Supreme Court justices troubled by partisan gerrymandering, but unsure how to control it

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices, hearing arguments Wednesday in a Maryland gerrymandering case, signaled again they are troubled when politicians draw election districts solely to give their party more seats in Congress.

But they appeared equally frustrated over the question of what — if anything — the court should do about it.

The Maryland case seemed to most of the justices to represent an extreme and obvious example of partisan gerrymandering, which, unlike racial gerrymandering, has not been outlawed.

“What is this, except about politics?” Justice Elena Kagan asked a state lawyer for Maryland. She said the Legislature under Democratic control had shifted 350,000 voters and transformed a strong Republican district into one that now reliably elects another Democrat to Congress. “However much you think is too much, this case is too much,” she said to laughter in the courtroom.

Others agreed. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. agreed that the state has redrawn its districts “to prefer one party over another.”

But to a surprising degree, the justices still seemed uncertain as to how to rule. Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said legislatures have to redraw districts after the census, and politics will invariably play some role in how the lines are drawn.

“This seems like a pretty clear violation of the Constitution in some form to have deliberate, extreme gerrymandering. But is there a practical remedy that won’t get judges involved in every, or dozens and dozens of very important political decisions?” asked Justice Stephen G. Breyer in a question that went largely unanswered and seemed to hang over the argument.

The constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering is the most significant question before the court this term. Since the 1980s, the justices have repeatedly criticized politicians for drawing election districts that entrench their party in power. But they have also repeatedly failed to rule that such politically motivated redistricting violates the Constitution.

—Tribune Washington Bureau

Trump loses first skirmish in suit over Washington hotel profits

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will have to contend for now with a lawsuit claiming he is improperly profiting from his posh downtown Washington, D.C., hotel.

U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in Greenbelt, Md., on Wednesday rejected one of the Justice Department’s arguments that he dismiss the lawsuit. The judge said he’ll schedule another hearing to consider other claims by the government.

The ruling is a setback for Trump, who has said that he has no conflicts of interest and is not in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clauses. Those provisions substantially prohibit a president from receiving gifts from a foreign government without the permission of Congress and from being similarly enriched domestically. Trump, the founder of the Trump Organization, is worth $2.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The ruling is only preliminary. The judge said Maryland and D.C. have the right to pursue their case as it relates to the hotel and related businesses there, but he plans to consider other dismissal requests. Messitte granted Trump’s bid to dismiss a part of the suit that focused on profits from his company, The Trump Organization, that come from outside Washington.

The case is one of three filed against the president over the clauses. A New York federal court rejected one pursued by the progressive watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, in December. Trump has moved to dismiss the third, lodged in a Washington trial court by dozens of Democratic lawmakers led by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

—Bloomberg News

Horse meat ban praised by animal activists, but it’s only temporary

WASHINGTON — Horse meat production won’t resume in the U.S. anytime soon, a victory for animal rights advocates under the spending bill signed last week by President Donald Trump.

The $1.3 trillion spending deal, which funds the government through September, renewed the country’s horse slaughter ban. Just months ago, animal activists feared the ban could be in jeopardy.

The measure includes language that prohibits the U.S. Department of Agriculture from spending money on inspecting horse slaughter facilities. Without inspections, horse slaughter plants can’t operate, so they’ll remain closed as they have for more than a decade.

“I think we’re all kind of shocked that the bill turned out as well as it did,” said Nancy Blaney, government affairs director for the Animal Welfare Institute. “We were expecting so many bad possibilities.”

Animal activists, who say the slaughtering of horses is an inhumane way to dispose of unwanted animals, were worried in July after the House Appropriations Committee approved an agriculture spending bill that would lift the ban that has been in place since 2006. The full House then ratified that shift in policy.

Horse meat is consumed in several countries, including Mexico, Japan, France and Belgium, but there’s no market for it in the U.S. Two of the three U.S. slaughterhouses serving the export market before the 2006 ban were in North Texas, in Kaufman and Fort Worth.

A temporary ban on horse slaughter was set to expire Friday, until it was inserted into the budget. Congress had passed similar language every year since 2005, but in 2011, lawmakers dropped the ban from its annual USDA budget. Animal rights groups fought successfully in court in 2013 to block slaughterhouses from reopening, and Congress reinstated the inspector ban in 2014.

Although lawmakers renewed the ban under the spending measure, animal activists again are racing against the clock. Friday’s bill is only temporary, which is why some lawmakers and advocates are pushing for a permanent legislative solution.

—The Dallas Morning News

Volunteers dismantle Stoneman Douglas memorial for preservation

PARKLAND, Fla. — For the past month, 17 white crosses and Stars of David have stood on a stately hill along the fence outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, each festooned in posters and balloons, handwritten notes and flowers.

Now, a month and a half after the Feb. 14 shooting, this makeshift memorial dedicated to 17 Stoneman Douglas students and teachers had faded in the South Florida sun and rain.

On a windy Wednesday morning, 50 volunteers dressed in burgundy #MSDStrong T-shirts, some overcome with grief and tears, began disassembling each shrine.

The volunteers — Stoneman Douglas alumni, still-grieving parents, childhood friends of Coach Aaron Feis, Meadow Pollack, Nicholas Dworet — gently placed flower bouquets in boxes pre-punched with holes.

They plucked spinning pinwheels, some flattened, from the hill.

They paused to read notes.

They stopped to weep.

“We all feel helpless. Everyone’s hurting,” said volunteer Kristy King, of Coral Springs, whose niece, Chloe, swam with Nicholas Dworet at school swim meets.

Dworet, one of 14 children killed in the shooting, would have turned 18 on Saturday.

“But you just try to be here anyway, having some sort of impact on the healing,” King said, and gasped.

Sorting through Dworet’s memorial, she picked up a framed photo of a blue birthday cake, topped with a butterfly, bearing the message: “Happy birthday to my dear friend.”

The grief felt like this: collective. And necessary.

—South Florida Sun Sentinel

Ecuador suspends Assange’s communication outside London embassy

QUITO, Ecuador — The Ecuadorean government said Wednesday it had suspended WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s communications with “the outside,” in a reference to its London embassy, where the Australian national has been residing since 2012.

Ecuador said it suspended “systems that allow Julian Assange to communicate with the outside” due to his failure to honor a 2017 written agreement not to send messages involving “interference in relation to other states.”

Assange may not use the internet or receive visitors at the embassy, according to Britain’s Press Association news agency.

Assange’s messages on social media “put at risk the good relations that the country maintains with the United Kingdom, with the rest of the European Union states and other nations,” the government in Quito said.

It added that it might also adopt “new measures,” without giving further details.

The statement was issued after Assange criticized the arrest of Catalonia’s ex-leader Carles Puigdemont on Twitter, referring to the fugitive as a “political prisoner.”

He also posted a series of tweets about the chemical weapon attack against a former Russian spy on British soil earlier this month, saying that “the evidence (against Russia) is circumstantial.”

British Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan on Tuesday said it was time “that this miserable little worm walked out of the embassy and gave himself up to British justice.”

Assange moved into the embassy in 2012 after breaching bail in relation to sexual assault allegations he faced in Sweden. As there is not an extradition treaty between Britain and Ecuador, he cannot be arrested inside the embassy.

The Swedish authorities have dropped their investigation, but Assange believes he will be extradited to the United States for questioning over the activities of WikiLeaks if he leaves the building.