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June 29 2015 3:50 PM

Supreme Court Puts Anti-Abortion Ruling on Hold, Allows Texas Clinics to Remain Open by 5–4 Vote 

Hours after the Supreme Court finished its term on Monday, the justices put on hold the Fifth Circuit's ruling allowing Texas' draconian anti-abortion law to go into effect. The decision grants a last-minute reprieve to over half of Texas' remaining eighteen abortion clinics. Under the new law—which forces clinics to meet incredibly stringent standards unrelated to women's health—all but seven of these clinics would have been forced to close. 

The court stayed the ruling by a 5-4 vote, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the liberals to grant a reprieve. Unsurprisingly, the more conservative justices would have let the law go into effect, effectively shuttering a majority of Texas clinics. The court will decide whether or not to hear arguments in the case (and issue a ruling on the merits) in the fall. 

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June 29 2015 2:00 PM

Gov. Brown Signs California Bill Ending Religious and Personal Vaccine Exemptions

Update, June 30, 2015: Gov. Jerry Brown announced Tuesday that he has signed SB277, eliminating personal and religious exemptions to school vaccination rules in California. The bill does allow for vaccine exemptions "if a child's physician concludes that immunization is not recommended for reasons including family medical history."

Original post, June 29, 2015: The California state Senate on Monday approved a stricter bill that would make vaccinations mandatory for more schoolchildren, clearing the final legislative hurdle for SB277, and sending the bill to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. Brown has not stated publically whether he would sign the measure that would end personal or religious exemptions, but would still allow for medical exemptions. The bill passed through the state house with bipartisan support.

“Children whose parents refuse vaccination can try to obtain a medical exemption or be homeschooled,” according to the Associated Press. “Otherwise, school-age children who currently claim a personal belief exemption will need to get fully vaccinated by kindergarten and seventh grade, the state's two vaccine checkpoints.”

The measure would be one of the strictest in the nation and has been hotly contested in California and beyond, after an outbreak of measles at Disneyland this year sparked a national debate on the risks posed by a growing number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children. The bill was first passed in May, but the upper house had to approve new amendments aimed at making it easier to get a medical exemption. Most states allow for religious exemptions and 20 allow parents to forego vaccination based on personal beliefs, according to the Wall Street Journal. If the bill is signed into law, California would join Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states to prohibit religious and personal-belief exemptions.

Brown has two weeks, until July 13, to sign or veto the measure.

June 29 2015 1:43 PM

This Motorcade of Confederate Flag-Waving Drivers Will Make You Cry, Laugh

If you find unabashed displays of ignorance and insensitivity to be infuriating, or even sad, then the first 65 seconds of this video of a motorcade of Confederate flag-waving cars in Georgia might bother you. But if you like sweet karmic justice, then watch the entire thing.

Reddit surfaced the video of the protest, which some of its users say took place Saturday in Dalton, Georgia. It’s possible that the motorcade was part of a protest that took place at Fort Oglethorpe military park, which is a 30-minute drive from Dalton. That protest was in response to Confederate flags being removed from gift shops at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which includes Fort Oglethorpe. The group of protesters told a local ABC affiliate that they would be protesting there every Saturday for the foreseeable future. The protesters proudly proclaimed that the flag represented “heritage not hate,” which ignores both the history of the flag and its specific use by the white supremacist who allegedly murdered nine people at a historically black church in Charleston earlier this month.

While shoving that banner in the faces of their neighbors so soon after the shooting is not a laughing matter, two bozos crashing into each other while demonstrating their insensitivity sure is.

June 29 2015 1:02 PM

The Only Thing Keeping the Iran Talks Going Is the Desperation of Two Presidents

With the ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program on track to continue past tomorrow’s deadline and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif heading back to Tehran for consultations with his government, major differences between the two sides remain over issues including the pace of sanctions relief, inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and whether Tehran will account for its past alleged military activities. Amid this bleak landscape, the main reason to still expect a deal to come together is the amount of political capital the Iranian and American presidential administrations have sunk into making it work—and just how bad it would look for both if it didn’t. That’s not nothing.

