O’Connor, first woman on US Supreme Court, has died at 93
WASHINGTON — Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, an unwavering voice of moderate conservatism and the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court, died Friday. She was 93. O'Connor died in Phoenix, of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness, the Supreme Court said in a news release. Chief Justice John Roberts mourned her death. "A daughter of the American Southwest, Sandra Day O'Connor blazed an historic trail as our Nation's first female Justice," Roberts said in statement issued by the court. "She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor." In 2018, she announced that she had been diagnosed with "the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer's disease." Her husband, John O'Connor, died of complications of Alzheimer's in 2009. O'Connor's nomination in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan and subsequent confirmation by the Senate ended 191 years of male exclusivity on the high court. A native of Arizona who grew up on her family's sprawling ranch, O'Connor wasted little time building a reputation as a hard worker who wielded considerable political clout on the nine-member court. The granddaughter of a pioneer who traveled west from Vermont and founded the family ranch some three decades before Arizona became a state, O'Connor had a tenacious, independent spirit that came naturally. As a child growing up in the remote outback, she learned early to ride horses, round up cattle and drive trucks and tractors. "I didn't do all the things the boys did," she said in a 1981 Time magazine interview, "but I fixed windmills and repaired fences." Judicial record On the bench, her influence could best be seen, and her legal thinking most closely scrutinized, in the court's rulings on abortion, perhaps the most contentious and divisive issue the justices faced. O'Connor balked at letting states outlaw most abortions, refusing in 1989 to join four other justices who were ready to reverse the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that said women have a constitutional right to abortion. Then, in 1992, she helped forge and lead a five-justice majority that reaffirmed the core holding of the 1973 ruling. "Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality, but that can't control our decision," O'Connor said in court, reading a summary of the decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." Thirty years after that decision, a more conservative court did overturn Roe and Casey, and the opinion was written by the man who took her high court seat, Justice Samuel Alito. He joined the court upon O'Connor's retirement in 2006, chosen by President George W. Bush. In 2000, O'Connor was part of the 5-4 majority that effectively resolved the disputed 2000 presidential election in favor of Bush, over Democrat Al Gore. O'Connor was regarded with great fondness by many of her colleagues. When she retired, Justice Clarence Thomas, a consistent conservative, called her "an outstanding colleague, civil in dissent and gracious when in the majority." She could, nonetheless, express her views tartly. In one of her final actions as a justice, a dissent to a 5-4 ruling to allow local governments to condemn and seize personal property to allow private developers to build shopping plazas, office buildings and other facilities, she warned that the majority had unwisely ceded yet more power to the powerful. "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property," O'Connor wrote. "Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing ... any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory." Pioneer role O'Connor, whom commentators had once called the nation's most powerful woman, remained the court's only woman until 1993, when, much to O'Connor's delight and relief, President Bill Clinton nominated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The current court includes a record four women. The enormity of the reaction to O'Connor's appointment had surprised her. She received more than 60,000 letters in her first year, more than any one member in the court's history. "I had no idea when I was appointed how much it would mean to many people around the country," she once said. "It affected them in a very personal way. People saw it as a signal that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for women. It's important to parents for their daughters, and to daughters for themselves." At times, the constant publicity was almost unbearable. "I had never expected or aspired to be a Supreme Court justice," she said. "My first year on the court made me long at times for obscurity." Following her retirement, O'Connor expressed regret that a woman had not been chosen to replace her. O'Connor remained active in the government even after she retired from the court. She sat as a judge on several federal appeals courts, advocated for judicial independence and served on the Iraq Study Group. She also was appointed to the honorary post of chancellor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. O'Connor cited her husband's struggle with Alzheimer's disease as her primary reason for leaving the court. After moving into an assisted living center, John O'Connor struck up a romance with a fellow Alzheimer's patient, a relationship