Tag Archives: order

U.S. court overturns Wisconsin legislative maps

A federal three-judge panel on Nov. 21 ruled that Wisconsin’s legislative maps are unconstitutional.

The ruling came in a case filed by 12 Wisconsin Democrats who sued more than a year ago and an appeal is likely.

A press statement said this is the first time a map has been overturned by a federal court for being gerrymandered for political reasons.

“The ruling in Whitford v. Gill (formerly Whitford v Nichol) is a stunning victory for democracy,” said Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Election Project, which organized and launched the lawsuit. “The citizens of Wisconsin will now have a chance to elect a government which represents us.”

“This is a victory for democracy — not just for Democrats, but for all Wisconsin citizens,” stated Sen. Dale Schultz, a former Republican Majority Leader of the Wisconsin State Senate who co-chairs the Fair Elections Project. “Everyone benefits from a fair elections process that moderates the worst tendencies of extremists in both parties.

“What happened in Wisconsin in 2011 was an egregious violation of our state’s moral values,” added Sen. Tim Cullen, a former Democratic Majority Leader of the Wisconsin State Senate who served as the other co-chair. “Instead of voters choosing their elected officials, the Republican majority in Wisconsin decided they would entrench themselves in power despite the views of voters. The court has said today that will not stand.”

Originally filed in July 2015, the lawsuit demanded the district maps for the state Legislature be thrown out, calling the line-drawing process “secretive” and “partisan,” and the maps unconstitutional for overly advantaging one party.

The plaintiffs said the lawsuit fulfills a call issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in previous cases for a standard to measure how much partisan gerrymandering is allowable and shows how Wisconsin’s map is “far outside acceptable redistricting norms.”

A trial was conducted before the federal panel in Madison in May.

“I’m very pleased with this decision,” said lead plaintiff Bill Whitford. “It is truly historic. As a lifelong Democrat, the court’s decision recognizes the power of my voice and the voices of all other Democrats across the state. This decision could have a monumental impact in ensuring that voters’ voices are heard across the nation, regardless of party. I want fair elections, where the voters have the power, not a gerrymander for either side created by self-interested politicians. That’s what today’s decision is all about.”

“Today is a historic day and I am thrilled with the result not only for our plaintiffs, but for all Wisconsin voters,” stated lead trial attorney Peter Earle. “This decision will finally give voters in Wisconsin the power they deserve to shape their democracy. Now a fairer system will be created here in Wisconsin so all voters, not just a select few, will be able to have their voices heard.”

Gerry Hebert, director of the Voting Rights and Redistricting Program at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., had this to say: “This is truly a monumental victory for the plaintiffs in this case, but more importantly this is an historic moment for our nation and the betterment of democracy,” said . The Campaign Legal Center joined the case in the months leading up to trial.

The court did not rule on a remedy, ordering further rounds of briefing and potentially testimony in the coming weeks.

Reaction to the ruling …

• “The Department of Justice is evaluating the court’s 159-page decision and we plan to appeal,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. “This 2-1 decision does not affect the results of this month’s election or any prior election and legislative district boundaries remain unchanged until the court rules on any remedy.”

Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said:  “Voters should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around. Today’s ruling is a victory for democracy and the people of Wisconsin.

“Once again, a court has declared the Republican’s 2011 legislative maps unconstitutional. This is an historic victory for voters and a further admonishment of the extremely slanted maps that trample the democratic will of the people of Wisconsin.

“I want to thank the voters who came forward to bring this challenge and who bravely stood up for not only their own voting rights, but for the rights of all Wisconsinites.”

Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said: “Today’s ruling is an overwhelming victory for Wisconsin voters.  The citizens of our state have demonstrated their shifting opinions over the years by voting for candidates and majorities of both parties.  These unconstitutional maps drawn in 2011 represent a direct attack on that freedom, and a successful attempt by Republicans to avoid responsiveness and accountability to their own constituents.  Now that it is clear that these actions were unconstitutional, I am hopeful that the courts will move forward in implementing maps that will better represent the geography of our state and the will of its people.”

