Tag Archives: law

Concerns raised over massive hog facility

Residents in rural western Illinois are trying to stop a leading U.S. pork producer’s plan for a massive hog facility.

Bernadotte Township residents sent letters to state agriculture officials alleging errors and omissions in Professional Swine Management’s plan for its 20,000-hog confinement, Runway Ridge Farms LLC., the Chicago Tribune reported.

The concerns are similar to those expressed by Wisconsinites concerned with factory farm operations in their state — or across state borders.

The residents said it didn’t account for nearby structures, wells and creeks.

Fulton County commissioners passed a resolution Dec. 13 urging the state to halt action on all new large confinements in the county until the Illinois law governing such operations is reformed.

The resolution is only symbolic because state law doesn’t give local communities much, if any, power over the issue.

However, the resolution did catch the attention of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Her spokesman said the agencies involved in these issues should carefully consider residents’ concern.

“We think it is extremely important that residents are raising concerns about these operations,” said the spokesman to the newspaper.

Professional Swine is considering how or whether to respond to the opposition coming out of Bernadotte Township, and has put on hold construction of Runway Ridge.

Company officials declined to give details on their Fulton County plans or any aspects of their business.

“I think at this point we don’t have any comment on any of these items,” said Julie Totten, chief financial officer.

Professional Swine has installed 27 hog operations with a total of more than 120,000 sows in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, despite periodic opposition from local residents and environmental and animal welfare groups.

Fulton County has at least five of the facilities.

On the Web

Neighbors Opposing a Polluted Environment.

Tougher drunken driving law takes effect Jan. 1

Repeat drunken drivers will face tougher penalties in Wisconsin starting with the new year.

A new law signed by the governor in April makes a fourth drunken driving offense a felony regardless of when it’s committed.

Currently a fourth offense is a felony only if committed within five years of a third offense.

The law also increases the maximum sentence for fifth and sixth offenses from three years to five.

Maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses will increase from five years to seven and a half. The maximum sentence for a 10th or subsequent offense will move from seven and a half years to a decade behind bars.

The measure goes into effect Jan. 1.

Wisconsin remains the only the state that doesn’t criminalize a first offense, however.

On the web

Read about drunken driving laws from MADD.

Failed deal to undo anti-LGBT law marks rocky start for governor

North Carolina’s next Democratic governor has seen a deal he helped broker to repeal the state’s law limiting LGBT protections fall apart and had several of his powers stripped away by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.

And he hasn’t even been sworn in yet.

Gov.-elect Roy Cooper has vowed to keep his campaign promises to bend back the rightward course of the state.

But with only a 10,000-vote victory over GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and bitter partisan distrust in this deeply divided state, he’s already slipped along the rocky path he must walk to work successfully with the legislature. And Republicans will maintain veto-proof majorities in 2017.

“My future negotiations with them are certainly going to have to be instructed by this,” a somber yet angry Cooper told reporters after the deal to repeal the law known nationally as the “bathroom bill” collapsed.

Two December special sessions, one of which saw raucous protests against Republicans and dozens of arrests, have created further strain in a divided state that chose Republicans Donald Trump for president and Richard Burr for U.S. Senate but went with a Democrat for governor.

“There’s a complete lack of trust between the legislative leadership and Cooper at this point in time,” longtime state Democratic consultant Brad Crone said. “That does not bode well for an incoming governor.”

Missing out on ending House Bill 2 — which also directed transgender people to use bathrooms in public buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate — prompted finger-pointing between Cooper and legislative leaders. It would have been a major accomplishment to repeal a bill that has been blamed for job losses, canceled concerts and sporting events and staining North Carolina’s reputation.

“I think Roy Cooper did everything he could to sabotage a reasonable compromise,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

Cooper shot back: “My mom and dad used to tell me that when you sat down and looked somebody in the eye and told them something you should keep your promise, and clearly they have not done so.”

Even before the General Assembly sessions, Cooper already was at a disadvantage.

Cooper is a 30-year veteran of state politics — 14 years in the legislature before 16 as attorney general — and claimed victory on election night.

But it was another 27 days before McCrory conceded while dozens of ballot protests and a partial recount worked out the results.

Set to take office Jan. 1, Cooper hasn’t yet announced a single Cabinet appointment — something McCrory had done by this time after his 2012 election — and faces new hurdles for his choices. One law the General Assembly approved this month requires his Cabinet choices be confirmed by legislators. The state Constitution gives the Senate the ability to “advise and consent” to the governor’s appointees by a majority vote, but that provision hadn’t been used in at least several decades.

