By Joseph Schuman
When you just can't find that particular legal specialist
For corporate counsel seeking outside help with a court fight over trees, Adams and Reese could be a good starting place. Involved in stormy litigation on the high seas? Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle is an option. Got a client who wants to sue Amtrak over that 10-hour delay in your winter-weather commute? Summary Judgments might check out Bradley Murchison Kelly & Shea.
Timber law, admiralty and maritime law, and railroad law are just some of the 75 specialty practices with their own rankings in this year's U.S.News - Best Lawyers lists of "Best Law Firms." (The three firms mentioned above led those respective lists.) Surprisingly, at least for Summary Judgments, there are 17 kinds of litigation broken out, three kinds of securities law - not counting the separate venture capital category - and separate listings for the likes of "labor law - management" and "employment law - management." SJ was curious about the rankings after reading about them in the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog. Last year, LB complained, the U.S. News firm report card sorted firms by tiers instead of numerical ranking. This year, LB still finds the rankings confusing, but improved enough to give them a plug.
First Amendment help for an early morning honker
One man's honk is another's constitutionally protected expression of free speech -- or at least it might be.The Washington state Supreme Court worried about the possibility enough to strike a local anti-noise ordinance as too broad, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the decision may reverberate elsewhere.
Last year, Helen Immelt got a little too expressive with the horn of a borrowed car for her neighbors in Monroe, a town in Snohomish Country. Summary Judgments can understand why the neighbors were upset: Immelt was honking her horn for about 10 minutes before 6 a.m. on a Saturday, and one of the neighbors called the police. It didn't help that as a Snohomish County Sheriff's Office sergeant was talking to the neighbor, Immelt drove by and added three long horn blasts. That got her arrested and eventually a 10-day sentence for violating the county's noise ordinance, which bans horn honking for any reason other than public safety and parade-like public events.
That's where a majority of the state high court felt the law was just too vague. "While it is not entirely clear what constitutes a public event, there is no basis to believe it includes ... the carpool driver, the wedding guest, the troop supporter or the individual honking upon passing a picketer on the street corner," wrote justice Debra Stephens. "The horn ordinance here does not survive scrutiny. It is sustantially overbroad. ... It prohibits a wide swath of expressive conduct in order to protect a category of public disturbances."
But three colleagues dissented, including Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, who said Immelt's "horn-honking was not sufficiently imbued with communicative elements to raise any First Amendment issues." The Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office wasn't happy with the ruling, either, and later issued a statement pointing out that Immelt rather obnoxiously responded to the sergeant's warning by honking her horn again. The county suggested the court had ignored federal First Amendment criteria for protected speech, and said it is considering what step to take next.
In SJ’s opinion, this get's interesting because there are anti-honking ordinances in cities and towns throughout the country. And there's an election coming up where judicial overreach is already a controversial issue. If the fight goes federal, can't you just hear a candidate generating cheers by rallying against those early morning honkers?
Death row realities raise questions about capital punishment
Is death deferred more cruel than death itself?
That's a question raised by a dissent in the Supreme Court's refusal to stay an execution last September, as the New York Times' Adam Liptak recounts in a column looking at whether the American death penalty is, well, broken.
But first, some numbers. There are roughly 3,300 people on death row in the United States. Last year, there were only 46 executions. Of the 5,826 death sentences handed down from 1973 to 1995, just 5 percent were carried out, according to a 2004 study, while about two-thirds of death row inmates could expect their sentences would be overturned. In other words, the capital-punishment industry is turning out more death sentences than the system is processing in a timely fashion.
One of the sentenced in that period was Manuel Valle, who was convicted of killing a Florida police officer in 1978. Thirty-three years later, he was put to death. And it was Valle's final appeal that prompted Justice Stephen Breyer to dissent last September. Breyer argued that living under the threat of execution for 33 years on death row amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and it's an argument he has made before.
In a similar dissent in 1999, Breyer wrote: "Our Constitution was written at a time when delay between sentencing and execution could be measured in days or weeks, not decades." Under 18th century British law, executions were expected to be carried out just two days after sentencing. And many foreign courts have ruled that death sentences long delayed are a form of psychological torment for the person sentenced. In 1993, for example, the British Commonwealth's London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council commuted the death sentences of two Jamaican inmates on death row for more than five years.
But Justice Clarence Thomas, who disagreed with Breyer's 1999 dissent, dismisses the idea thatwhat goes on in other countries is relevant to U.S. law. "I am unaware of any support in the American constitutional tradition or in this court’s precedent for the proposition that a defendant can avail himself of the panoply of appellate and collateral procedures and then complain when his execution is delayed," Thomas wrote. Other death penalty supporters, too, say the whole cruel-and-unusual argument is hypocritical for inmates who put off their executions with appeals.
But Breyer feels that argument misses the point. His view: If capital punishment can only be administered with lengthy delays needed to protect due process rights, and if trial courts are producing so many more death sentences than our system can carry out, maybe it’s the system that's broken
Sorcery and a sword in Saudi Arabia
It sounds like a bad joke or the opening scene of a B-grade summer action picture. But the execution – extrajudicial by even the toughest of Western standards – was all too real.
Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki, a Sudanese man living in Saudi Arabia, was arrested by the Mutawa'een, or Saudi religious police, in 2005, according to the Daily Mail (whose report came to the attention of Summary Judgments thanks to law professor Jonathan Turley's Res ipsa loquitur blog). The charge against Abdul Hamid was sorcery, and he appears to have been set up. A Mutawa'een officer asked Abdul Hamid to come up with a spell that would make the wife of the officer's father go away, and the officer said Abdul Hamid agreed to produce the curse for about 6,000 riyals, or roughly $1,600. He was then arrested and beaten before producing a confession of his crime that led to a behind-closed-doors trial in 2007 without legal representation. The verdict was guilty, and the sentence was death.
Sorcery is nominally a crime under Islamic law, and in Saudi Arabia it's a violation that appears to be strictly prosecuted. Around the time Abdul Hamid was arrested, the Saudi Gazette, an English-language daily, ran a story with the headline "Magic Maids." It warned against the "threats from some maids and servants and their satanic games of witchcraft and sorcery, their robbery, murder, entrapment of husbands, corruption of children and other countless stories of crime that have been highlighted by both experts and victims of these crimes." Amnesty International called on Saudi King Abdullah to offer clemency for Abdul Hamid, but was rebuffed. And last month, before a crowd of people in a car park in Medina, an executioner lined up his sword on the back of Abdul Hamid's neck, raised the blade, and decapitated him in one quick stroke. (The Daily Mail recounts watching the execution in an online video it describes as too graphic to post on its Web site.)
Saudi Arabia is believed to have executed 44 people this year -- including 11 foreign nationals -- a total that surpassed the 2010 total 17 deaths ago. It isn't clear whether other accused and convicted sorcerers were among them, but at least one other person on Saudi death row is there on related charges. Lebanese TV host Ali Hussain Sibat was sentenced to death for making predictions about the future on his show. He was scheduled to be executed last Friday, but his attorney tells the Daily Mail that the execution hasn't yet taken place. The attorney didn't know why.
Checking in on the fights against global organized crime
If you thought Halloween was scary, wait 'til you hear about the monsters discussed this morning in room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
A hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism is taking a whack at "Combating International Organized Crime: Evaluating Current Authorities, Tools, and Resources." The topic sounds broad, and it is - wrapping together a decade's worth of fights against terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering as well as international legal, national security, law enforcement and financial issues.
There will be tales about Iranian nuclear ambitions, Italian mafia and Japanese yakuza. Oh, and also al Qaeda franchises across the Muslim world and the wild criminal goings on at the Tri-Border region of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Plus, we'll get the views of three different government agencies: Treasury's terrorist-financing team, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
Customs agents swing for the fences with anti-counterfeit operation
The World Series may be over, but not "Operation Strike Out."
With Hollywood-like timing, a battery of federal law enforcement agencies pegged an offensive against counterfeit sports paraphernalia to baseball's playoffs. Now, in the wake of the Cardinals' come-from-behind victory over the Rangers, the government is touting both its success and shortcomings. The campaign to seize Web sites selling fake jerseys, hats and the like hit a home run with the seizure of 58 commercial Web sites, according to ICE's Homeland Security Investigations bureau. There is more work to do, though on city street campaign, which so far seems stuck in the infield, nabbing just 5,347 items worth retails sales of $134,862."Counterfeits products represent a triple threat by delivering shoddy and sometimes dangerous goods into commerce, by funding organized criminal activities, and by denying Americans good-paying jobs," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said.
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