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Under Republican rule for the last six years, we have seen a deliberate and concerted effort to rig Wisconsin’s elections.  They made it harder for students to register to vote, deliberately disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters with an unnecessary Voter ID law, eliminated Wisconsin’s non-partisan elections watch-dog and now it is confirmed, they drew Wisconsin’s legislative districts so regardless of the votes cast, Republicans would maintain legislative control.

“Today’s ruling is a win for all voters in Wisconsin.  No matter where you live or what your political beliefs are — every Wisconsinite’s vote should be valued, protected and treated equally and fairly under the law.  I applaud the court’s decision today and it should serve as a strong reminder to my Republican colleagues that justice always prevails and the power truly belongs to the people, not donors, lobbyists or conservative special interests.”

• Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, remarked: “There are only two things that are certain about this case:  it’s unprecedented and it isn’t over. The ruling can and should be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state of Wisconsin has competitive legislative districts that meet every traditional principle of redistricting. Republicans win elections because we have better candidates and a better message that continues to resonate with the voters.

“The court has essentially created a brand new test that is significantly flawed and is an encroachment by the court into the legislature’s duties. The new standard ignores Wisconsin’s political geography where Democrats are naturally clustered in urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison.  We remain fully confident that the maps were constitutional when adopted, and will remain so when this case is finally concluded.”

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said: “Today’s court ruling recognizes the Republican abuse of power as going too far in shutting out our neighbors’ voices in elections.

“Attempts to suppress the public’s voice by politically gerrymandering districts in order to weaken the voting power of targeted groups is a betrayal of our fundamental freedoms and values. The ruling today should serve as strong warning to Wisconsin and as a clear precedent to other states. If we were outsiders taking a real look at the flawed, unfair, and undemocratic voting system that one party rule has thrust upon our state, I am certain the majority of us would be shocked and outraged.

Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said: “We’ve known for years that Republican politicians have abused their power to rig Wisconsin elections in their favor. From disenfranchising voters, limiting polling places, restricting voting hours and drawing unconstitutional legislative districts, Republican politicians have waged an unprecedented attack on our democratic values. Every voter deserves to have their voice heard and I am relieved that our judicial system is helping to hold Republicans accountable for their unconstitutional partisan power grabs.”

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Martha Laning added: “The Republican 2011 legislative maps – created in secret – have been declared unconstitutional by the courts. This is a historic victory for our democracy and all of the voters in the great state of Wisconsin.

“I look forward to the creation of new district lines that respect Wisconsin’s tradition of fair and open government and ensure that all of the people and communities in our state are represented equally.”

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.”

Former cabinet members: Top Scott Walker aide ordered them to avoid state email, phones

Two former members of Gov. Scott Walker’s cabinet say the administration has had a policy of communicating official business through private channels.

The allegations come as the Walker administration faces criticism for cutting public access to internal text messages and other so-called transitory state records.

Peter Bildsten, former secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions, and Paul Jadin, former head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said they were instructed in Walker’s first term by then-Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch not to use official email or state telephones to relay important information or documents.

Bildsten said Huebsch, Walker’s top aide, gave this warning at a cabinet meeting: “Don’t send me an email of anything important on my state computer, and don’t call me on anything of importance on my state phone. If you have anything of consequence or importance, call me on your personal phones or walk it over.”

“And that,” Bildsten said, “is how most communications were handled going forward.”

Bildsten said Walker was at most cabinet meetings early in his first term, but he does not remember if the governor attended that specific session, which he believes occurred in the first half of 2011.

Jadin, the first chief executive of WEDC, had a similar recollection of Huebsch’s stance. Jadin said he remembers Huebsch “bragged” about not using email and “making a big deal about what emails were discoverable.”

In recent months, the Walker administration has told requesters that records sought under the public records law no longer exist — deeming them transitory, or of limited usefulness. The records in dispute include logs of visitors to Walker’s Executive Residence and correspondence about a failed $500,000 loan from WEDC to a Walker donor that has sparked calls for a criminal investigation.