The other five powers negotiating with Iran haven’t demonstrated the same sense of urgency. France, which has surprised many by taking the toughest line in the P5+1, has consistently said that there’s no reason to rush a deal rather than wait for Iran to accept more favorable terms. On the other side, Iran’s trading partner Russia, which doesn’t have an awful lot to gain from improved U.S.-Iranian ties, hasn’t demonstrated much willingness to make major political compromises to further a deal’s chances.  

The Americans can’t afford to be so blasé. Some of the time pressures on the administration are legally binding: Thanks to an agreement reached with a skeptical Congress, if the White House can’t present a deal to Congress by July 9, the mandated congressional review period doubles from 30 days to 60 days. If there’s no deal by September, Congress can seek to put new sanctions in place. Politically, the president has also made clear that he views the deal as the centerpiece of his foreign policy. If nothing else, the deal, which aides have compared to the Affordable Care Act in its political importance, would be a rare diplomatic victory amid the shambles of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It won’t be clear for some time if an agreement is successful at preventing Iran from building a nuclear program, and Republicans will likely criticize sanctions relief as too generous no matter what happens, but Democrats would no doubt like to have some deal in place before a presidential campaign involving the president’s former secretary of state ramps up. 

The pressure is even greater for President Hassan Rouhani, for whom achieving détente with the West and securing sanctions relief are not only his primary foreign policy goal, but his primary plan for rescuing Iran’s faltering economy. A majority of Iranians support the deal, and his election was widely seen as a mandate to attempt to improve relations with the West. If he fails, he’ll face an immediate backlash not only from opponents but from supporters as well.

After Rouhani recently suggested that cleaning up Iran’s environment would be easier once sanctions were lifted, opponents mocked him for tying the “water, wind, soil and forests” to his signature diplomatic initiative. He has also frustrated some supporters by avoiding confrontation with hard-liners in Tehran, including over human rights issues, in a bid to win support for the nuclear deal. This has had mixed success. The president has been heckled by opponents of the agreement in public appearances, and the legislature has sought to add conditions to the deal, reducing his room to negotiate. Most importantly, Iran’s supreme leader has publicly ruled out some of the compromises that will likely be required to make a deal work, though some observers say these statements shouldn’t be taken at face value. Rouhani’s allies are hopeful of a major political breakthrough in next year’s legislative elections, but they likely need a nuclear deal and the accompanying sanctions relief to avoid a return to the political wilderness.

On the surface, all signs point toward the talks collapsing right now, but given what’s at stake for these two presidents, it’s hard to imagine them leaving the table until all hope has been lost—maybe even longer.

June 29 2015 12:26 PM

In a Brave, Powerful Dissent, Justice Breyer Calls for the Abolition of the Death Penalty

Justice Stephen Breyer took a brave, powerful stand against the machinery of death on Monday, writing that, to his mind, “the death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited ‘cruel and unusual punishmen[t].’ ” Breyer notes that his “20 years of experience on the court,” during which he has been forced to decide whether myriad inmates may live or die, led him to this conclusion.

In a courageous 41-page dissent from a pro-death penalty ruling joined only by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Breyer explains that the startlingly high number of exonerated death row inmates suggests that capital punishment is unreliable and error-prone—in the words of the Eighth Amendment, “cruel.” (In a stunning retort to Justice Antonin Scalia, Breyer discusses the exoneration of Henry Lee McCollum—“Scalia's favorite murderer.”) The death penalty, Breyer writes, is also unconstitutionally arbitrary, dispensed randomly, rarely, and unpredictably. This infrequency renders the punishment unconstitutionally “unusual,” as well.

Breyer also notes a number of troubling factors in death penalty sentencing. Race may play a role, he writes (correctly), as do judicial elections—judges may condemn convicts to die so that voters will perceive them as tough on crime. Breyer then declares:

The imposition and implementation of the death penalty seems capricious, random, indeed, arbitrary. From a defendant’s perspective, to receive that sentence, and certainly to find it implemented, is the equivalent of being struck by lightning. How then can we reconcile the death penalty with the demands of a Constitution that first and foremost insists upon a rule of law? 

