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Legal news from Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cuba government announces release of 2,900 political prisoners
Sarah Posner on December 24, 2011 2:51 PM ET

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[JURIST] The Cuban government announced Friday that the country will grant amnesty to and free 2,900 prisoners including those convicted of political crimes. The announcement was motivated by humanitarian concerns [AP report], in an effort by President Raul Castro to establish good will in anticipation of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba scheduled for next spring. Alan Gross, a US citizen who is serving a 15-year prison sentence [JURIST report] for installing internet equipment as part of a US program, will not be pardoned [Reuters report] along with the thousands of other prisoners. The ruling Council of State took into account appeals for amnesty from both Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and family members of the prisoners. However, the head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights criticized the amnesty as merely meant to protect Cuba's image rather than a signal of real reform. Cuba has had a history of allegedly rooting out political dissent [HRW backgrounder] through criminal prosecutions.

In March, a court in Cuba sentenced Gross to 15 years in prison for attempting to undermine the communist government of Cuba. US National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor immediately denounced the ruling, calling the 15-year sentence an "injustice." Before this incident, the historically strained relations between the US and Cuba had shown signs of improvement. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama [official profile] ordered [JURIST report] the Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security [official websites] to take steps to ease restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba.

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EU policy chief criticizes trial of Ukraine ex-PM Tymoshenko
Sarah Posner on December 24, 2011 2:15 PM ET

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[JURIST] The European Union (EU) [official website] foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton [official website] on Saturday criticized [press release,PDF] the outcome of the appeals case for former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko [personal website; JURIST news archive], announced December 23. Ashton voiced concern over Tymoshenko's prior trial, alleging that the appeals process did not address the failures of the original trial to provide a fair and independent process by international standards. Ashton further voiced regret that Tymoshenko will be prevented from participating in the parliamentary elections next year. She said that the EU stresses the need for an impartial and transparent appeals process. The EU delayed signing an agreement [Kyiv Post report] with the Ukraine on political association and free trade in order to address this issue.

On Thursday, Tymoshenko announced [JURIST report] that she will discontinue all appeals [JURIST report] and that she will solely rely on the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] to intervene [ECHR case materials] in her conviction. Tymoshenko is under indefinite detention after being denied release [JURIST reports] last week. Tymoshenko's prosecution has been highly controversial [JURIST comment] and has drawn harsh criticism internationally. Last week, the European Commission [official website] expressed its concern regarding a lack of transparency of Ukrainian hearings in prison, and declared that such a process does not correspond to the jurisprudence of the ECHR. In November, the Ukrainian Parliament voted against [agenda text] hearing amendments that may have freed [JURIST report] Tymoshenko by fining her rather than sentencing her for her criminal convictions.

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DOJ rejects new South Carolina voter ID law
Sung Un Kim on December 24, 2011 12:10 PM ET

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[JURIST] The US Department of Justice [official website] (DOJ) Friday rejected [decision text, PDF] a controversial South Carolina voter identification law [R54 materials]. The DOJ has authority under the Voting Rights Act [Cornell LII backgrounder] to screen new voter laws in states with a history of discriminatory voter practices. The South Carolina law, enacted to prevent voter fraud, would have required residents to present a current government-issued ID to cast a ballot. However, Assistant US Attorney General Thomas Perez said the voter-ID requirement resulted in significant racial disparities and that South Carolina had not met its burden to show that these disparities would not have a discriminatory effect on minority voters.
In sum, however analyzed, the state's data demonstrate that non-white voters are both significantly burdened by section 5 of Act R54 in absolute terms, and also disproportionately unlikely to possess the most common types of photo identification among the forms of identification that would be necessary for in-person voting under the proposed law ... Until South Carolina succeeds in substantially addressing the racial disparities described above, however, the state cannot meet its burden of proving that, when compared to the benchmark standard, the voter identification requirements proposed in section 5 of Act R54 will not have a retrogressive effect.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley [official website] and the state Attorney General Alan Wilson [official website] said [McClatchy report] that they are going to appeal the DOJ ruling of the DOJ. Wilson pointed to the US Supreme Court upheld [JURIST report] a similar law in Indiana.

In August, the South Carolina's Senate Minority Caucus filed an objection [JURIST report] with the DOJ asking for rejection of the new voter ID law. They argued that the new law is too restrictive because it required voters to have both a valid and current identification which would have the result of excluding persons whose licenses are revoked or suspended. This objection followed a previous attempt by several South Carolina civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] (ACLU) and the League of Women Voters of South Carolina [advocacy website] who argued [JURIST report] in their letter [text, PDF] to the DOJ that the new voter ID law would have discriminatory effect. There are now 30 US states that require voters to present some form of ID at the polls, including 14 states that require photo ID, but the issue remains controversial. In Wisconsin, several civil rights groups filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] this month challenging the new voter identification law [2011 Wisconsin Act 23]. In June, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon [official website] vetoed [JURIST report] a law requiring persons to present photo identification at voting booth. In March, the Georgia Supreme Court [official website] upheld [JURIST report] a law requiring voters to present one of six government-issued photo identifications in order to vote. In contrast, a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] struck down [JURIST report] a portion of Arizona law requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration in October last year.

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Michigan governor signs law banning benefits for public employees' domestic partners
Sung Un Kim on December 24, 2011 11:10 AM ET

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[JURIST] Michigan Governor Rick Snyder [official website] Thursday signed into law a bill [HB 4770 text, PDF] prohibiting public employers from providing medical or other fringe benefits to their employees' domestic partners. Snyder provided a signing statement [text, PDF] noting that a new definition of public employer in the bill excludes university employees. He said this is necessary based on various Michigan Supreme Court cases and the several sections of the Michigan Constitution, including Article VIII, Section 5 [text, html], Section 6 [text, html] and Article XI, Section 5 [text, html], that give institutions of higher education authority over the control and direction of all expenditures of the institutions' funds. HB 4770 passed in the state Senate earlier this month passed the House in September. The Michigan American Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] (ACLU) criticized the bill with Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director, saying [press release] that its approval during the holiday season is merely "mean-spirited and cruel." Moss said the organization will prepare to challenge the law during the next few weeks.

Many states, like Michigan, are facing issues pertaining to benefits for same-sex partners. Last month, the ACLU filed a brief [JURIST report] against a similar bill in Montana where the State approved a law that denied partnership benefits to same-sex couples. They argued that the new law violates of the Montana Constitution. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in September that a bill [text, PDF] rescinding health benefits for same-sex couples in the public sector is against the equal protection clause of the Arizona Constitution.

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For more legal news check the Paper Chase Archive...


Unprecedented Notice of Warrantless Wiretapping in a Closed Case
Ramzi Kassem
CUNY School of Law

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