Huebsch, who now serves on the Public Service Commission, denied he told cabinet members “to avoid making public records” and said the allegation that he told them not to use state telephones is “ludicrous.” He acknowledged that he repeatedly addressed cabinet members regarding email to ensure that top officials understood their communications could be made public.

“I did not direct them to never use email, I told them to be prepared that anything they write, or more accurately an edited version of their email that fits a pre-written story, could show up on the front page of the newspaper, so review emails carefully before sending,” Huebsch said in an email to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

“Email is often spur of the moment, sometimes emotion driven communication,” he added. “It can include irony, sarcasm or thoughts intended as jokes that, when taken literally or out of the full context of the conversation can appear to mean something very different, even completely opposite of what was intended.

“In this era of ‘gotcha’ politics, where opponents and some journalists use anything available not just to embarrass but destroy, extra caution is essential.”

Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster also denied there was a policy of communicating privately about state business.

“We frequently remind members of the administration that they should not email or text anything that they do not want to see on the front page of the (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel,” Webster wrote in an email.

“This statement highlights that our office complies with the open records law. The governor’s office retains email and text messages conducting state business, including those sent to/from personal emails or cell phones, and produces them in response to open records requests.”

Informed of Huebsch’s response, Jadin said he does not recall a specific directive but added, “I was left with the impression that he (Huebsch) did not want to be contacted using state technology.”

Bildsten said he stands by his recollection of Huebsch’s order. He said the secretary operated as the “junior governor” to Walker, and his admonition to conduct important state business away from state email and phones was “loud and clear.”

Bildsten said he recalled Huebsch telling the group, “I don’t want to see anything of consequence on a state email.”

“We only had to hear that once,” Bildsten said. “Anything else was at your own peril.”

Probe included records law

This is not the first time that a Walker administration has been accused of conducting the public’s business in private.

The so-called John Doe I investigation — which netted convictions against six aides, associates and appointees of Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive — uncovered a secret Internet wireless router in Walker’s office suite. The probe also unearthed tens of thousands of pages of private emails and other electronic messages in which Walker and his aides routinely mixed county business with campaign work.

Court records filed in July also showed Cindy Archer — who held the comparable role in Milwaukee County government to Huebsch’s job in the Walker administration — was under criminal investigation in 2010 and 2011 for allegedly violating the state’s public records law by routinely using private email to conduct county business and coordinating which county records to release to the public with members of Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. No charges were ever filed.

This summer, the Wisconsin State Journal filed a public records request for text messages sent and received between Huebsch and his deputy, Chris Schoenherr, over a $500,000 unsecured state loan in 2011 to a top Walker campaign contributor’s company that went belly up.

The State Journal revealed Huebsch had pushed for the WEDC loan to Building Committee Inc., which was owned by Walker donor William Minahan. The $500,000 loan to the collapsing Milwaukee construction firm created no jobs and was never repaid. The state has sued to recover the money.

In response to the State Journal’s request for Schoenherr’s text messages, the agency told the newspaper there were no such messages — although records about BCI released in June indicated there had been such communication.

DOA spokesman Cullen Werwie cited the definition of “transitory records,” which the state Public Records Board had altered on Aug. 24 — two days before the agency notified the State Journal there were no such messages. Werwie did not answer questions about when the text or texts were deleted and whether that deletion followed the administration’s policies.

The public records law prohibits officials from destroying a record for 60 days after a requester has been denied access or until litigation is completed.

Christa Westerberg, an attorney for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, said the administration appears to be “over-zealously interpreting the term ‘transitory record.’ ”

“To allow government employees to make on-the-spot decisions to destroy what they view as ‘transitory’ records isn’t what the law appears to envision, and invites excessive destruction,” Westerberg said. “In my opinion, the state shouldn’t be allowing destruction of text messages or other records based on the new definition of ‘transitory’ at this time.”

On Monday, the nonprofit Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council filed a complaint with Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne alleging the Public Records Board violated the open meetings law by failing to notify the public about its intended actions. (Full disclosure: Westerberg and two Center leaders — executive director Andy Hall and managing editor Dee J. Hall — serve as members of the council.)