Predictably, Breyer's dissent sends Scalia and Clarence Thomas into fits of rage. Scalia asserts that Breyer “rejects the Enlightenment” and “takes on the role of the abolitionists in this long-running drama.” Thomas details the grisly murders with which several death row inmates were charged, as if to say that, no matter how painful their punishment, they'll get what they deserve.

But neither justice really contends with the moral passion and legal logic that Breyer carefully lays out in his opinion. Like Justice Harry Blackmun before him, Breyer has decided that the Constitution can no longer condone America's peculiar practice of state-sanctioned murder. The machinery of death may grind on. But Justice Breyer dissents.

June 29 2015 11:32 AM

The Stunning, Scorching Accusation in Justice Sotomayor’s Death Penalty Dissent

On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam in lethal injections, despite the fact that the drug may have been responsible for several botched, extremely painful executions in 2014. The vote was 5–4, with the usual lineup of conservatives against liberals. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a scorching, devastating dissent that carefully disproved both the facts and logic of Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion. Sotomayor noted that Alito’s decision rested on the fact that the prisoners had not demonstrated that the state could obtain other, more humane drugs to kill them—so it can go ahead and execute them with the potentially torturous midazolam. In a stunning passage, she then lobs this accusation at the majority:

Petitioners contend that Oklahoma’s current protocol is a barbarous method of punishment—the chemical equivalent of being burned alive. But under the Court’s new rule, it would not matter whether the State intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake: because petitioners failed to prove the availability of sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, the State could execute them using whatever means it designated.

Alito's only response to this charge? “That is simply not true.”

June 29 2015 10:43 AM

Supreme Court Restricts the EPA’s Ability to Curb Mercury Emissions

The Supreme Court curbed the EPA's ability to regulate mercury emissions from power plants on Monday by a 5–4 vote. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court held that the EPA did not properly take into account the cost to plants complying with the new standards. The EPA had argued that it did not need to consider these costs until later in the regulatory process. Scalia, joined by his fellow conservatives, holds that the EPA's refusal to consider these costs when creating the mercury regulations was unreasonable.

This ruling does not invalidate the mercury regulations altogether. Rather, it simply requires the EPA to reconsider costs to power plants before deciding whether the regulations are "appropriate and necessary." Presuming it considers these costs and decides that the regulations remain necessary, the EPA may again impose the new emissions standards.

June 29 2015 10:37 AM

Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Redistricting Commission, Warding Off Gerrymandering

On Monday the Supreme Court upheld Arizona's nonpartisan redistricting commission in a surprise 5–4 vote. The case arose after Arizona voters took congressional redistricting out of the state legislature’s hands and placed the task in the hands of an independent commission—all to prevent partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. Republicans in the state legislature sued. As I explained in March:

Conservative legislators claim that the independent commission is illegal under Article I, Section 4 of the federal Constitution, which reads, in part: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for … Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” When the Constitution says “legislature,” these legislators say, it’s talking about them, the elected lawmakers. And any law that affects the “manner of holding elections” for House members without input from the state legislature must be struck down as unconstitutional.
But Arizona’s transparently self-interested legislators have a problem. When the Constitution was written, its framers had no concept of initiatives and referenda, which have since become a vital part of the democratic process on the state level. To keep the Constitution relevant and logical, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that “legislature” actually means legislative power and legislative process—which can, of course, be exercised by the people through direct democracy.

The court affirmed this traditional understanding of the Constitution on Monday, holding that "redistricting is a legislative function, to be performed in accordance with the State’s prescriptions for lawmaking, which may include the referendum." Justice Anthony Kennedy and the three liberals joined Ginsburg's opinion. Predictably, the four more conservative justices dissented. The ruling saves California's independent redistricting commission, which is similar to Arizona's, and wards off partisan gerrymandering in both states.

June 29 2015 10:15 AM

Global Stocks Down Sharply After Greek Financial Crisis Escalates

Update, June 29, 10:15 a.m. Stock markets across the globe responded to the latest Greek financial woes with sharp declines on Monday, the New York Times reports. 

The Euro Stoxx 50 index of blue-chip eurozone stocks, London’s FTSE 100 index, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng market, China’s Shanghai composite index, Australia’s S&P/ASX 200, and Tokyo’s benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average were all down sharply. Greek markets and banks are closed until July 6, the day after a scheduled referendum on how Greece would respond to European bailout conditions.

