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Gov: Courts

Congress writes laws. The President and other executive agencies enact policies to carry out the laws. The federal court system evaluates whether a law or policy is consistent with the Constitution.

The top U.S. Court is the Supreme Court.

In this section we report on events surrounding the U.S. federal court system.

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Court to review ethics complaints against Kavanaugh

2018-Oct-11  (Updated: 2018-Oct-18)By: Barry Shatzman

New Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is the subject of several ethics complaints regarding his confirmation hearings.

The judicial misconduct complaints were filed with the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which Kavanaugh served on before being confirmed to the Supreme Court.

They relate only to statements Kavanaugh made during his confirmation hearings and not to his performance as a judge, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson said in a press release.

Normally the complaints would be handled by the court Kavanaugh served on. However, Henderson referred the case to the Supreme Court because one of the judges on Kavanaugh's former court is Merrick Garland.

Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama was not acted on by Senate Republicans. Garland had recused himself from the Kavanaugh investigation.

Though Chief Justice John Roberts did not initially act on the complaints, he now has transferred them to the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado.

The only method to remove a Supreme Court justice is through impeachment by the House of Representatives.

Senate confirms Brett Kavanaugh to Supreme Court

2018-Oct-06  (Updated: 2018-Oct-12)By: Barry Shatzman

The Senate has confirmed Brett Kavanaugh as the 114th Supreme Court justice.

Kavanaugh was nominated by President Trump to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy, who resigned in June.

Controversy looking into Kavanaugh's background

The Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings were filled with controversy from the start, when the Trump administration refused to release 100,000 pages of documents that could provide insight into Kavanaugh's judicial philosophies.

The administration claimed executive privilege, while thousands of documents that were provided to the committee were labeled confidential, meaning the public could not see them.

Several of these eventually were released to the public after Democratic Sen. Cory Booker said he would release them anyway - and the Republican-led committee reacted by declassifying them.

They included emails from Kavanaugh's time as an attorney in the George W. Bush administration, including an email thread on racial inequality.

How truthful has Kavanaugh been?

They also included emails showing that Kavanaugh - during his 2004 and 2006 confirmation hearings to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals - significantly understated his role in the nomination of controversial Judge Charles Pickering to an appeals court.

In his earlier confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh testified that he had no knowledge of Republican Senate aides improperly obtaining electronic Democratic strategy documents. During this hearing Sen. Patrick Leahy produced emails indicating that Kavanaugh had received some of the illegally obtained intelligence.

Did Kavanaugh discuss Russia investigation with Trump's law firm?

During her questioning of Kavanaugh, Sen. Kamala Harris asked if he had discussed Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation in Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election with the law firm founded by one of Trump's former attorneys.

Harris said she had "reliable" information about such a meeting, but did not elaborate. Kavanaugh evaded the question during Harris' first round of questions, though the following day he directly denied it.

Despite the large number of documents that weren't released - and the large number that were released late in the confirmation hearings - Senate Republicans pressed for a quick vote on the nomination.

FBI Investigation into sexual allegations

A vote was delayed, however, when it was learned that three women had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. The accusations led to one of the women, Christine Blasey Ford, and Kavanaugh both testifying about her allegations.

Kavanaugh testified that he first heard of the claims of another accuser, Deborah Ramirez, when he read an article about it in the New Yorker. However, text messages reported by NBC News show him working to quash the story before then.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interviewed 10 possible witnesses (an 11th declined to cooperate) to the various accusations. The results of the limited investigation were not made available to the public.

The Senate then voted 50-48 (Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted "Present" and Sen. Steve Daines was absent) to confirm Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh won't say whether Trump can pardon himself

2018-Sep-05By: Rob Dennis

At the Senate confirmation hearing for President Trump's nominee to succeed Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh refused to answer two basic questions.

Can law enforcement subpoena a president and can a president pardon himself?

Though Kavanaugh called the questions hypothetical, they could have tangible significance as Trump faces several legal problems that could result in cases being decided by the Supreme Court.

The answers might be found in 100,000 pages of documents related to his tenure as a lawyer for the George W. Bush administration. However, the White House has refused to release them, claiming executive privilege.

The White House previously released 400,000 pages of related documents. It released 42,000 more pages just hours before the hearings began.

Despite that leaving no time for Senators to review the documents, Senate Republican leadership refused to delay the confirmation hearing. This is in contrast to Republicans' request for a delay in the 2010 nomination hearing for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Kavanaugh also would not answer a question about whether he had discussed Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election with anyone from Kasowitz Benson & Torres - a law firm that has represented Donald Trump.

Trump nominates Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court

2018-Jul-09  (Updated: 2018-Sep-05)By: Rob Dennis

President Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Kennedy resigned in June.

As a judge, Kavanaugh has one of the most conservative voting records on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. His opinions also have espoused views of expanded presidential powers.

Among his decisions (not all majority) on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals...

o He dissented when the court voted to stop the Trump administration from preventing an undocumented 17-year-old girl from having an abortion. He initially ruled that the administration could continue to delay, increasing the risks of medical complications and her pregnancy proceeding too far along to have the abortion, but the full court overruled him.

o In 2011 he ruled that spending on campaigns by non-U.S. citizens is legal if it is not "express advocacy". This ruling likely has hindered the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

o He dissented in District of Columbia v. Heller - a 2011 case that upheld the District of Columbia's law requiring gun owners to register their guns and banning the possession of semiautomatic weapons. The case was later decided by the Supreme Court.

o In a 2016 opinion, he described the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and other independent agencies as "a threat to individual liberty." He dissented this year when the court upheld limits on the president's discretion to fire the CFPB's director.

o In 2009, he wrote that Congress should pass a law barring a president from being criminally prosecuted - or even investigated.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy Resigns

2018-Jun-27  (Updated: 2018-Jul-02)By: Barry Shatzman

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced he is resigning from the Court.

Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Kennedy has long been considered the swing vote on certain politically ideological issues.

At times he has taken a liberal approach to individual freedoms, such as same-sex marriage, while taking a more conservative approach to issues such as campaign finance.

In recent years, however, his votes consistently have sided with the more conservative justices.

Kennedy's departure might not cause a sudden change in how the court decides issues, but replacing the 81-year-old Kennedy with a justice 25 years younger could solidify a conservative vote on the Supreme Court for decades longer.

Relationship with Trump

Extending Kennedy's conservative legacy is something that President Trump has expressed a desire to do. Neil Gorsuch - Trump's nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, was a law clerk to Kennedy. And two judges that Trump has listed as a possible replacement for Kennedy - Brett M. Kavanaugh and Raymond M. Kethledge - also clerked for him.

Trump's relationship with Kennedy also extends to Kennedy's son. Justin Kennedy oversaw Deutsche Bank's global real estate lending at the time Trump was developing real estate. During that time, Deutsche Bank loaned Trump more than $1 billion.

Senate confirms Gorsuch to Supreme Court

2017-Apr-07By: Barry Shatzman

The Senate has confirmed Neil Gorsuch to be Supreme Court justice.

Gorsuch will fill the seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Gorsuch's confirmation will go down as one of the most controversial in the Court's history. Though Scalia died in Feb. 2016 and President Barack Obama nominated federal judge Merrick Garland the following month to replace him, Senate Replubicans refused to hold confirmation hearings.

Sen. Ted Cruz said that if Democrat Hillary Clinton were to be elected rather than Trump, the Senate might indefinitely block nominations to the court.

President Trump nominated Gorsuch less than two weeks after taking office. When Senate Democrats filibustered the nomination, Senate Republicans acted to change the Senate rules to disallow the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.

They confirmed Gorsuch the following day.

President nominates Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court

2017-Jan-31By: Rob Dennis

President Trump has nominated federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch now must be confirmed by the Senate.

Gorsuch, 49, has served on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver since 2006. He was appointed by President George W. Bush.

He earned degrees from Columbia University, Harvard Law School and Oxford University, and served as a law clerk to Justices Anthony Kennedy and Byron White.

Gorsuch has taken stands on several issues...

o In cases such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Gorsuch took the side of religious groups seeking exemptions from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's requirement that employer health plans provide access to contraception.

o He has written against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

o He has written in favor of term limits.

o He has called for eliminating the Chevron Doctrine, a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that courts should defer to federal agencies' interpretations of ambiguous laws.

He has not ruled on or commented about abortion.

The Supreme Court seat was left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.

Then-President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but Senate Republicans refused to give Garland a hearing.  

Republicans may indefinitely block Supreme Court justices

2016-Oct-26By: Barry Shatzman

Sen. Ted Cruz has said that Republicans could indefinitely prevent nominees to the Supreme Court from being confirmed.

The Senate already has refused to act on federal judge Merrick Garland - President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. The Supreme Court has been without a full team of nine justices since Scalia died in February.

If the Senate maintains its block on Garland, the next president - most likely Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump - will nominate a replacement for Scalia.

If Clinton wins the presidential election, a refusal to consider nominees could become more of an impact should any of the current eight justices resign from the court or die.

President nominates Merrick Garland to Supreme Court

2016-Mar-16By: Barry Shatzman

President Obama has nominated federal judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Merrick is a judge for the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. He would replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.

In order to become the country's 113th Supreme Court justice, Garland must be confirmed by the Senate.

Senate Republicans have said they will not consider any nominee to the Court since this is Obama's last year in office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Garland to tell him that the Senate would not take action on his nomination, the New York Times reported.

Senate Republicans say they'll refuse to consider new justices

2016-Feb-14By: Barry Shatzman

Some of the more powerful Republicans in the Senate have said they would refuse to consider anyone President Obama nominates to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Antonin Scalia's death.

Obama still has almost a year left in his term as president. In that time, the Supreme Court will be considering several cases that will affect Americans.

The Constitution gives the president the authority to appoint Supreme Court justices. Nominees must be approved by the Senate before becoming part of the court.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died

2016-Feb-13By: Barry Shatzman

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died at the age of 79.

He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

President Obama announced that he will nominate a justice to replace Scalia on the court. The nominee must be confirmed by the Senate.

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