Weekly Legal News 4/13/14

This week, Democrats and the Obama administration fully embraced the fight over access to the ballot as a defining civil-rights issue of our day. In a speech at the National Action Network convention in New York City Friday afternoon, Obama used his most forceful language yet on the subject to condemn Republican efforts to make voting harder. “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” the president said. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.” Obama even took time to dissect the arguments of those who argue that voter ID laws are needed to stop fraud, citing a study showing a fraud rate of just 0.00002%. “So let’s be clear,” Obama said. “The real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud.” To voting rights advocates, the new level of engagement from top Democrats, especially Obama himself, is welcome indeed. The Democratic National Committee launched the Voter Expansion Project, which aims to push back against restrictive voting laws by registering new voters and supporting laws that expand access to the ballot. There’s a clear political purpose to the Democrats’ new focus. In past mid-term elections, turnout among some of the party’s core groups, especially African-Americans and students, has lagged, giving the GOP an edge. The goal is to use anger over voting restrictions to motivate those voters.

In a rare decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently expanded legal interpretations of domestic violence beyond extremely violent acts. Though the case before the Court was primarily concerned with a federal law that prohibits convicted domestic abusers to possess guns, the Court’s interpretation of what constitutes domestic violence will almost certainly influence other areas of law involving domestic abuse. Specifically, the Court held that the term domestic violence does indeed encompass acts “that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a nondomestic context.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained that while the concept of violence essentially requires the exercise of substantial physical force, domestic violence does not. It is unclear exactly how the Court’s recent decision will affect domestic abuse law on a broad scale. It is possible that given the Court’s focus on more minor acts of bodily harm in this specific case that the expanded interpretation may be somewhat limited to related physical acts in many jurisdictions. However, the very acknowledgement that domestic violence includes acts far beyond extreme injury is both necessary and a most welcome development. And it could pave the way for even broader interpretations of domestic violence in the future.


In Uganda, the press has dubbed a nurse “the killer nurse,” after the HIV-infected medical worker was accused of deliberately injecting her blood into a two-year-old patient. The 64-year-old nurse, Rosemary Namubiru, was charged with attempted murder, denied bail and sent to jail in an unusual case that many here saw as a horrifying example of the lax hospital standards believed to be prevalent in this East African country. But in the course of her trial — on the revised charge of criminal negligence — the nurse is attracting sympathy and emerging as the apparent victim of rampant stigma in a country that until recently was being praised as a global leader in fighting AIDS and promoting an open attitude toward the disease. The nurse, while attempting to give an injection to a distraught child on Jan. 7, accidentally pricked her finger with a needle, according to AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy group that has been monitoring the ongoing trial. After bandaging her finger she returned to administer the injection, apparently using the contaminated needle. Uncertain about whether the same needle was used, the child’s mother “became concerned about the possibility that her child had been exposed to HIV,” the group said. After a test showed the nurse was HIV positive, she was arrested and prosecutors argued against giving her bail on the grounds that she posed a grave danger to the public. If convicted, the nurse faces seven years in jail and would be the first Ugandan medical worker to be sentenced under a colonial-era law against negligent acts likely to lead to the spread of an infectious disease. The Global Commission on HIV and the Law said the nurse’s “life has been ruined. No matter the outcome of the trial, the panorama of ferociously intemperate accusation will haunt her and her family forever.”


Massachusetts’ highest court has ruled that officials may enter private property without a search warrant to rescue animals “in appropriate circumstances.” The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said that, “in appropriate circumstances, animals, like humans, should be afforded the protection of the emergency aid exception.”According to court records, in January 2011 police in Lynn, Mass., responded to a neighbor’s report of two dead dogs and an emaciated dog outdoors in freezing and snowy weather. Police climbed a snow bank to look into the locked yard. After unsuccessful efforts to reach the owner, they had the fire department remove the lock and animal control authorities take the dogs. The owner was charged with three counts of animal cruelty but moved to suppress the police observations and physical evidence. A prosecutor welcomed the outcome. “This ruling makes clear that police may respond to an emergency in which an animal requires immediate protection or is in imminent danger of physical harm while still respecting the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizures,” District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett of Essex County, Mass., said.