experts say is not uncommon among people with dementia. The retired justice was relieved that he was comfortable and happy at the center, according to her son, Scott. Leading opinions On the bench, O'Connor generally favored states in disputes with the federal government. She often sided with police when they faced claims of violating people's rights. In 1985, she wrote for the court as it ruled that the confession of a criminal suspect first warned about his rights may be used as trial evidence, even if police violated the suspect's rights in obtaining an earlier confession. A 1991 decision written by O'Connor said police do not violate the Constitution's ban against unreasonable searches and seizures when they board buses and randomly ask passengers to consent to being searched. In a 1994 decision, O'Connor said police officers need not stop questioning and seek clarification when a criminal suspect makes what might have been an ambiguous request for legal help. O'Connor wrote for the court in 1992, when it said prison guards violate inmates' rights by using unnecessary physical force even if no serious injuries result, and in 1993, when it ruled that employers may be guilty of illegal sexual harassment even in the absence of any psychological harm. In 2004, O'Connor wrote the majority opinion that went against the Bush administration in ruling that an American citizen seized on the Afghanistan battlefield can challenge his detention in U.S. courts. "We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens," O'Connor wrote. O'Connor once described herself and her eight fellow justices as nine firefighters: "When (someone) lights a fire, we invariably are asked to attend to the blaze. We may arrive at the scene a few years later." Leaving the court O'Connor announced her retirement in a one-sentence written statement. She cited her age, then 75, and said she "needs to spend time" with her family. Her official resignation letter to Bush was similarly succinct. "It has been a great privilege indeed to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms," the justice wrote. "I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure." "For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good," Bush told her in a private call not long after receiving her letter, an aide said. Then, in the Rose Garden outside the Oval Office, he praised her as "a discerning and conscientious judge and a public servant of complete integrity." O'Connor was 51 when she joined the court to replace the retired Potter Stewart. A virtual unknown on the national scene until her appointment, she had served as an Arizona state judge and before that as a member of her state's Legislature. The woman who climbed higher in the legal profession than had any other woman did not begin her career auspiciously. As a top-ranked graduate of Stanford's prestigious law school, class of 1952, O'Connor discovered that most large law firms did not hire women. One Los Angeles firm offered her a job as a secretary. Perhaps it was that early experience that shaped O'Connor's professional tenacity. While workweeks typically stretched to 60 hours or more, she found time to play tennis and golf. Before her husband developed Alzheimer's, they danced expertly and made frequent appearances on the Washington party circuit. They have three sons: Scott, Brian and Jay. In late 1988, O'Connor was diagnosed as having breast cancer, and she underwent a mastectomy. She missed just two weeks of work. That same year, she had her appendix removed. O'Connor was embarrassed in 1989 after conservative Republicans in Arizona used a letter she had sent to support their claim that the United States is a "Christian nation." The 1988 letter, which prompted some harsh criticism of O'Connor by legal scholars, cited three Supreme Court rulings in which the nation's Christian heritage was discussed. O'Connor said she regretted the letter's use in a political debate. "It was not my intention to express a personal view on the subject of the inquiry," she said. Funeral plans were not immediately available.
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Federal judge blocks first TikTok app ban
HELENA, Mont. — Montana's first-in-the-nation law banning the video-sharing app TikTok in the state was blocked Thursday, one month before it was set to take effect, by a federal judge who called the measure unconstitutional. The ruling delivered a temporary win for the social media company that has argued Montana's Republican-controlled Legislature went "completely overboard" in trying to regulate the app. A final ruling will come at a later date after the legal challenge moves through the courts. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said the ban "oversteps state power and infringes on the Constitutional right of users and businesses" while singling out the state for its fixation on purported Chinese influence. "Despite the state's attempt to defend (the law) as a consumer protection bill, the current record leaves little doubt that Montana's legislature and Attorney General were more interested in targeting China's ostensible role in TikTok than with protecting Montana consumers," Molloy wrote Thursday in granting the preliminary injunction. "This is especially apparent in that the same legislature enacted an entirely separate law that purports to broadly protect consumers' digital data and privacy." Montana lawmakers in May made the state the first in the U.S. to pass a complete ban on the app based on the argument that the Chinese government could gain access to user information from TikTok, whose parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing. The ban, which was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, was first brought before the Montana Legislature a few weeks after a Chinese spy balloon flew over the state. It would prohibit downloads of TikTok in the state and fine any "entity" — an app store or TikTok — $10,000 per day for each time someone "is offered the ability" to access or download the app. There would not be penalties for users. TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown issued a statement saying the company was pleased that "the judge rejected this unconstitutional law and hundreds of thousands of Montanans can continue to express themselves, earn a living, and find community on TikTok." A spokeswoman for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, also a Republican, tried to downplay the significance of the ruling in a statement. "The judge indicated several times that the analysis could change as the case proceeds," said Emily Cantrell, spokeswoman for Knudsen. "We look forward to presenting the complete legal argument to defend the law that protects Montanans from the Chinese Communist Party obtaining and using their data." Western governments have expressed worries that the popular social media platform could put sensitive data in the hands of the Chinese government or be used as a tool to spread misinformation. Chinese law allows the government to order companies to help it gather intelligence. More than half of U.S. states and the federal government have banned TikTok on official devices. The company has called the bans "political theatre" and says further restrictions are unnecessary due to the efforts it is taking to protect U.S. data by storing it on Oracle servers. The company has said it has not received any requests for U.S. user data from the Chinese government and would not provide any if it were asked. "The extent to which China controls TikTok, and has access to its users' data, forms the heart of this controversy," the judge wrote. Attorneys for TikTok and the content creators argued on Oct. 12 that the state had gone too far in trying to regulate TikTok and is essentially trying to implement its own foreign policy over unproven concerns that TikTok might share user data with the Chinese government. TikTok has said in court filings that Montana could have limited the kinds of data TikTok could collect from its users rather than enacting a complete ban. Meanwhile, the content creators said the ban violates free speech rights and could cause economic harm for their businesses. Christian Corrigan, the state's solicitor general, argued Montana's law was less a statement of foreign policy and instead addresses "serious, widespread concerns about data privacy." The state hasn't offered any evidence of TikTok's "allegedly harmful data practices," Molloy wrote. Molloy noted during the hearing that TikTok users consent to the company's data collection policies and that Knudsen — whose office drafted the legislation — could air public service announcements warning people about the data TikTok collects. The American Civil Liberties Union, its Montana chapter and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy rights advocacy group, have submitted an amicus brief in support of the challenge. Meanwhile, 18 attorneys generals from mostly Republican-led states are backing Montana and asking the judge to let the law be implemented. Even if that happens, cybersecurity experts have said it could be challenging to enforce.
Wisconsin unions sue to reverse bargaining limits
MADISON, Wis. — Seven unions representing teachers and other public workers in Wisconsin filed a lawsuit Thursday attempting to end the state's near-total ban on collective bargaining for most public employees. The 2011 law, known as Act 10, has withstood numerous legal challenges over the past dozen years and was the signature legislative achievement of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who used it to mount a presidential run. The latest lawsuit is the first since the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped to liberal control in August. But it was filed in a county circuit court — unlike other major cases that have gone directly to the Supreme Court since its ideological shift — and will likely take more than a year to make its way up for a final ruling. The Act 10 law effectively ended collective bargaining for most public unions by allowing them to bargain solely over base wage increases no greater than inflation. It also disallowed the automatic withdrawal of union dues, required annual recertification votes for unions, and forced public workers to pay more for health insurance and retirement benefits. The law's introduction in 2011 spurred massive protests that stretched on for weeks. It made Wisconsin the center of a national fight over union rights; catapulted Walker onto the national stage; sparked an unsuccessful recall campaign; and laid the groundwork for his failed 2016 presidential bid. The law's adoption led to a dramatic decrease in union membership across the state. The lawsuit filed by teachers and other public workers on Thursday alleges Act 10's exemption of some police, firefighters and other public safety workers from the bargaining restrictions violates the Wisconsin Constitution's equal protection guarantee. The complaint notes that those exempted from the restrictions endorsed Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial election, while those subject to the restrictions did not. A similar argument was made in a federal lawsuit alleging that Act 10 violated the equal protection guarantee in the U.S. Constitution. But a federal appeals court in 2013 said the state was free to draw a line between public safety and other unions, and the following year again ruled that the law was constitutional. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2014 also upheld the law as constitutional, rejecting a lawsuit brought by teachers and Milwaukee public workers. That case raised different arguments than the current lawsuit. And in 2019, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit brought by two arms of the International Union of Operating Engineers that argued the law violates free speech and free association under the First Amendment. The Wisconsin courts should follow the lead of the Missouri Supreme Court, which struck down a law resembling Act 10 in 2021 based on similar arguments, union attorney Jacob Karabell said in a written statement. If the case reaches the Wisconsin Supreme Court, it's unclear who would actually hear it. Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose win this year tilted majority control of the court 4-3 in favor of liberals, said during the campaign that she believes Act 10 is unconstitutional. She also told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she would consider recusing herself from any case challenging the law. Protasiewicz participated in protests against the law and signed the petition to recall Walker. Conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn was Walker's chief legal counsel and had a role in drafting the Act 10 law. But during his successful run for the court in 2015, Hagedorn would not promise to recuse himself if a case challenging Act 10 came before the court. If the latest lawsuit in Wisconsin is successful, all public sector workers who lost their collective bargaining power would have it restored. They would be treated the same as the police, firefighter and other public safety unions who remain exempt. "The end of Act 10 would mean that we would have a real say again in our retirement plans, health care and time off — without the threat of loss of our union every year," Wayne Rasmussen, who works for the Racine Unified School District, said in a statement. Rasmussen is one of three individuals named in the lawsuit along with the unions. He is vice president of the Service Employees International Union of Wisconsin, which represents health care workers and others. Walker, in a statement to The Associated Press, accused "union bosses" of attempting to regain power. "Multiple federal and state courts have upheld Act 10," he said. "It is constitutional and it is working." Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said repealing the law, which allowed schools and local governments to raise money through higher employee contributions for benefits, would bankrupt those entities. "This is another attempt by liberal special interest groups to undo the law to please their donors now that there's been a shift in the court," Vos said. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' administration was named as a defendant in the lawsuit since it is charged with implementing the law. But Evers opposed Act 10 at the time, when he was the state education secretary, and he also signed the Walker recall petition. Spokespersons for Evers and for the state Department of Justice, which is charged with defending the state in the lawsuit, did not return email and text messages seeking comment.
Verdicts & Settlements
Tractor-trailer crash leads to seven-figure settlement; $1.05 million settlement
Action: Commercial motor vehicle collision Injuries alleged: Multiple orthopedic injuries requiring two hand surgeries and 26 months of treatment Case name: Withheld Court: Marlboro County Mediator: Kurt Rozelsky Amount: $1.05 million High-low agreement: Date: May 2023 Attorneys: Douglas E. Jennings and Alexandra Heaton of Yarborough Applegate; Douglas Jennings, Jr. and Mason King of Douglas Jennings Law Firm (for the plaintiff) On Aug. 26, 2020, a tractor-trailer ran a red light at S.C. Highway 9 and Oakwood Street in Bennettsville, causing a T-bone collision with the plaintiff. The truck driver initially provided a story that was inconsistent with an eyewitness’ account. When a plain-clothes law enforcement officer approached the scene, the truck driver said he “tried to beat the light.” The tractor-trailer was equipped with a dashcam; however, the trucking company misplaced the SD card containing the video from the date of the collision and was unable to produce it despite immediate requests from plaintiff’s counsel to preserve the video. Cellphone records of the truck driver obtained via subpoena also revealed that he was on his phone at the time of the collision. The case was settled in May 2023, several months after mediation, for $1.05 million.
