, she is currently the only Spanish speaker in her school, which is nearly a third Latino.

She says it is frustrating that in addition to her teaching duties that the lack of Spanish speakers means that any time the schools needs to communicate with parents that she has to serve as translator.

“The first thing I told my principal when I got hired is that if we are a third Latino, there should not be just one Hispanic teacher in your school,” said Gaete.

Inspired to fix her school, she helped lead a 110-mile March for Education that arrived in Tulsa from Oklahoma City.

As teachers are expected to end their strike this week, she says that it’s important for teachers like her to run for office to keep the momentum. On Saturday, Gaete decided to lead by example and file her papers to run for state representative in Oklahoma 78th house district.

“Today I start day one of my campaign for house district 78,” said Gaete in announcing her bid. “For my students. For my community. Because all students deserve an equitable educational experience, regardless of race, socio-economic status and gender.”

Read the complete article here.

The President Is Not Above the Law

From the New York Times Editorial Board:

“This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes,” declared Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican. “But it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up.”

No, Mr. Hatch wasn’t talking about Donald Trump. It was 1999, and he was talking about Bill Clinton.

At that time, the American system — and the flawed yet sometimes heroic people their fellow Americans choose to lead them — underwent, and passed, a hard test: The president, his financial dealings and his personal relationships were painstakingly investigated for years. Prosecutors ultimately accused Mr. Clinton of lying under oath, to cover up a sexual affair. The House of Representatives impeached him, but the Senate declined to convict, and Mr. Clinton stayed in office.spot2.jpg

The public, which learned in detail about everything investigators believed Mr. Clinton had done wrong, overwhelmingly agreed with the judgment of the Senate. It was a sad and sordid and at times distracting business, but the system worked.

Now Mr. Hatch and his fellow lawmakers may be approaching a harsher and more consequential test. We quote his words not to level some sort of accusation of hypocrisy, but to remind us all of what is at stake.

News reports point to a growing possibility that President Trump may act to cripple or shut down an investigation by the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies into his campaign and administration. Lawmakers need to be preparing now for that possibility because if and when it comes to pass, they will suddenly find themselves on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in their hands.

Read the complete article here.