In response to the complaint, Public Records Board chairman Matthew Blessing on Thursday said the board would “revisit” the earlier action and “place those items on a detailed agenda for an upcoming meeting.”

He said the board had thought the changes were “relatively routine and uncontroversial,” however, “public concern over the management of transitory records has led the board to reevaluate the matter.”

Blessing, state archivist at the State Historical Society, added that the content — not the format — of a record determines whether it should be retained. He said the board recommends that government officials not use text messages due to their “unstable nature.”

Attempt to evade public scrutiny?

Wisconsin FOIC president Bill Lueders said allowing state officials to destroy records about government dealings is contrary to the spirit of the public records law.

“If I send a letter to the street superintendent of Neenah complaining about the sidewalk in front of my house, he has to keep it for seven years,” said Lueders, a former Center reporter. “If a state official text messages about somebody who’s in the process of making away with half a million dollars of the public’s money, they can destroy that at will?”

And the reported policy of shunning official government email and phones to do state business raises many questions, he said.

“It’s an obvious effort to evade detection, and to me it’s indicative that the people involved feel as though they have some reason to hide, or something to hide,” Lueders said. “Really, why go through such exertions to avoid creating records if what you’re doing is on the up-and-up?”

Bildsten, a former bank executive, served just over four years under Walker. He said he resigned under pressure, effective in April, after refusing to promote Walker’s plan to merge his agency, the Department of Financial Institutions, with the state Department of Safety and Professional Services, as part of the governor’s budget. Walker later dropped that plan.

Bildsten said he complied with Huebsch’s directive about important records. Rather than emailing documents, Bildsten said he carried them, even in bad weather, several blocks to Walker’s office in the Capitol or to Huebsch’s office on East Wilson Street.

Jadin, who left less than halfway through Walker’s first term, said he largely ignored the admonitions about avoiding state phones and email. He characterized Huebsch’s approach as too inefficient.

University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Robert Drechsel, a member of the state Freedom of Information Council, said such a policy appears to be aimed at shielding state government from public scrutiny.

“Over the years a remarkable range of strategies have been used to try to circumvent open records laws,” said Drechsel, who teaches media law and also heads the UW-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics. “One is for government officials to communicate without creating any physical record of what they say and do. Technically, this might be legal.

“But if the goal is to avoid creating a record that would document and provide insight into decision-making and avoid the inconvenience or embarrassment of public scrutiny, I’d say it’s ethically wrong. It is not government in the public interest.”

Excerpt from Wisconsin public records law

“(I)t is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.

“To that end, (the public records law) shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

— Chapter 19, Wisconsin public records law

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

ACLU again challenging Madison’s anti-panhandling ordinance

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin on Aug. 11 notified Madison officials that a recent appeals court case makes clear that the city’s anti-panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional.

Three years ago, Madison banned people from even peacefully soliciting donations in most of downtown.

“Back in 2012, we wrote to the city of Madison and told them that the ordinance appeared to be unconstitutional,” said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “And last week’s case from the federal court of appeals in Chicago — invalidating an almost identical law from Springfield, Illinois — shows we were right.”

On Aug. 7, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled that by prohibiting people from asking for donations, the Springfield ordinance unconstitutionally discriminated based on the content of a speaker’s words, in violation of the First Amendment.

“Not only must Madison repeal its anti-panhandling ordinance, but it also needs to stop trying to criminalize homelessness,” Rotker said in a news release. “Instead, the city should move forward with positive steps to resolve the problem, such as establishing a day shelter and vigorously pursuing the Zero:2016 plan to end veterans homelessness this year and chronic homelessness by the end of 2016.”

Scott Walker in Philly: American, not Cheez Whiz on cheesesteak

The governor of the nation’s top cheese-producing state visited the capital of cheesesteaks on July 28 and ordered two topped with American, skipping the customary Cheez Whiz but avoiding the blunder of a former presidential candidate who was ridiculed for wanting his with Swiss.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told Geno’s Steaks owner Geno Vento he’s had cheesesteaks with Cheez Whiz in Philadelphia before and would have been dripping the orange goo if he ordered his the usual way.

