Archive for the 'Court' Category

Wrongful Death Lawsuits Against Celebrities

Criminal cases against celebrities always get a lot of media attention—especially since celebrities seem to invariably escape criminal liability. However, many of these same celebrities who avoid criminal charges end up losing to cases brought in civil court.

Robert BlakeThere’s a reason for this: civil court has a lower standard of evidence. Where criminal cases must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” civic cases often only require a “preponderance of the evidence.” Even the civil standard of “clear and convincing evidence” is less of a burden than the criminal standard.

For example, the actor Robert Blake was acquitted in criminal court on a charge for the murder of his wife. However, in a civil case for wrongful death brought by his wife’s children, he was found liable and was required by pay $15 million.

This is similar to the case of O.J. Simpson, who was famously acquitted for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman but was found responsible in the 1996 wrongful death lawsuit brought by their families. The families were awarded $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. (To date Simpson has paid less than one percent of the damages.)

The recent murder case of football player Aaron Hernandez is unique in that Mr. Hernandez was found guilty in criminal court. Following his recent conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the first degree murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd.

Hernandez is currently facing additional charges for a double homicide in 2012. The families of the victims in this case filed wrongful death lawsuits against Hernandez in 2014. Each lawsuit demanding $6 million.

Judge Directs Couple to Get Married after Woman Attempts to Light Her Boyfriend on Fire

Courts have handed a number of creative sentences over the last few years. Judges have ordered criminal defendants to wear signs outside the store they shoplifted from and buy flowers for their estranged wives. In western Pennsylvania, Quenesia Catasphany plead guilty to reckless endangerment. Last October, Ms. Catasphany had doused her boyfriend, Andrew White, with lighter fluid. Judge Joseph Williams III gave Ms. Catasphany an unusual option: Judge Williams could work out a lesser sentence if Ms. Catasphany and her boyfriend/victim got married.

pennsylvania judgeThe reasoning behind Judge William’s proposal was rather simple. Catasphany was pregnant and would give birth to their fourth child two days later. Catasphany had accused her then boyfriend of having an affair and threatened to set White on fire. In the judge’s eyes, Catasphany lacked stability in her life. So in the hearing on March 23, Judge Williams proposed the two of them get married. If they did, Judge Williams stated they “might be able to work this out better.”

Later that day, Catasphany and White got married. Judge Williams personally married the couple himself. Catasphany told local media that she was very grateful for the opportunity to better their relationship and she appreciated the judge speaking on her behalf.

Married by Duress or Happy Ever After?

Catasphany seems to be happy with the end result, but there’s no word on whether her new husband is happy with the arrangement. Getting doused with lighter fluid and then having a judge arrange the victim’s marriage to the attacker doesn’t sound like a very romantic engagement. If one of the new spouses becomes unhappy, could Catasphany or White use their unusual marital circumstances as a way to untie the knot?

Theoretically, Catasphany and White could claim Judge Williams had coerced them into getting married. Marriage by duress would mean that the parties didn’t consent to being married and the marriage could be annulled.

This sounds good in theory, but courts interpret duress very narrowly. Catasphany was forced to make a choice between marriage and getting a higher sentence, but it was still her choice. Likewise, White could have declined the judge’s proposal and refused to marry the woman who threw lighter fluid at him.

In all the prior creative sentencing, the judge’s alternative sentence did not continue indefinitely. Using state power to convince people to get married is potentially a life sentence, a sentence longer than any jail time the judge could hand down for this particular crime. It’s also a continual relationship between a potential domestically violent relationship. Given the nature and length of this “sentence,” Catasphany and White each should have consulted an attorney before making a life-impacting decision.

Judge Williams proposal was reasonable, but expecting the couple to make a decision within three days meant that Catasphany and White couldn’t possibly foresee all the problems this alternative sentence might cause them in the future. Best of luck to the newlyweds.

How Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act Will Backfire

I’m glad Governor Mike Pence signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act (RFA). The law is intended to allow businesses to discriminate against homosexuals. However, the RFA’s text is so broad the RFA could backfire on the conservatives passing the act.

Religious Objections-ProtestThe RFA actually doesn’t mention homosexuality or sexual orientation anywhere in its text. Instead, the RFA states that governments cannot impose any law that would substantially burden a person’s religious exercise without a compelling government interest. In English, the government cannot force a person to obey a law if that law would place a heavy burden on that person’s religious practice unless the government can show it has a very good reason for enforcing that law. Note that the RFA counts businesses as people.

Businesses that want to discriminate against homosexuals may do so if: 1) The business has a religious belief against homosexuals, 2) The government cannot give a very good reason for why it wants to force that business to violate its religious beliefs, and 3) The government cannot show that the violation of the business’s religious beliefs is the least restrict means of enforcing the law. The real twist is that the RFA can be invoked as a defense against a private lawsuit.

For example, a florist operates her flower shop as a sole proprietor. The florist refuses to sell flowers to two men who are getting married because the florist believes the Bible prohibits same-sex marriage. The couple sues the florist for discrimination. The florist can invoke the RFA and argue that the court cannot force her to serve the couple because it would be a violation of her religious beliefs.

The RFA Will Backfire Enormously

The RFA is written broadly so that a court wouldn’t void a law based on discrimination against homosexuals. Although the RFA avoids that problem, writing the law broadly means that other people can use the law for unintended purposes. After the Supreme Court ruled Hobby Lobby was exempt from Obamacare, Satanists attempted to exempt abortions from informed consent laws based on their religious beliefs. The same idea could be used to twist the RFA so that the conservatives who passed the RFA will come to despise the very law they enacted.