Agreement struck in fatal carbon monoxide poisoning; $2 million settlement
Action: Civil rights Injuries alleged: Case name: Danielle Washington as personal representative of the estate of Calvin Witherspoon, Jr. v. Housing Authority of the city of Columbia (aka Columbia Housing Authority) Court/case no.: U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina / 3:21-cv-00148-JFA Judge: Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr.; mediator William B. “Kip” Darwin Jr. Amount: $2 million Date: Oct. 30, 2023 Most helpful expert: Attorneys: Richard A. Hricik of The Law Offices of Richard A. Hricik, Mount Pleasant, and Amanda C. Duré of Pangia Law Group, Washington D.C. (for the plaintiff) This was a 42 USC 1983 civil rights lawsuit brought against the Columbia Housing Authority on behalf of the family of Calvin J. Witherspoon, Jr. who died from carbon monoxide poisoning on Jan. 17, 2019, at the Allen Benedict Court Apartments in Columbia. The poisoning was caused by a fuel-fired furnace in the Columbia Housing Authority complex. The Columbia fire chief’s investigation noted that there were no carbon monoxide detectors in any unit as was required by the city and state fire codes and that the death was entirely preventable through regular furnace maintenance. The investigation also revealed more than 869 code violations, including faulty and missing smoke detectors, exposed wires, stoves leaking natural gas and expired fire extinguishers. The conditions resulted in the fire chief ordering the evacuation of all tenants as the conditions, “constituted a clear and imminent threat to human life, safety, or health.” The housing authority subsequently razed the property. Plaintiff alleged that the authority acted with “deliberate indifference to the risk of harm” in its maintenance of the complex, including failing to install carbon monoxide alarms as required by law, resulting in Witherspoon’s death. The District Court dismissed the case in August 2021 on grounds that included the authority didn’t have actual knowledge of a prior carbon monoxide leak and found no constitutional rights violation. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit on an appeal, stating: “At bottom, the facts alleged in this case shock the conscience: a public housing authority’s deliberate indifference to a risk of harm that threatened numerous families living in low-income housing. What is more, two men died because of that indifference, several more were hospitalized, and an entire community was evacuated. Substantive due process exists as the ‘last line of defense’ against such official abuses of power that are so arbitrary as to shock the conscience of the court.” After the Appeals Court’s decision, the parties entered settlement negotiations. An agreement was reached that the authority’s insurer would pay the remainder of its policy of $400,000 and the authority would pay $1.6 million.
Prisoner denied treatment for infectious abscess; $950,000 verdict
Action: Jail neglect Injuries alleged: Large hole in skull, headaches, short-term memory loss and mild aphasia; noneconomic damages include past pain Case name: Rhoads vs. Aiken County Detention Center Court/case no.: Aiken County Court of Common Pleas / 2020-CP-02-02238 Judge: Eugene Griffith Demand: $50,000 early in the case; $125,000 by time of trial Highest offer: $20,000 Amount: $950,000 Date: Oct. 13, 2023 Attorneys: Francis "Brink" Hinson of HHP Law Group, Columbia, and Patrick McLaughlin of Wukela Law Firm, Florence (for the plaintiff); Andrew Lindemann of Lindemann Law Firm, Columbia (for the defendant) Plaintiff was 28 when she was held at the Aiken County Detention Center as a repeat offender for relatively minor crimes (shoplifting and bad checks) and more serious ones (burglary and drug distribution). A few days into her detention, she complained of a growing “bump” on the side of her head. For the next three weeks, plaintiff repeatedly complained about the bump and reported that it had grown larger and become very painful. Several witnesses (both detainees and guards) testified that the swollen area on the side of plaintiff’s head eventually grew to be as large as grapefruit. Although plaintiff was seen numerous times by the jail’s medical staff, the health care professionals simply prescribed pain medications and treated the swollen place as if it was related to a minor trauma. Not receiving medical care, plaintiff lodged a “peaceful protest” during recreation time and said that she would not return to her cell and would only go to a hospital. The jail’s staff responded by treating this peaceful protest as barricading and placed her in solitary confinement. About 26 days after the “bump” on her head was first noticed and about 14 days after it had become shockingly large, plaintiff lost consciousness and was finally taken to a local hospital where a tremendous infectious abscess on the side of her head was diagnosed. The abscess was so large and had been there so long that it had destroyed a large section of plaintiff's skull, invaded her brain and caused a right-to-left shift of the brain. Claims against the medical staff were settled before trial. The sheriff’s office primary defense position was essentially, “The correctional officers have the right to rely on our third-party medical staff.” Plaintiff’s response was that a prisoner with an obviously serious, worsening medical condition should be taken to the hospital regardless of what medical staff members say.