“That’d be your trademark,” Vento, the son of Geno’s founder Joey Vento, joked as Walker signed a book filled with autographs of other dignitaries and celebrities who have indulged in the Philly delicacy.

Walker ordered one each from Geno’s and rival Pat’s King of Steaks, across the street, during a brief campaign swing through the City of Brotherly Love. He’s one of 16 Republicans vying for the party’s presidential nomination and, true to political form, wouldn’t say which cheesesteak was better.

Despite his cheese change-up, Walker still fared better than John Kerry, the former U.S. senator from Massachusetts and current U.S. secretary of state, who ordered Swiss on his cheesesteak during his unsuccessful 2004 run for president.

Walker supporter Tom DiCampli, who was surprised the candidate joined him and a pair of family friends for lunch, said American on a cheesesteak is “not as bad as Swiss.”

“Swiss cheese you get thrown out of town,” he said.

Stopping for a cheesesteak is a must for any Philadelphia visitor, politicians included. Presidents Barack Obama in 2010 and George W. Bush in 2004 followed tradition and ordered theirs with Whiz.

Walker said he was well aware of Kerry’s faux pas.

“Oh, yeah, I heard about the Swiss cheese,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t be able to eat it if it wasn’t with Cheez Whiz or American anyway. Maybe cheddar if they had it, but I’m not supporting Swiss cheese.”

Walker’s visit, his last scheduled public appearance before events Friday in Iowa, was mostly benign, save for the pair of protesters at Geno’s who held lewd signs behind him. A campaign aide stood on a bench and tried to block them.

Walker ate his Pat’s steak with a pair of supporters, one in a polo from Rush Limbaugh’s EIB network, the other in a Philadelphia Eagles shirt.

They talked sports and their shared conservative views. Walker recalled an inspiring visit to Independence Hall early in his career.

Walker also told them about his friend in Washington who, as a die-hard Eagles fan, dreams of Walker being elected and welcoming the team to the White House after their first Super Bowl win.

“I don’t know which odds are better,” Walker said.

Madison joins in amicus brief backing Obama’s executive actions on immigration

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin this week announced that the city joined 73 cities and counties in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals urging immediate implementation of President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

The brief, coordinated through the Cities United for Immigration Action coalition, demonstrates robust support from the country’s largest cities — as well as its suburbs and rural areas — for the president’s reforms. Signers said the reforms will provide temporary relief from deportation to immigrants with longstanding ties to the United States who pass a background check and meet other criteria.

The cities and counties — representing 43 million people across the country — argue that the district court judge who temporarily blocked implementation of the programs failed to consider the significant harms to America’s local governments caused by this delay.

“I proudly stand with my fellow mayors throughout the country in support of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration that promote family stability, economic growth and community cohesiveness,” Soglin said in a news release. “Every president since President Eisenhower has used executive authority to provide temporary immigration relief and in fact, there have been 37 instances of presidents using executive authority since 1956. That action has come under both Republican and Democratic administrations so this is not, and should not be, a partisan issue. This is a human rights issue.” 

As part of Cities United for Immigration Action, more than 70 cities and counties, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors argue that the national public interest is served clearly and overwhelmingly by implementing immigration relief by executive action without delay.

The brief also argues that the judge’s decision to block executive action with a preliminary injunction is bad for the economy, hurts families, threatens law enforcement priorities and will stall needed changes to the federal government’s immigration policies. 

The brief argues that executive action will benefit cities and counties by providing work authorization to millions, increasing local tax revenue, stimulating local economies, facilitating the civic engagement of immigrants, keeping families together and improving public safety by strengthening our neighborhoods and communities.

In addition, the brief argues that delay in implementation of the president’s executive action has significant costs for local economies and immigrant families. The delay in implementation has forced mixed-status families — a number which is estimated to be in the millions — to continue to live in ongoing fear of deportation and separation, a situation that has profound emotional, educational and health impacts on children. 

