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1999 News Archive

This page is an archive of articles presented on the Current News page of the USConstitution.net site. On this page are articles that were posted in 1999.


12/30/99 Judge denies restraining order against DVD copying software
In what defendants are calling a blow for free speech and open software, a California judge denied a temporary restraining order against distribution of software known as DeCSS. DeCSS, which was developed by reverse engineering the software encryption used by video DVDs, allows DVD discs to be "ripped", or copied, to computer hard drives. The DVD industry accuses distributors of the program, written for the Linux operating system, of violating trade secrets. The distributors included over 500 web sites which linked to the program or its source code. A hearing concerning a permanent restraining order is scheduled for January 14.


12/23/99 Denver couple wins right to hold prayer meetings in their home
Denver zoning officials acknowledged that an order that forced a local couple to hold prayer meetings in their home only once a month violated the couple's rights. Acting on the complaints of neighbors who were upset over parking problems, zoning officials had restricted the weekly meetings to once per month. The officials agreed to pay the couple's legal fees and noted that instead of trying to restrict the meetings, they should have directed police to ticket illegally parked cars.


12/13/99 Supreme Court rejects Vermont "public funds for religious schools" case
The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a case appealed from the Vermont Supreme Court by parent who wish to use public funds to send their kids to Catholic school. The Chittenden, Vermont, school district has no high school, and as such, provides vouchers to parents to send their children to area high schools. The district allowed its funds to be used for any school, public, private, or parochial, though it stopped funding for parochial when the state Board of Education objected. Parents, citing a violation of their freedom of religion, appealed. The state Supreme Court ruled that public or private schools could be subsidized as long as they were not parochial. The rejection of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court lets that ruling stand.


12/08/99 Ban on commercial use of police records upheld
The Supreme Court today ruled that a state can restrict the use of police records by commercial interests. In a 7-2 vote, the Court ruled that a California law that makes records available to journalists and private detectives, but forbids their use for purposes like direct mailings, is not a violation of commercial free-speech. The Court said that commercial access to such records is not speech, but rather as a conduit for the information, and not protected.


12/07/99 Miranda rights under review
After the Supreme Court decided the case of Miranda v Arizona (384 U.S. 436), Congress passed a law known today as 3501 (18 USC 3501). In the 1966 Miranda ruling, the Court invalidated a confession because the defendant said he was unaware that he had the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. 3501, passed in 1968, was an attempt to minimize the effect of Miranda. It mandated that confessions given voluntarily were admissible even if the confessor had not been read his Miranda rights. The little-used 3501 has been invoked in the case of Dickerson v U.S., and the Court has indicated that it will hear the case and decide on the constitutionality of 3501.


12/06/99 Constitutionality of federal Christmas holiday upheld
A judge in the Ohio District Court ruled today that Christmas can be a legal federal holiday, because though it is celebrated by Christians as the day of the birth of Christ, it is also celebrated by non-Christians as the arrival of Santa Claus, and is thus not a solely religious holiday. The lawyer who brought the suit vowed to appeal, saying that the District Judge did not give the matter the proper scrutiny.


11/30/99 Vermont case hits Supreme Court
The Supreme Court heard arguments from Vermont that the False Claims Act is unconstitutional because it allows private citizens to sue a state in federal court, in violation of the 11th Amendment. The appeal brings the concept of "qui tam" into question. Qui tam means that a person sues on not only his own behalf, but on that of the government as well - the case stems from a private citizen suing the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources for defrauding the federal government. The Act gives the private citizen a 25% piece of any fraudulent funds recovered, giving the citizen legal standing to sue. Judgment is expected in Summer, 2000.


11/16/99 Court agrees to hear school prayer case
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case of school prayer, perhaps clarifying rules, by either loosening or tightening them. The Court has ruled variously since 1962 when it first banned school-led prayer. Students may offer prayers at graduations, the courts have said, but prayers at sporting events have been ruled as both constitutional and unconstitutional by different Circuit Courts. The Supreme Court will hear a Texas case, and rule on the issue for the first time since 1992.


