Blog Posts by Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News

  • Jury finds George Zimmerman not guilty

    SANFORD, Fla--George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman whose trial for the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin riveted viewers and sparked a national conversation about race and justice, was found not guilty on all charges Saturday.

    Zimmerman, 29, was acquitted on charges of second-degree murder in the death of Martin, a 17 year old whom the defendant shot during a scuffle in a nearby gated community on Feb 26, 2012. The six-woman jury also found Zimmerman not guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

    The jury signaled they had reached a verdict 9:45 pm ET and filed into the courtroom around 10 pm. After the verdict was read, Judge Debra Nelson polled the jurors to make sure each agreed with the decision. She then told Zimmerman he was free to go.

    Zimmerman showed little emotion as the verdict was announced.

    The decision from the jury had been expected to spark outrage from Martin family supporters who say the teen's death was ignored by police and prosecutors for

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  • Zimmerman jury asks for 'clarification' on manslaughter charge

    SANFORD, Fla--After more than 12 hours of deliberation, the jury in the George Zimmerman case has asked the court for "clarification" on the charge of manslaughter. The question is likely to make the defense nervous, since it suggests the all-female jury could be seriously weighing a conviction on the lesser charge in the case.

    Both the prosecution and defense agreed that the jurors need to ask a more specific question, saying they cannot engage in "general discussions" about the charge. Judge Debra Nelson agreed to send the attorneys' response back to the jurors around 7:00 p.m. Saturday night.

    Zimmerman, a 29-year-old volunteer neighborhood watchman, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whom the defendant shot during a scuffle in a nearby gated community on Feb 26, 2012. The jury was also told it could convict Zimmerman on the lesser charge of manslaughter, or acquit him as not guilty of any crime. Zimmerman argued he acted in self defense.

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  • Jury in Zimmerman trial adjourns for the night, will continue deliberations Saturday

    SANFORD, Fla -- After a dramatic final day of closing arguments, the six-woman jury in the George Zimmerman trial adjourned for the day at 6:00 pm ET Friday after deliberating for about three and a half hours. They will continue deliberations beginning at 9:00 am ET Saturday.

    Following a three-week televised trial, the jurors are deciding whether to find Zimmerman, a 29-year-old volunteer neighborhood watchman, guilty or not guilty of second degree murder when he shot an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, dead in a scuffle in a nearby gated community the night of February 26, 2012. They may also find Zimmerman guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

    Before the fatal encounter, Zimmerman had called the local police to alert them that Martin looked suspicious and then pursued him against the advice of the non-emergency dispatcher. What happened after that has made up the heart of the trial: whether Martin attacked Zimmerman or the other way around. Zimmerman has acknowledged shooting

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  • Pennsylvania attorney general refuses to defend gay marriage ban

    Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kale announced Thursday that she will not defend the state's gay marriage ban against a challenge brought by 21 gay Pennsylvanians who want to marry in the state or have their out-of-state marriages recognized.

    "We are the land of the free and the home of the brave, and I want to start acting like that," Kane said at a news conference Thursday in Philadelphia. Kane, a Democrat, said she believes the state's law is unconstitutional and can't in good conscience defend it. The state general counsel will take over the case, she said.

    The American Civil Liberties Union is backing the suit, which was filed this week and includes 10 same-sex couples and one widow. They argue that the state refusing to allow them to marry or recognize their out-of-state marriages violates their "fundamental right to marry as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

    Kane, as well as Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, is a defendant in the suit. This

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  • Border Patrol union 'concerned' by manpower expansion in immigration bill

    The last-minute addition to the sweeping Senate immigration reform bill of $38 billion in security spending on the U.S.-Mexican border has found an unlikely opponent -- Border Patrol agents.

    Leaders of the union representing 17,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol officers say they have serious concerns about how the Border Patrol can grow from 21,394 agents to 40,000 in only 10 years, as the bill requires, without sacrificing quality or efficiency.

    The Border Patrol has doubled in size in the past eight years on earlier mandates from Congress supported by President George W. Bush. The government also nearly doubled the number of Customs agents who man ports of entry, which has raised concerns that poorly screened officers are being hired who may be more likely to be corrupt.

    The bill would increase spending on the southern border by $46.3 billion in the first 10 years. About $38 billion of that was added in a last-minute amendment introduced by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Bob Corker,

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  • American Action Network backs Rubio on immigration with cable ad

    The center-right American Action Network super PAC is running an ad on Fox News in Florida backing Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for drafting and voting for comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate.

    Rubio has faced heat from the right for supporting the bill, which would legalize nearly 11 million immigrants in the country while vastly increasing enforcement resources at the southern border. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that his "strongly favorable" ratings among Republicans had dropped 11 points compared with last August, while his popularity among Democrats has increased slightly.

    The ad emphasizes the border security provisions of the bill. "Radar. Night vision. Even drones," the narrator intones in the background.

    While the legislation passed the Senate with votes from 14 Republicans, including Rubio, it's still unclear if the Republican-led House will take up the reform baton.