GOP legislators argued they are only rebalancing the powers between the legislative and executive branches, but Democrats and their allies call it a brazen, unlawful power grab.

Another law reduces the number of political appointees Cooper can hire. Republicans had expanded the number of such policymaking jobs for McCrory from 400 to 1,500. That number goes back down to 425 for Cooper.

Cooper previously threatened lawsuits to challenge the efforts to scale back his power. “They will see me in court,” he told The Charlotte Observer last week.

Even as lawmakers held special sessions, the board of North Carolina’s private nonprofit tasked with luring companies to the state _ now filled with appointees from McCrory and the legislature — passed a bylaw change that will make it hard for Cooper to put his board choices on quickly.

The bad blood with lawmakers could portend Cooper’s difficulties to follow through on other campaign platform planks, such as accelerating public education funding and shifting tax burdens away from the middle class. He’s also vowed to preserve voting and abortion rights, after Republicans passed laws in 2013 scaling back early in-person voting and extending the abortion waiting period to three days.

But both Cooper and GOP lawmakers have said they could locate areas of agreement.

“I am optimistic that we can strike a good balance with the governor-elect in trying to build a consensus agenda and move our state forward,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. “Relationships have changed between the legislative and the executive branch, but that doesn’t mean … we can’t work together.”

Oklahoma Supreme Court throws out anti-abortion law

The Oklahoma Supreme Court this week threw out a law requiring abortion clinics to have doctors with admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, saying efforts to portray the measure as protecting women’s health are a “guise.”

The law would require a doctor with admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles be present for any abortion. The court found it violates both the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year struck down a similar provision in Texas.

“Under the guise of the protection of women’s health,” Oklahoma Justice Joseph Watt wrote, “(the law) creates an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion, violating protected rights under our federal Constitution,” referring specifically to the Texas case.

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed the measure, Senate Bill 1848, into law in 2014, but courts had blocked it from taking effect. This week’s ruling overturns a lower court’s decision in February that upheld the law.

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights challenged the law on behalf of Dr. Larry Burns, a Norman physician who, at the time the lawsuit was filed in October 2014, performed nearly half of Oklahoma’s abortions.

Burns has said he applied for admitting privileges at hospitals in the Oklahoma City area but was turned down.

Also, at the time, the only other clinic in the state that performed abortions was in Tulsa. However the Trust Women South Wind Women’s Center opened in south Oklahoma City in September and Planned Parenthood opened in the northwest Oklahoma City suburb of Warr Acres in November.

“Today’s decision is a victory for Oklahoma women and another rebuke to politicians pushing underhanded laws that attack a woman’s constitutionally guaranteed right to safe, legal abortion,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but previously has said that bill was passed to protect the health and safety of Oklahoma women.

The court also found that the law violates the Oklahoma Constitution’s ban on measures containing more than one subject, a practice known as logrolling. The law included “12 separate and unrelated subsections,” the court said.

“The sections in SB 1848 are so unrelated and misleading that a legislator voting on this matter could have been left with an unpalatable all-or-nothing choice,” according to the ruling.

The court’s ruling came the same day that the Oklahoma Board of Health approved new requirements for hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants and public schools to post signs inside public restrooms directing pregnant women where to receive services as part of an effort to reduce abortions in the state.

The provision mandating the signs was tucked into a measure the Legislature passed this year that requires the state to develop informational material “for the purpose of achieving an abortion-free society.”

Businesses and other organizations estimate they will have to pay $2.3 million to put up the signs because the Legislature approved no funding for them.

The Legislature and the governor must ratify the board’s rules for the signs before they are scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, board attorney Donald Maisch said.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich this week signed a 20-week abortion ban while vetoing stricter provisions in a separate measure that would have barred the procedure at the first detectable fetal heartbeat. The so-called heartbeat bill would have prohibited most abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

In Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to block additional parts of a contentious Florida abortion law. The lawsuit contends that the law violates constitutional rights by requiring groups to register with the state and pay a fee if they advise or help women seek abortions. The lawsuit also challenges a provision requiring groups to tell women about alternatives to abortion.

Illinois law requires stylists to be trained in domestic violence support

Illinois has a new law requiring stylists in the state to be trained in domestic violence support and response.

The law will take effect Jan. 1.

Pin-Up Hair Studio stylist Jamie Feramisco in Quincy, Illinois, said hairdressers sometimes learn about incidents of domestic violence through chatting with clients.

She said she often hears accounts of domestic violence in her salon and that she tries to support women facing such circumstances.

The mandate was passed as an amendment to the Barber, Cosmetology, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Act of 1985.