11/15/99 Court to hear case on federal anti-arson law
The Supreme Court today agreed to hear arguments against a federal anti-arson law, displaying it new-found states rights attitude. The law, which makes arson a federal crime if the burned building or property is "used in interstate commerce or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce." A man convicted of arson under the federal law for burning a private home is challenging the law. The appeals court upheld his conviction on the grounds that the house used natural gas purchased in interstate commerce, the mortgage was held by an out-of-state lender, and insured by an out-of-state insurer.


11/10/99 FEC clarifies Web Link opinion
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has issued an opinion that web sites that link to the sites of political candidates are not to be considered campaign contributions. The opinion makes it clear that political candidates are not responsible for independent voter web sites, links, and email, whether the campaign knows of the voter's activities or not. The status of the voter, however, is still unclear, considering earlier FEC opinions.


10/21/99 Senate affirms Roe v. Wade
In a 51-46 vote, the U.S. Senate passed a non-binding amendment to a bill, supporting the right to an abortion established in the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v Wade decision. It read, in part, that the decision "secures an important constitutional right and such a decision should not be overturned."


10/19/99 Court rules a crime scene requires a warrant to be searched
In the 1996 case of a minister who slashed his wife to death, the Supreme Court today declared that evidence collected at the crime scene is tainted because it was not obtained under the guise of a search warrant. James M Flippo called police to say he and his wife had been attacked in a cabin they had rented. Evidence found in a case found while searching the crime scene helped convict Flippo of the murder. The Court issued no written ruling, sending the case back to the West Virginia courts to determine if a new trial was required.


10/19/99 FEC rules personal web sites may violate election law
At the request of an independent voter who advocated the election of political candidate in Connecticut, the Federal Election Commission has issued an advisory opinion that states that a web site that calls for the election of any candidate over another may be subject to federal registration and election rules. The FEC says that a web-based endorsement amounts to a contribution, regardless of whether any actual money changed hands. If the cost of the service, hosting computer, or composition computer is more than $250, the owner must file with the FEC - if over $1000, the owner must register as a political action committee. The ACLU is fighting the opinion, citing a clear violation of free speech.


10/14/99 Senate rejects Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
By a vote of 51 to 48, the Senate rejected the international Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a defeat for the Clinton administration that had pushed hard to have the treaty considered. The treaty, however, will come back for future consideration. Republicans, who mainly opposed the bill, said that they feared the message that a moratorium on testing would send to rogue nations. Ironically, the Clinton administration argued the same point.


10/13/99 Supreme Court to examine 11th Amendment restrictions
In a case that may invoke the 200-year old 11th Amendment, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that pits state employees against states. The case concerns a federal law that permits state employees to sue states for age discrimination. Though the 11th forbids the federal courts from having jurisdiction in cases of a citizen of one state against another state, interpretations have extended that prohibition to citizens of the state itself.


10/05/99 Supreme Court opens fall term
The Supreme Court started its Fall 1999 term this week, hearing arguments for and against a Missouri law which limits campaign contributions. Missouri argues that its $1000-per-person limit (with adjustments for inflation) falls well within the scope of limits allowed by the Court in 1976. Detractors maintain that the law, which limits contributions to state campaigns, is a violation of freedom of speech. A decision is expected by June, 2000. The Court rejected several appeal requests, including one by infamous jailhouse celebrity Mumia Abu- Jamal; and another by RMS Titanic, allowing tourists to visit the site of that ship's sinking.


9/10/99 Supreme Court announces case load for 1999 session
The Supreme Court has announced, earlier than normal, a series of cases that it will hear when its term opens in October. One case will decide if car manufacturers can be sued for not installing air bags before they were required by federal regulations. The Court, in recent years, has cut back on the number of cases it would hear, but has found itself with too much open time in its arguments schedule, and has begun to announce new cases it has accepted.