The Times reported that despite the downturn, investors did not yet expect a full-scale international panic. More from the Times:

While investors were clearly concerned about the events of the weekend, there was no sign on Monday of widespread panic. Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, wrote in a note that the current situation was “a tragedy for Greece,” but that it was “not a ‘black swan’ moment.”
The European Central Bank and other eurozone authorities have had four years to prepare for this moment, Mr. Schmieding wrote, and “we expect contagion control to work, by and large.”

Original post, June 28, 2015, 5:21 p.m. Greece continued down the road to financial collapse on Sunday, as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that banks across the country would remain closed Monday and that capital controls would be put in place, limiting the amount of money depositors can withdraw on a given day.

The announcement followed a decision by the European Central Bank not to increase emergency funding to Greek banks, which Tsipras has denounced as "blackmail" and "an unprecedented act by European standards." The prime minister added that deposits in Greek banks were safe, addressing fears of a total financial meltdown.

Tsipras had called for a referendum to be held next Sunday on the conditions Greece's creditors—the International Monetary Fund, the ECB, and other eurozone countries—were demanding for a further bailout, which included cuts to salaries and pensions as well as tax increases. Parliament approved the referendum last night, and Tsipras's left-wing Syriza party is encouraging citizens to vote "no," but there may be nothing to vote on anymore as the current bailout program expires Tuesday and the creditors have no intention of extending it. The European Commission took the unusual step of publishing the latest proposals for a bailout deal, but it's not clear whether these proposals are still on the table.

The real question Greek voters may be answering in the referendum, therefore, is whether to keep the euro at the price of acceding to the ECB and IMF's austerity demands, or to be the first country to exit the eurozone, causing a global financial panic and consigning Greece's already depressed economy to further decline. Tsipras had hoped that by holding out the threat of the latter, he could get a better deal from the other eurozone countries; his gamble appears not to have paid off. It is not clear what will happen if the Greeks vote "no," or what will happen to Tsipras' leftist government if they vote "yes."

In the meantime, Greeks continued to line up at ATMs to get cash before it was too late, amid reports that withdrawals would be capped at 60 euros a day as of Tuesday to prevent bank runs. There are also reports that Greek banks will remain closed until July 7. Such measures will have a major impact on people's everyday lives, and may dampen public support for Tsipras' hard-line position. The Guardian is live-blogging the situation as it unfolds. 

The U.S., meanwhile, is pushing its European allies to reach some kind of compromise that will keep Greece in the eurozone—after all, the effects of a European financial crisis would likely be felt here as well. President Obama called German Chancellor Angela Merkel today to discuss the situation, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew spoke with the IMF's Christine Lagarde and the German and French finance ministers to encourage them to extend Athens some relief. But citizens of Europe's economic center (particularly Germany) have grown weary of bailing out the periphery in recent years, so compromise will be a tough pitch for Merkel to make to her voters, even if she wants to.

The irony, as Matt O'Brien points out at the Washington Post's Wonkblog, is that "Greece and Europe really aren't that far apart on a deal":

Europe wants Greece to cut its pensions more than it already has—which, in some cases, has been as much as 40 percent—but Greece only wants to cut them half as much and make up the rest with higher taxes on businesses. In other words, both sides agree how much austerity Athens should do, just not how it should do it. The problem, as it always has been, is the politics. Syriza insists that it has "red lines" over pension cuts it cannot cross, but Europe has quite literally drawn red lines through them and said, take it or leave it. This hardline stance is more about warning anti-austerity parties in Spain and Portugal that there's nothing to be gained from challenging the continent's budget-cutting status quo as it is about the €1.8 billion in pension cuts—not even a rounding error in the context of Europe's economy—that it wants from Greece. Both sides feel like they can't negotiate any more, so they're not.

June 29 2015 10:12 AM

Supreme Court Upholds Lethal Injection Protocol

The Supreme Court upheld the use of a drug called midazolam in lethal injections. Midazolam is administered to make the inmate unconscious before he receives the drugs that paralyze then kill him. Several death-row inmates in Oklahoma had challenged the use of the drug, claiming it constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" in violation of the Eighth Amendment.