Weekly Legal News 3/16/14

With thousands armed Russian troops occupying the peninsula, an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted on Sunday to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, resolutely carrying out a public referendum that Western leaders had declared illegal and vowed to punish with economic sanctions. Exit polls showed more than 93 percent of voters favored secession. With the voting complete, Mr. Putin, who had stalled on the question of annexation by saying he wanted to hear the Crimean public proclaim its will, is now under pressure to make a decision. Unrest continued to swirl in eastern Ukraine as well, where Russian troops have massed along the border, raising fears of a new military incursion into mainland Ukraine. The United States and the European nations have almost universally denounced the referendum as illegal under international law, unconstitutional under Ukrainian law and carried out, as the White House noted in a statement on Sunday, under “threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention.” The statement characterized Russia’s actions as “dangerous and destabilizing.” In exit interviews at the polls, many voters expressed joy at the prospect of leaving Ukraine and absolute faith that Mr. Putin would make the transition smooth, issuing new passports, paying pensions and providing other benefits.


A group of nearly 200 Catholic employers filed a new lawsuit in Oklahoma against the federal government Wednesday, hoping to stop parts of the federal health care law that force them to provide insurance that covers contraceptives. The recently formed Catholic Benefits Association takes issue with a compromise in the Affordable Health Care Act offered by the Obama administration that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control. The law requires insurers or the health plan’s outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them. The association says that still forces Roman Catholic employers to violate church teachings. Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the birth control requirement, but affiliated institutions that serve the general public are not. That includes charitable organizations, universities and hospitals. The Catholic groups want a judge to temporarily block the law, saying the federal government’s definition of a “religious employer” is too narrowly interpreted as a house of worship.


Boston’s Irish-American mayor skipped the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade on Sunday after failing to hammer out a deal with organizers to allow a group of gay and lesbian activists to march openly. Mayor Marty Walsh had tried to negotiate a deal with organizers to allow members of MassEquality, one of Massachusetts’ largest gay activist groups, to join the parade. He said, “As mayor of the city of Boston, I have to do my best to ensure that all Bostonians are free to participate fully in the civic life of our city. Unfortunately, this year, the parties were not able to come to an understanding that would have made that possible.” Parade organizers argue that to do so would conflict with their Roman Catholic heritage. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also plans to boycott his city’s parade, scheduled for Monday, in protest.


An Illinois congressman on Thursday introduced a bill aimed at promoting transparency at the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary as well as in the executive and legislative branches. The Transparency in Government Act would require the high court to provide live streaming of the audio of Supreme Court oral arguments. If the bill becomes law, all federal judges’ financial disclosure forms would have to be posted online in a searchable and downloadable format. Introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., the bill also calls for a study by the General Accountability Office and the Judicial Conference of the possible effects of allowing live video access to the Supreme Court, “including the effect on costs, and on the atmosphere of such arguments.” Provisions affecting the other branches would increase reporting of gifts, earmarks and foreign travel by members of Congress, improve lobbyist disclosure, strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and improve access to visitor logs of executive branch officials. The high court’s own reluctance to allow live streaming of arguments may have increased in recent weeks, following a Feb. 26 incident in which a spectator interrupted an oral argument to protest the Citizens United decision. The outburst was deleted from the audio the court currently releases on a delayed basis.