Supreme Court Justice Kagan officiates at gay couple’s wedding

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Sept. 21 officiated at the wedding of her former law clerk and his husband.

The ceremony for Mitchell Reich and Patrick Pearsall took place in Chevy Chase, Maryland. A spokeswoman for the court said it was the first same-sex wedding at which Kagan officiated.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has officiated at same-sex weddings, as has retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Next week, the Supreme Court justices, in a private conference, are scheduled to take a look at seven marriage-related petitions from five states, including Wisconsin. 

The petitions before the Court — writ of certiorari or requests for review — came from Wisconsin, Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia.

The justices could decide to hear all, any or none of the cases, or they could decide to wait for more petitions from other legal challenges to state bans on same-sex marriage.

Interested parties will be watching on Oct. 6, when the court is set to release an orders list that could indicate which — if any — marriage cases the justices might hear in their 2014–15 term.

There have been more than 20 victories for marriage equality in the courts since last summer, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage to fall and removed barriers to the federal government recognizing same-sex marriages. Among those victories are five at the U.S. appeals court level. The most recent wins came from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on challenges to anti-gay bans in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Utah ordered to recognize more than 1,000 same-sex marriages

When Matthew Barraza and Tony Milner’s 5-year-old son starts kindergarten next fall, both of his fathers could finally be recognized as his legal parents.

A federal judge on Monday ordered Utah officials to recognize more than 1,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the state before the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency stay. If the rulings stands after a 21-day hold the judge placed on it, the state would be required to lift its freeze on benefits requested by gay couples.

Barraza and Milner married in December and have a pending request to have Milner recognized as a legal parent of their son, Jesse, who currently is only Barraza’s son under the law.

“We’re ecstatic,” Barraza said. “It’s something that is really good for us and our family.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in January on behalf of four couples, including Barraza and Milner, who said the state’s decision to freeze benefits for same-sex couples violated their rights.

The gay and lesbian couples married after a federal judge overturned Utah’s same-sex marriage ban Dec. 20. Those weddings came to a halt Jan. 6 when the Supreme Court granted the stay.

Utah officials argued that they had no choice but to hold off on benefits until an appeals court rules on same-sex marriage.

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball disagreed in his ruling Monday, saying Utah’s decision to freeze all benefits put the couples in an unacceptable legal limbo regarding adoptions, child care and custody, medical decisions and inheritance, among other things.

“These legal uncertainties and lost rights cause harm each day that the marriage is not recognized,” Kimball wrote.

He stayed his ruling three weeks to give the state an opportunity to appeal the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The ruling has no bearing on a decision pending from that court about the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban that Utah voters passed in 2004.

Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, said in a statement that the state is reviewing the ruling, evaluating options and determining how this relates to other pending cases.

The conservative Sutherland Institute of Utah decried the ruling in a statement, saying it gives too much merit to a “novel ruling” by one judge.

“Our system is weaker when judicial gamesmanship is not kept in check,” said Bill Duncan, the institute’s director of the center for family and society. “We trust the 10th Circuit will do that quickly.”

In issuing the freeze in early January, Gov. Gary Herbert told state agencies to hold off on any new benefits for the couples until the courts resolve the issue. Agencies were told not to revoke anything already issued, such as a driver’s license with a new name, but were prohibited from approving any benefits.

The state tax commission announced, however, that newly married gay and lesbian couples can jointly file tax returns for 2013.

The state has made clear it was not ordering agencies to void the marriages, saying instead that validity of the marriages will ultimately be decided by the 10th Circuit. The court heard arguments in Utah’s case in early April, and a ruling is expected soon.

John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU in Utah, called Monday’s ruling thorough and well-reasoned, and said he expects to withstand any challenge. The ACLU argued that the marriages performed during the 17-day window when gay marriage was legal are valid no matter what the appeals court rules.

“It’s nice to see our relationships recognized with such compassion,” said Marina Gomberg, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with her wife, Elenor Heyborne.

But the legal limbo isn’t completely over.