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  • Immigration reform bill passes Senate, moves to skeptical House

    Some members of the bipartisan group of senators who drafted the immigration bill in January. It passed the Senate on Thursday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

    The Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill on Thursday afternoon, after a recently hashed-out compromise on border security helped persuade a total of 14 Republicans to vote for the measure. The bill, which passed 68-32, could face a steep uphill climb in the Republican-controlled House.

    The vote brings Congress a step closer to passing its first major immigration reform since the 1986 amnesty bill that legalized more than 3 million immigrants under President Ronald Reagan.

    Moments before the vote, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor that the "historic legislation recognizes that today's immigrants came for the right reason, the same reason as the generations before them ... the right to live in a land that's free."

    Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa spoke against the measure on the floor, arguing that it does not do enough to increase interior immigration enforcement. "The bill won't ensure that a future Congress isn't back here in 25 years dealing with the very same problems," Grassley said.

    The "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group of senators who drafted the bill, had hoped to get 70 out of 100 senators to vote to pass the bill and send a strong signal to the House that the legislation is bipartisan. The bill fell just two votes short of that goal. Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Jeffrey Chiesa, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, Dean Heller, John Hoeven, Mark Kirk, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Marco Rubio joined the entire Democratic caucus in voting for the measure.

    The reform will implement a mandatory, national employment verification system; allow for more legal immigration of low- and high-skilled workers; beef up border security; and eventually give green cards to most of the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants who pass background checks and pay fines.

    The bill has moved to the right in the Senate on border security, thanks to an amendment adopted last week that will double the number of Border Patrol officers and increase fencing on the southern border by hundreds of miles before any unauthorized immigrants are offered permanent legal status.

    But House members working on their own version of immigration reform told The Hill this is not enough: They would prefer that no unauthorized immigrant be offered even temporary legal status until all the border security measures of the bill are fully implemented. Republican Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam told reporters Thursday the bill is a "pipe dream" that will never pass the House.

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  • Supreme Court strikes down DOMA; rules it interferes with states, ‘dignity’ of same-sex marriages

    The Supreme Court released two major decisions expanding gay rights across the country on Wednesday as hordes of cheering demonstrators greeted the news outside. The justices struck down a federal law barring the recognition of same-sex marriage in a split decision, ruling that the law violates the rights of gays and lesbians and intrudes into states' rights to define and regulate marriage. The court also dismissed a case involving California's gay marriage ban, ruling that supporters of the ban did not have the legal standing, or right, to appeal a lower court's decision striking down Proposition 8 as discriminatory.

    The decision clears the way for gay marriage to again be legal in the nation's most populous state, even though the justices did not address the broader legal argument that gay people have a fundamental right to marriage.

    The twin decisions throw the fight over gay marriage back to the states, because the court ruled the federal government must recognize the unions if states sanction them, but did not curtail states' rights to ban gay marriage if they choose.

    Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's conservative-leaning swing vote with a legal history of supporting gay rights, joined his liberal colleagues in the DOMA decision, which will dramatically expand the rights of married gay couples in the country to access more than 1,000 federal benefits and responsibilities of marriage previously denied them.

    "The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States," Kennedy wrote of DOMA. He concluded that states must be allowed by the federal government to confer "dignity" on same-sex couples if they choose to legalize gay marriage. DOMA "undermines" same-sex marriages in visible ways and "tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition."

    Eighty-three-year-old New Yorker Edith Windsor brought the DOMA suit after she was made to pay more than $363,000 in estate taxes when her same-sex spouse died. If the federal government had recognized her marriage, Windsor would not have owed the sum. She argued that the government has no rational reason to exclude her marriage (she and her late partner, Thea Spyer, had been married since 2007, and together for more than four decades) from the benefits and obligations other married couples receive.

    DOMA, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, prevented the government from granting marriage benefits in more than 1,000 federal statutes to same-sex married couples in the 12 states and District of Columbia that allow gay marriage. Clinton, who disavowed the law earlier this year, released a statement congratulating Windsor on her victory. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would "work expeditiously" to implement the decision, and called it a "triumph for equal protection under the law for all Americans."

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  • Supreme Court strikes down heart of Voting Rights Act: ‘Our country has changed’

    Holding signs with images of murdered civil rights workers, demonstrators rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in February. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

    President Barack Obama and his attorney general said they were "deeply disappointed" by the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement that helped dismantle decades of discriminatory voting restrictions in the South when it passed 60 years ago. The vote was split 5-4, with the court's liberal justices dissenting.

    The decision drastically scales back the federal government's power to reject state laws it believes discriminate against minority voters, which include some efforts to tighten identification requirements and limit early voting hours at the ballot box. A wave of such laws swept 30 states over the past few years, and the Obama administration has aggressively fought them in court.

    The president said he was "deeply disappointed" by the decision in a statement on Tuesday. "While today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination," Obama said. "I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."

    Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—reauthorized by Congress for an additional 25 years in 2006—gives the federal government the ability to pre-emptively reject changes to election law in states and counties that have a history of discriminating against minority voters. The law covers nine states and portions of seven more, most of them in the South. The formula used to decide which states are subject to this special scrutiny (set out in Section 4 of the law) is based on decades-old voter turnout and registration data, the justices ruled, which is unfair to the states covered under it. States that had a discriminatory poll test in the 1960s and low turnout among minority voters must seek special permission from the federal government to change their election laws, even though many of these states now have near-equal voter turnout rates between minorities and whites.

    "The coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. "Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

    The Justice Department used Section 5 of the law to block voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina last year, and it also struck down early voting restrictions in five counties in Florida. (Minority voters are more likely than white voters to vote early in person, and they are less likely than whites to have a government-issued photo ID.) Some Democrats argued that these laws were intentionally trying to suppress minority turnout in order to benefit Republicans. Texas is already beginning to implement its voter ID law given the court's decision Tuesday.

    The court has effectively now put the ball back in Congress' court, writing in its decision that it is up to Congress to write a new formula that is based on current data. States or counties that fit the new formula could still be subject to federal "preclearance" of changes to their elections procedures. It remains to be seen whether Congress, which is now more partisanly divided than in 2006, would tackle the challenge of creating a new rubric to find and eradicate racial discrimination at the polls. The president called on Congress to pass legislation addressing the ruling in a statement on Tuesday.

    In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes the "sad irony" of Roberts' decision is that it strikes down the key part of the Voting Rights Act because it has been so successful at preventing racial discrimination. "Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet," she writes. Ginsburg also slams the court's majority for relying on turnout and registration rates "as if that were the whole story" and ignoring so-called second-generation laws and regulations designed to make it harder for minorities to vote. (One such Mississippi regulation sought to cancel a local election in 2001 because black candidates announced their intention to run.)

    Civil rights groups warned that the decision will negatively affect minority voters who live in the covered jurisdictions. "This is a sad day for democracy," said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice advocacy center. "The Voting Rights Act is a needed and instrumental tool in our fight to eradicate racial discrimination, and the Supreme Court's decision today has made it much harder to utilize this tool effectively." Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement that Congress should act to draft another coverage formula. "We urge Congress to act with urgency and on a bipartisan basis to protect voting rights for minorities," Henderson said.

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  • Supreme Court punts on affirmative-action case

    Attorney Bert Rein speaks to the media while standing with plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher outside the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2012. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

    The Supreme Court has surprised legal experts by declining to strike down the University of Texas' use of race in undergraduate admissions. On Monday, the justices sent the case back to a lower court for a rehearing, dodging a decision on whether affirmative-action policies at public colleges around the country are unconstitutional.

    Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's conservative-leaning swing vote, wrote the opinion for Fisher v. University of Texas, which was decided 7-1. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court's liberal leader, dissented, arguing that the lower court's decision in favor of affirmative action should stand.

    Kennedy said the federal Fifth Circuit must rehear the case to decide whether UT "offered sufficient evidence to prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity." The court also requires the lower court to decide whether the college could use any "race neutral" means of creating a diverse campus before resorting to affirmative action, a slightly stricter standard than has been expressed by the court in the past.

    "Strict scrutiny imposes on the university the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice," the justices wrote.

    The decision comes as a surprise, since during oral arguments in the case in October, many of the conservative-leaning justices seemed poised to issue a broader ruling invalidating the use of race in admissions. Kennedy has also frequently expressed skepticism of affirmative-action programs.

    "Affirmative action lives to see another day," Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert at UCLA, told Yahoo News. "The Supreme Court seemed prepared to strike a real blow against affirmative action back in October. But the Fisher case reaffirms [previous] Supreme Court cases that allow universities to take race into account."

    Abigail Noel Fisher brought suit against the University of Texas after she was denied admission in 2008. UT automatically admits Texans who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, but fills its remaining seats by judging applicants on a combination of GPA, test scores, race and other factors. Fisher claimed she was discriminated against because she is white when she was denied admission. The college argued that Fisher's GPA and standardized test scores made her inadmissible regardless of her race and that using race as one factor in admission helps it maintain a diverse student body.

    The Supreme Court established in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger that universities could use race as a factor in admissions as long as they did not use quotas (for example, that 10 percent of the class must be black). The justices said affirmative action was still necessary to create a diverse student body, which it ruled was a compelling state interest. The majority wrote that they believed that in 25 years, affirmative action would no longer be necessary and should be stopped. This "sunset" provision was skewered by the four dissenting justices.

    Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas both wrote in concurring opinions that they would overrule Grutter on the grounds that it improperly allows publicly funded universities to discriminate on the basis of race. The conservative justices noted, however, that the plaintiffs in the Fisher case did not ask the court to overrule Grutter.

    In a blistering dissent, Thomas wrote that universities' desire for a diverse student body is not necessary or pressing enough to justify affirmative action, which he describes as racial discrimination. Thomas compared the case for "racial tinkering" in admissions to arguments made by segregationists 60 years ago that "separate but equal" education would ultimately help black people. "The Constitution does not pander to faddish theories about whether race mixing is in the public interest," Thomas wrote. "The Equal Protection Clause strips States of all authority to use race as a factor in providing education."

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