The ideas are endless. A restaurant could refuse to serve gun owners because the restaurant’s religious pacifism prevents it from serving gun owners. High school and university libraries could refuse to handout creationist textbooks because such textbooks violate the librarian’s belief in evolution (evolution is not based on religion, but creationists don’t recognize the distinction). Abortion clinics could serve women and ignore all criminal statutes against abortion by asserting the clinic has a religious belief that fetuses aren’t people.

Many people are currently protesting the enactment of the Religious Freedom Act. Governor Pence and state legislators probably won’t overturn the RFA, even if the law would cost the state millions of dollars from large organizations boycotting Indiana. However, the best way to protest the RFA is to use it in a way Governor Pence and other Republicans won’t expect the law to be used.

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Did the Execution of Cecil Clayton Violate the 8th Amendment?

Cecil Clayton, 74, was killed by lethal injection Tuesday night at a Missouri prison. He was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1996, and was given the death penalty by the jury. This case may seem like a typical “murderer gets put on death row” scenario, but Clayton is an exception. It’s possible the Missouri Supreme Court violated his fundamental right of protection from cruel and unusual punishment due to his mental condition.

Cecil Clayton ExecutedIn 1972, when Clayton was 32, he suffered from an extremely serious work accident. He was working on a sawmill when a piece of wood shot out and impaled him in his skull. In order for the doctors to remove the piece of wood, they also had to remove 20% of his brain. The part they extracted was from the frontal lobe, which controls impulse control, basic judgment, memory, social behavior, and other important function.

Before the accident, Clayton was a happy, sober, married man, who was a hard worker with a clean record. After the accident, he was diagnosed with chronic brain syndrome, paranoia, schizophrenia, and depression.

Last month, a psychiatrist evaluated Clayton and deemed him incompetent to be eligible for execution due to his mental state. His lawyers made many attempts to halt the execution, even bringing the case to the Supreme Court. But in a 4 to 3 vote, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Clayton did not meet the requirements to be considered incompetent and therefore an execution was lawful.

According to the Eighth Amendment, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”. In 2002, the case Atkins v Virginia determined that death to a mentally disabled person was unconstitutional. Executing an inmate who is intellectually disabled directly violates the Eighth Amendment. An inmate must be aware of their impending death, and fully understand why they are being executed.

Clayton was neither aware nor understood. He not only suffers from the mental illnesses described above, but he is also intellectually disabled; having an IQ of only 71. This qualifies Clayton as mentally disabled and he should not have been executed due to his fundamental protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

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Supreme Court to Decide If States Can Ban Same-Sex Marriage

It’s happening, whether you like it or not. In 2013, Justice Scalia predicted that the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage would inevitably lead to a Court decision invalidating state laws banning same-sex marriage. Two years later, Scalia’s prophecy has come true.

EP-141009361The Supreme Court has agreed to hear four cases that would decide if states can ban same-sex marriage. The decision will be announced in June. If the Court finds against the state bans, then same-sex marriage will be legal everywhere in the United States.

The cases themselves are a mixed bag of issues. One couple was wed in New York in 2011 and went to Ohio in 2013 to adopt a child. Ohio refused to list both men on the birth certificate, citing a state law that limited parentage to one father because Ohio only recognized marriages between one man and one woman. In Michigan, a lesbian couple sued to have their relationship recognized so that they could adopt each other’s children if one of them passed away. The third couple met and was married in New York, but Tennessee refused to recognize their marriage when they moved to the state for work. The last couple was married in California, but the men moved to Kentucky to adopt children.

The Court has combined the four cases to address two questions:

  1. Does the 14th Amendment require states to recognize marriages between two men or two women?
  2. Does it require states to recognize a same-sex marriage that was lawfully performed in another state where such marriages were legal? The four cases come from the Sixth Circuit, which decided 2-1 that the authority to legalize same-sex marriage comes from voters, not the courts.

The Path to Recognition

Most commentators (including yours truly) would be shocked if the Court found against same-sex marriage. It is possible that the Court would rule against same-sex marriages, but precedent makes that unlikely. The Court only recently announced that the federal government cannot distinguish between same-sex and heterosexual marriages. The main question is how the Court will make the decision. Here are a few ideas on how the Court could go about doing that:

  • Discrimination based on sexual orientation – this is the main argument being pushed, but sexual orientation has not officially been recognized by the Court as a protected class.
  • Discrimination based on sex – Old fashioned sexism is an idea the Court has dealt with before. The logic is a little flawed though because states that ban same-sex marriage prohibit both men and women from entering into a same-sex marriage.
  • Right to Marriage – This right has been well established from interracial marriage cases. However, recognition of same-sex marriage based purely on a right to marriage would limit other rights that homosexuals could have.
  • Full Faith and Credit – This clause in the Constitution is suppose to require that states recognize contracts, including marriages, formed in other states. If the Court fails to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country, states that ban same-sex marriage may still be required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

The details of how the Court recognizes same-sex marriage is important. As mentioned, if the Court only recognizes a right to marriage without equal protection, then states can enact other laws restricting same-sex couples. Many businesses, such as wedding photographers and bakeries, are already refusing to serve same-sex couples.

It’s also important to realize that even if the Court rules that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States, states will still resist. Many states are preparing laws in anticipation of such a decision. Oklahoma has proposed a law that would allow parents to take their children to gay conversion therapy. Similarly, South Carolina has proposed a bill that would allow government employees, including judges and court clerks, to opt out of issuing marriage licenses if issuing such licenses would violate their religious beliefs.

The battle over same-sex marriage might soon be over, but the war over homosexuality may yet continue in conservative states.