8/25/99 New version of ERA introduced
Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has introduced a new version of the Equal Rights Amendment for consideration as an amendment to the Constitution. The original ERA, which was passed in 1972, and failed to be ratified when it expired in 1982, had real trouble once it was presented to the states, as many political groups attacked it. It was seen by many as a way of guaranteeing abortion rights and homosexual rights, though proponents dismissed these arguments.


8/23/99 FCC announces new wiretap rules
The Federal Communications Commission issued new rules today for the tapping of digital and wireless telephones. Since traditional means for wiretaps do not work with digital and wireless phones, the FCC has ruled that carriers must provide law enforcement with information to help pinpoint the location a call is being made from. The rules are permitted under a 1994 law that was designed to keep law enforcement technology up with communications technology.


8/14/99 Iowa straw poll seen as true start of race for the Presidency
An event that is designed to be fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party has, as in previous presidential election years, turned into a way to initially gauge the preference of Republicans for their choice to lead the party. George W. Bush, son of President George Bush, and Governor of Texas, won the straw vote by a large plurality. Perennial hopeful Steve Forbes, and newcomer Elizabeth Dole came in second and third. Though the straw poll has no official power, it is used as a first indication of the preference of common Republicans of a candidate from the large initial pool of candidates.


8/9/99 Nolo Press sues Texas lawyer group over self-help law books and software
Nolo Press filed suit against the Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee, an agency of the state. The UPLC charges that Nolo's self-help legal books and software, as well as those of other companies, amount to the practice of law, and should be banned. Nolo contends that banning legal self-help books amounts to a violation of the 1st Amendment, and have the decisions of several state courts to back that claim; in addition, Nolo contends that the Texas Constitution has even stronger free speech protections that would protect the legal materials. (Note that nothing particular happened on this case on 8/9/99; this date was the first mention on this site. For more info, see the Nolo site.)


7/16/99 Pay increases on the way
The salary for the next President will rise for the first time since 1969, as budgeted in a bill passed by the Congress today. The salary of a sitting President may not be changed according to the Constitution. The increase will double the salary from $200,000 to $400,000. The bill also allowed an automatic cost of living increase for congress people; the increase is applied unless it is specifically vetoed. The Constitution's 27th Amendment prevents congressional pay increases until after an election cycle, but the courts have ruled that regularly scheduled cost of living increases do not fall under the 27th Amendment's prohibition.


7/16/99 Congress sends President bill via E-mail
The Congress sent a bill to the President for the first time via e-mail. The bill, a Y2K legal reform measure, was electronically signed by several members of Congress and then e-mailed to the President at his whitehouse.gov address. Because there are no provisions in law for the President to officially receive an electronic version of a bill, a paper version was also delivered as in the past. A strict reading of the Constitution would not seem to require a paper copy, but no rules for any other copy currently exist.


6/24/99 House passes Flag Protection Amendment
The House voted 305-124 in favor of a Constitutional Amendment allowing Congress to regulate desecration of the U.S. Flag. The amendment passed with a 19-vote margin. It is expected to have trouble raising the required 2/3's majority needed in the Senate. This is the third time in as many Congresses that the House has passed a similar amendment.


6/23/99 State immunity expanded in trio of landmark rulings
In three rulings, each passed by a slim 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court expanded the immunity of states from financial judgments in suits brought against them. The first case involved Maine and correctional officers who sued for back overtime pay in accordance with federal labor law. The officers sued in Federal Court several years ago, a suit which the Supreme Court rejected on 11th Amendment grounds. The officers then sued in state court, and the Court has just ruled that a state cannot be sued in state court, even if federal law authorizes it. The ruling appears to have removed legal remedy for state employees if states violate federal law. The majority wrote that the doctrine of sovereign immunity prevents states from being sued against their will. The two other cases, both involving Florida, prohibited a state from being sued for patent violation and for unfair business practices.