The legislation aligns the Professional Beauty Association’s Cut It Out program, which pushes similar efforts.

“The salon is a safe place to go. People tell their stylists things they don’t even tell their family or friends,” PBA Director of Charitable Programs Rachel Molepske said. “We have gotten testimonials from people that said this program saved them.”

Feramisco said she plans to host a training session at the salon once the state has established a curriculum.

“The whole idea is to help hairdressers deal with disclosures. There is a right way and a wrong way to talk to someone. It can make or break the way a person handles their assault,” Quanada Prevention Educator JJ Magliocco said. “We are teaching them that they can make a difference. They don’t have to keep their mouth shut.”

The legislation is HB4264.

Michigan appeals court finds 2014 wolf hunt unconstitutional

A Michigan appeals court has found that the state’s 2014 wolf hunt was unconstitutional and the law allowing it should be struck down.

A three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals made the unanimous ruling in an opinion released this week, the Detroit Free Press reported.

The judges found that a provision of the law that allows for free military hunting, fishing and trapping licenses isn’t connected to the object of the law, which is providing for scientific management of wildlife habitats.

That violates the “title-object clause” in the Michigan Constitution that says the object of a law must be expressed in its title, the judges ruled.

The entire law must be struck down because it’s not clear if the measure would have been approved if that provision wasn’t included, the judges said.

The ruling is in favor of the group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected and overturns an earlier ruling from the Michigan Court of Claims.

The Michigan Legislature in 2014 adopted a voter initiative giving the Michigan Natural Resources Commission and the Legislature joint responsibility to name new game animals.

The initiative came after earlier failed efforts to add wolves to the definition of “game” in Michigan. Keep Michigan Wolves Protected challenged the law.

In the appeals court ruling, judges said the group viewed the law as “a Trojan Horse, within which the ability to hunt wolves was cleverly hidden.” The judges said though that their decision wasn’t based on policy but “on an analysis of the dictates of Michigan’s constitution.”

In December 2014, a federal judge threw out an Obama administration decision to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from the endangered species list — a decision that banned further wolf hunting and trapping in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Florida Supreme Court rules against death penalty

The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row — as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder — was put in limbo by a pair of sweeping rulings issued by the Florida Supreme Court.

In two linked cases — each decided by a 5-2 split — the court ruled that death sentences must require a unanimous jury and struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it.

“Requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before death may be imposed … is a critical step toward ensuring that Florida will continue to have a constitutional and viable death penalty law, which is surely the intent of the Legislature,” the court stated in one of two rulings. “This requirement will dispel most, if not all, doubts about the future validity and long-term viability of the death penalty in Florida.”

At the same time the court ordered a unanimous jury decision, it also opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.

Justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — who was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant with a box-cutter in 1998 — deserves a new sentencing hearing.

A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.

That ruling led the state to halt two pending executions and state legislators rushed to overhaul the law. They gave more sway to juries, including prohibiting a judge from imposing the death penalty if the jury recommended life in prison.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, however, rejected calls to require a unanimous decision from a jury, settling instead for a supermajority of 10 jurors. Prosecutors were strongly opposed to requiring a unanimous jury decision, pointing out that some of the state’s most notorious criminals including serial killer Ted Bundy did not receive a unanimous jury recommendation. An analysis prepared for the Legislature showed that only 21 percent of death penalty sentences handed down over the past 15 years were recommended unanimously.

But a majority of justices disagreed, and Justice Barbara Pariente noted that Florida was one of the few remaining states in the nation that did not require a unanimous jury decision. She said the only way to keep the death penalty “constitutionally sound” was to require a unanimous decision.

Justice Charles Canady, in a strong dissenting opinion, contended that the majority went far beyond what was required by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Justices in their ruling did reject a request that Hurst’s sentence be reduced to life in prison, but they said that because of the new requirement, he deserved to have a jury reconsider his sentence. That decision could lead other death row inmates to ask for the same consideration.

David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said that “based on the way that the opinion is written and the reasoning of the Justices, it would appear that all death penalty sentences imposed in Florida require a new sentencing hearing.” Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that, at the least, the 43 inmates whose death penalty cases are still on direct appeal deserve to be resentenced.

The sweeping decision got a muted response from Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose offices said they were reviewing it.

Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi’s office, said that ongoing murder cases could proceed as long as juries were instructed that a unanimous decision was required. But Marty McClain, a long-standing death penalty attorney who filed a legal brief in one of the cases, contended it would be a risky move for prosecutors to proceed until the Legislature acts.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.

Incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran blasted the ruling and said it was an ongoing effort to “subvert the will of the people.”

“This decision is indicative of a court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result,” said Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’ Lakes. “That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state.”

New law gives break to controversial debt buyers

Last summer, Sandra Goodwin was sued by Jefferson Capital Systems for $5,562 in overdue debt. But Goodwin had never heard of or done business with the company.

“The paperwork said I was being sued,” said Goodwin, a former Madison resident who now lives in Stoughton. “I mean, I panicked.”

Goodwin sought free legal advice from Stacia Conneely, an attorney at the Madison branch of the nonprofit law firm Legal Action of Wisconsin. Conneely determined Jefferson Capital had purchased Goodwin’s debt — stemming from an online class she signed up for but never took — from LifeWay Credit Union.

Goodwin’s debt is a small part of the multi-billion-dollar debt-buying industry that recently won a legislative victory in Wisconsin. Such companies buy and sell the right to collect debt, but consumer advocates say the result is sometimes a bill that the consumer may not recognize for an amount that cannot be verified from a company they have never heard of.

Wisconsin consumers have filed more than 2,000 complaints over the past four years with the state Department of Financial Institutions against debt collectors, including such debt-buying companies, outstripping complaints against payday lenders and auto loan-title lenders combined, a Wisconsin Public Radio analysis found. Many of these complaints were about threats or other improper telephone behavior, and some were about attempts to collect debt from the wrong person.

When a creditor such as a credit card company decides it cannot collect, the debt can be sold for pennies on the dollar to a third-party debt buyer. Then, debt buyers try to collect through traditional methods, such as phone calls, or they can sue for repayment.

According to a 2013 Federal Trade Commission report, however, 90 percent or more of people sued never show up in court. If a defendant fails to appear, the judge often issues a default judgment, allowing the creditor to garnish wages and put liens on real estate or other property.

Unlike most states, some consumer debt in Wisconsin is erased after six years. Nationally, the FTC found that slightly over 12 percent of the debt purchased was more than six years old, which would put it beyond the statute of limitations in Wisconsin.

Organizations including the FTC, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Consumer Law Center and Human Rights Watch have all called for stronger regulation of debt buyers, especially in court proceedings.

A bill signed into law March 1 by Gov. Scott Walker sends Wisconsin the opposite way, consumer advocates say. The law standardizes but in some cases lowers how much proof debt collectors must present in court at the beginning of a lawsuit.

“It moves in the exact wrong direction,” said Stoughton consumer attorney Mary Fons, who testified against the bill authored by state Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.

Representatives from the Wisconsin Creditors’ Rights Association, which pushed the bill, did not respond to requests for comment by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Born also declined comment.

When Born first proposed the measure in 2013, it was one of the few times the state Department of Financial Institutions had opposed a bill during Walker’s tenure, said Peter Bildsten, former secretary of the state Department of Financial Institutions. In an interview, Bildsten said he was “very concerned about the lack of protection here in Wisconsin for borrowers like that.”

 

The ‘telephone game’

By the time someone is sued by a debt buyer, how much is owed and to whom it is owed may be unrecognizable.

The FTC found that debt buyers often received very little information about the debts they purchased, usually packaged in one spreadsheet with many other debts. And the accuracy of the information is not guaranteed. The likelihood that the information is inaccurate grows as the debt ages.

“It’s sort of like the telephone game,” Conneely said. “It starts here, and by the time it comes around … years later, who knows what you’re going to see and what information is available?”

She said in Goodwin’s case, Jefferson Capital had purchased her debt, which originated from an online school called The College Network.

Goodwin said she never took the online course she signed up for, and she tried unsuccessfully to cancel it. Although she did sign a promissory note in 2011, Goodwin said she was legally blind at the time because of a stroke and did not know what she was signing.

The law firm representing Jefferson Capital did not return messages seeking comment.

Conneely said she is working on an out-of-court settlement.

The debt buying industry is thriving. Third-party debt buyers recovered approximately $55.2 billion in 2013, earning close to $10.4 billion in commissions and fees, according to a 2014 Association of Credit and Collections Professionals report. By the FTC’s count, there are now “hundreds, if not thousands” of debt buyers.

Wisconsin’s online circuit court database shows that between 2003 and March 22 of this year, Jefferson Capital, the company that sued Sandra Goodwin, had filed 2,630 cases against Wisconsin consumers. Nearly 3,000 cases have been filed by major debt buyer Portfolio Recovery Associates — one of nine firms that comprise more than three-fourths of the debt purchased nationwide.