On Friday, the Utah Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt of several district judges’ orders requiring the state health department to issue birth certificates in adoptions by same-sex parents.

Christie: New Jersey will comply with order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples

UPDATED: Lambda Legal this afternoon (Oct. 18) said New Jersey clerks will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, who can marry beginning on Oct. 21.

The first news was shared in a tweet from Lambda, which said, “#MarriageEquality is coming to New Jersey on Monday! The #NJ Supreme Court unanimously refused to delay the ruling.”

Soon after, in a celebratory email to supporters, Lambda executive director Kevin Cathcart said, “Pop the Champagne – love and fairness are winning over discrimination and injustice!

“When state officials asked the court to postpone the decision ending the exclusion from marriage, Lambda Legal stood up and said, ‘No!’ The Court has now agreed with us that couples and families suffer real harms every day they are excluded from laws that provide benefits and protections for essential needs like health care and retirement security.”

Gov. Chris Christie’s administration had asked the Court to stay a lower court order that the state allow same-sex couples to marry beginning next week.

But the state’s highest Court, in a unanimous decision issued on Oct. 18, said, “The state has advanced a number of arguments, but none of them overcome this reality: Same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today. The harm to them is real, not abstract or speculative.”

“The New Jersey Supreme Court has sent a momentous and vital message to the entire country,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “No government should stand in the way of committed and loving couples seeking to marry. And I have no doubt that when this case is resolved on the merits, marriage equality will come to the Garden State permanently.”

At the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, executive director Rea Carey said, “This is a huge victory for New Jersey families. It affirms what millions of people across the country already know — loving, committed same-sex couples and their families should be able to join in the celebration and responsibilities of marriage. It has been a long journey of changing hearts and minds, of breaking down walls and of shining a spotlight on our common humanity.”

Later on Oct. 18, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the governor “firmly believes that this determination should be made by all the people of the state of New Jersey.”

But the governor also said the New Jersey Health Department would help towns carry out the state supreme Court ruling.

The supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on the lower court decision on the merits in the Lambda Legal case, which challenges the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, in January.

Unclear, as of mid-afternoon Oct. 18, was whether same-sex couples must wait 72 hours after receiving licenses to marry. That has been the requirement in New Jersey.

Some clerks in the Garden State were prepared to issue licenses on Oct. 18.

Also unclear is whether the state, effective Oct. 21, must recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages.

And, perhaps the biggest question, is how might the state deal with same-sex marriages if the state supreme court upholds the ban on gay marriage next year?

Same-sex couples can marry in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

NJ court denies stay, same-sex marriages could begin Oct. 21

The New Jersey Superior Court on Oct. 10 denied the state’s motion to stay a Sept. 27 ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Same-sex couples could marry as early as Oct. 21, unless there is a stay granted on an appeal by the state.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal on behalf of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide LGBT civil rights group, and six same-sex couples who want to marry.

The court, on Oct. 10, said, the state, in its request for a stay, “ignores the largely abstract nature of the harm it alleges, which pales in comparison to the concrete harm caused to Plaintiffs by their current ineligibility for many federal marital benefits, and the significant litigation burden they would have to shoulder to challenge federal denial of marital benefits to civil union couples.”

Lambda Legal deputy director Hayley Gorenberg said, “This is wonderful news. The court’s decision once again confirms that the hardships of not being able to marry are real and immediate. Every day does count. Allowing same-sex couples to marry helps many New Jersey families and hurts no one else.”

At Garden State Equality, executive director Troy Stevenson said, “Momentum is with us. All couples in New Jersey need the dignity of marriage, and they need it now. We look forward to seeing many of them, who have been denied that dignity for too long, marry in the coming weeks.”

The Lambda lawsuit dates to June 2011 and argues that barring same-sex couples from marriage and relegating them to civil union violates both the New Jersey Constitution and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Lambda filed a motion for summary judgment in the New Jersey case, arguing that by barring marriage, the state is denying same-sex couples the full range of federal benefits, rights and protections of marriage.

On Sept. 27, the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that same-sex couples in New Jersey must be allowed to marry.