6/22/99 States discriminate against the mentally ill if they are kept in institutions, Court rules
The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that if a mentally ill individual can be safely placed in a community environment, as opposed to an institutional one, it must do so. In the case of a pair of mentally retarded women, Georgia had denied them community placement due to a lack of funding, over their doctors' observations that they did not need to be institutionalized. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, states may not discriminate against the mentally disabled, and lack of funds, the Court ruled, does not qualify as a circumstance that would "fundamentally alter" the program.


6/22/99 Juries need not be informed of the consequences of their decisions, Court rules
The Supreme Court ruled that a federal law permitting the death penalty for more than 40 crimes does not require that juries be told what happens if they cannot agree on the death penalty. In a split 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that juries are supposed to try to reach unanimity on any decision, and the knowledge that if they deadlock in the penalty phase, the judge must sentence the accused to life, runs counter to that ideal. The case stems from the death penalty conviction of Louis Jones, who abducted a woman from a Laundromat on Army base, and beat her to death with a tire iron. Jones's jury found him guilty; the judge's instructions in the penalty phase did not include a notation that if they could not agree on life or death, the judge was required to impose the life sentence.


6/21/99 Court refuses to hear leniency-for-testimony case
The Supreme Court today refused to hear a case of a convicted felon whose co-defendant testified against her in exchange for a lighter sentence. The challenge was that by offering such deals, prosecutors are guilty of bribery, which should taint the conviction. The argument had been accepted by a lower court, then rejected by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. By refusing to hear the case, the Court gave tacit approval to such deals, often used by prosecutors to secure accomplice testimony.


6/18/99 Flag desecration amendment reported to the House
The House Judiciary Committee sent House Joint Resolution 33 to the full House, the first step in adding an amendment to the Constitution authorizing Congress to create legislation protecting the United States flag from "desecration." In the committee report, the majority noted "The flag is not simply another `idea' or `point of view' competing for recognition in the marketplace of ideas. Millions and millions of Americans regard it with an almost mystical reverence regardless of what sort of social, political, or philosophical beliefs they may have." The minority noted in its dissent that .".. the amendment, if ratified, will push our political speech rights closer to countries like China and Iran and the former regimes of the Soviet Union and South Africa."


6/14/99 Ban on Gambling Advertisements unconstitutional
A unanimous Supreme Court struck down federal rules banning over-the-air advertising of gambling, citing free speech concerns and a body of law so riddled with exemptions to render it unsustainable. The federal ban applied even in states where gambling is legal, and exempted such endeavors as state lotteries and tribal casinos. The ruling essentially ensured free-speech protection for all entities engaged in the gambling industry.


6/11/1999 Vermont Supreme Court forbids public financing of religious schooling
Citing just the Vermont Constitution, a united Vermont Supreme Court struck down a bid by the town of Chittenden to allow its students to attend a nearby parochial school. Chittenden, which does not have its own high school, allows students to attend neighboring high schools, including Catholic Mt. Saint Joseph's in nearby Rutland. The Vermont Department of Education brought the suit against the town. The Court ruled that using public funds in this way violates Vermont's Article 3, which forbids anyone from being "compelled to ... support any place of worship." The Court found itself unable to separate religious instruction from religious worship, thus rendering the public support of a parochial school unconstitutional.


6/10/1999 Accomplice confessions may not substitute for accomplice testimony
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that if an accomplice to a crime refuses to testify in a trial, a confession of the accomplice may not be used in that trial. The justices ruled that to allow such evidence is a clear violation of the Constitutional right of the accused to face their accuser. The ruling reversed a Virginia Supreme Court decision in the case of death-row inmate Benjamin Lee Lilly. The Court sent the case back to the state court to examine if the admittance of the confession was a harmless error, or if a new trial will be needed.


6/10/1999 Supreme Court strikes down anti-loitering law
An anti-loitering law touted as an anti-gang measure was struck down by Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling. The Chicago law allowed police to break up gatherings of people in which any member of the group was a suspected gang member, and which permitted arrests of those who refused to disperse. The Court ruled the law was overly vague, and allowed the police to impose an arbitrary standard of enforcement. The dissenters were from the Court's conservative corner, and argued the law was an important step in increasing public safety.


6/9/1999 Judge denies Kosovo War Power challenge
A Federal District Judge denied a suit brought by several congressmen against the President for the hostilities in Kosovo. Judge Paul Friedman dismissed the suit led by Tom Campbell (R-CA) without ruling on the War Powers Act itself, which requires the Congress to authorize any military action taken by the President within 60 days. A vote on the hostilities went down to a 213-213 tie. The Judge dismissed the suit noting that it is not the place of the judicial branch to settle disputes between the legislative and executive branches. He also noted the Congress had sent mixed messages on the issue, with one later vote authorizing funding for the action and another insisting that Congress have a say on any deployment of ground troops. Campbell says he plans an appeal.


6/7/1999 Access to federal courts by state prisoners limited
The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that state prisoners challenging their prosecutions can have only limited access to federal courts. Only issues that have been brought in front of the highest court in the state may be brought before federal courts, the Justices said. Justice O'Connor, writing for the Court, noted that the full array of appeals must be processed at the state level; she also noted that the inevitable increase in the workload of state courts will not be welcome.


5/24/1999 Schools can be sued by student victims of sexual harassment
A divided Court ruled 5-4 that a Georgia school district can be sued by a student who was a victim of sexual harassment, because the district knew about the harassment and did nothing about it. The decision affects all schools at all educational levels, if they accept any federal monies. The Court did note that the harassment must be pervasive and severe, and that the school's officials must have been deliberately indifferent to the problem.


5/24/1999 Police-escorted television cameras can be an invasion of privacy
The 4th Amendment is violated when the police allow news media ride-along cameras to accompany them into the homes of people being searched or arrested, according to a unanimous Supreme Court ruling. According to the ruling, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, although police officers may be authorized to enter a home, reporters and/or videographers do not assist in the serving of a warrant or in any search. The right of the public to know, he said, is far outweighed by the expectation of privacy inside one's home.


5/24/1999 Rule restricting bus advertising to commercial messages upheld
The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the Arizona Civil Liberties and the Children of the Rosary, who filed suit against the Phoenix, which restricts exterior bus advertising to commercial messages only. The ACLU had a political ad rejected, and the Children of the Rosary had a religious ad rejected. An appeals court had ruled that the restriction was reasonable and neutral; the Supreme Court upheld this ruling by refusing to hear the case.


5/17/1999 Court rules that welfare benefit limits are unconstitutional
In a 7-2 ruling, the Court struck down a California welfare reform law that limited the benefits the first year after welfare recipients arrived in the state. The Court ruled that doing so violates the right to freely travel between the states, a right not guaranteed in the Constitution, but which is otherwise firmly established in law. The ruling also noted that while citizens have the right to choose any state to live in, states do not have the right to choose which citizens live in the state.


5/3/1999 Court rules that threat of political persecution is not grounds to stay a deportation when the deportee is accused of non-political crimes
In the case of a Guatemalan man who is in custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Court unanimously ruled that the man, accused of several violent acts in his home country, does not have grounds to invoke political asylum in the U.S.


4/21/1999 Court rejects challenge to CDA provision prohibiting "annoying" email
The Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision without comment in a case brought by Clinton Fein, owner of Annoy.com, which allows users to anonymously send obscene email and postcards to others. Fein argued that the provision that prohibits obscene communications intended to annoy was overly broad. The lower court ruled that a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act covered only "obscene" material, and was not overly broad. Earlier Supreme Court rulings had struck "indecent" material from coverage by the CDA. In legal terms, obscenity and indecency are separate concepts.


1/25/1999 Court rules that sampling may not be used in the 2000 census
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that statistical sampling may not be used in the census to be conducted in 2000. The divided Court noted that for the purposes of apportionment, current census law forbids the use of sampling for the determination of apportionment. Sampling may be used for other population-related issues, however. Congress had indicated that it had no intention of authorizing funds to be used for a second count using sampling.


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