 

‘Sewer service’ and ‘zombie debt’

In some cases, alleged debtors are never notified of the lawsuit, ensuring a no-show in court and a win for the creditor. In a practice sometimes called “sewer service,” a collector falsifies records saying a summons was served when it was not, figuratively throwing the papers in the sewer. In 2010, New York’s attorney general sued to throw out about 100,000 judgments that had been obtained this way.

Another illegal strategy used by some companies is collecting on expired debt. In Wisconsin, consumer debt generally expires after six years. Wisconsin and Mississippi are the only states where certain debts are completely extinguished once they are past that statute of limitations.

Debt that is past that date but which creditors continue to pursue has been referred to as “zombie debt.”

It is a violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to file an action in court to collect an expired debt. But Fons confirmed that creditors sometimes do secure judgments on these so-called zombie debts “because they (companies) don’t get caught very often.”

From 2011 through 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions received 2,351 complaints about debt collectors, including third-party buyers, Wisconsin Public Radio found.

At the federal level, Wisconsin consumers have filed more than 1,100 complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since July 2013 about all kinds of debt collectors. Americollect, a Manitowoc-based collections agency that uses the slogan “ridiculously nice collections,” was the most complained-about company with 44 complaints. “Debt was paid” and “debt is not mine” were common reasons cited in the complaints.

 

Debate surrounds debt buyer law

The new law signed by Walker standardizes but in some cases loosens the required proof at the beginning of a

lawsuit for these kinds of legal actions under the Wisconsin Consumer Act. Creditors and third-party debt buyers now must provide a single billing statement as proof at the beginning of a lawsuit.

Under the previous standard, they were required to show all documents “evidencing the transaction,” which could include the initial contract and a record of any charges and additional fees or interest.

Born said in a press release after the Assembly passed his bill in November that the legislation “closes a loophole that has been exploited by bad actors to avoid paying debts.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison finance professor Jim Johannes, who testified in favor of the bill, said in an interview that the new law “provides clarity for the courts.”

“Previously … the courts could interpret it any way they wanted to,” he said.

Johannes said he believes the new law will protect consumers while preventing people from getting out of paying their debts.

Conneely said the new law has created a different type of loophole — one that benefits creditors. Now, the required billing statement can be drawn up any time the creditor chooses. It may not include crucial information about the account’s history, she said.

Editor’s note: This story was provided by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

 

Education Department to publish database of schools seeking permission to discriminate against LGBT students

The U.S. Department of Education will publish a searchable database identifying educational institutions that have sought or received an exemption from federal civil rights law in order to discriminate against LGBT students.

The Human Rights Campaign had called on the the department to publish a database.

“We have been alarmed by the growing trend of schools quietly seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT students, and not disclosing that information publicly,” said Chad Griffin, president of HRC, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group. “We are encouraged that the Department of Education is answering our call for greater transparency to help ensure no student unknowingly enrolls in a school that intends to discriminate against them. We believe that religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our nation, however, faith should never be used as a guise for discrimination.”

HRC called for action after releasing a comprehensive report, Hidden Discrimination: Title IX Religious Exemptions Putting LGBT Students at Risk.

In the report, HRC spotlighted 56 colleges and universities in 26 states across every region of the country — which collectively have nearly 120,000 students — that have requested religious exemptions under Title IX since 2013. The report referred to one school in Wisconsin — Maranath Baptist Bible College.

The institutions have utilized a little-known provision in the law that allows educational institutions controlled by a religious organization to request an exemption from full compliance with the law if “application of the law would conflict with specific tenets of the religion.”

Specifically, HRC called on:

• The Department of Education to require schools to publish comprehensive information about the scope of the exemption they received and the way in which Title IX still protects students.

• The Department of Education to regularly report which educational institutions have been granted Title IX religious exemptions, the scope of those exemptions, and ensure the information is provided on the individual schools’ landing page as part of College Navigator.

• Congress to amend the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights governing statute to require OCR to annually report the number of Title IX exemptions that were requested, granted, and denied. LGBT students face discrimination and harassment at an alarming rate.

While the Education Department has little discretion to deny the requests for exemptions, religiously controlled educational institutions should not be exempt from full transparency, Griffin said.

According to a 2010 study, lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students are nearly twice as likely to experience harassment when compared with their non-LGB peers and are seven times more likely to indicate the harassment was based on their sexual orientation.

In the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, one-fifth of transgender students reported that they were denied gender-appropriate housing and 5 percent reported outright denial of campus housing.

LGBT college students also suffer from higher rates of sexual assault and misconduct on America’s campuses; transgender and gender nonconforming students report one of the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct.