Legal News Update: February 10, 2016

10 February, 2016

Missie Frandsen

Missie Frandsen


Let’s take a look at this week in legal news.


The FBI joins in the Flint Michigan water contamination investigation

A multi-agency team has been activated to investigate the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. The US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan announced this past week that the FBI will be joining them in the investigation. The following agencies have been brought in to investigate specific aspects of the crisis:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Investigating how Michigan’s drinking water rules are enforced.

The U.S. House Oversight Committee – Investigating the EPA’s role in enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act in Michigan.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette – Schuette has appointed a special counsel investigating whether laws were broken.

Additionally, a Michigan Governor’s Task Force, the Michigan Auditor General, the EPA Office of Inspector General, and the Michigan Civil Rights Commission have each played a part in the ongoing investigation.

Thus far, a federal regulator, Flint’s public works director, Michigan’s top environmental regulator, and a state spokesman have resigned in connection with the crisis. Two other state environmental officials have been suspended while under investigation. As the investigation expands, multiple lawsuits have already been filed both to force action by the state and city, and to seek financial damages on behalf of Flint residents.

Obama administration announces new steps toward advancing equal pay

UN experts on discrimination against women released a report in March 2015 stating that “no country has achieved full substantive equality of women.” The Obama administration announced additional steps this past week to further close the gender pay gap, a key part of the deficits in the equality of women in the United States. On average, American women earn 79 percent of comparable male earners. The White House announced several steps to be taken, including requiring all companies with over 100 employees to report salaries by gender, race, and ethnicity. Additionally, the White House continued their call for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, endorsed a Council of Economic Advisors report on the US gender pay gap, and announced the summit, “The United State of Women,” for May 23rd to discuss the progress of women’s rights, and how to continue moving forward. Stay tuned for the results of this summit – many politicians have spoken to the pay gap, but the disparity continues.

UN report states that Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, has been arbitrarily detained, should be released

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a statement regarding what they deem the arbitrary detention of Julian Assange, founder of the infamous website WikiLeaks. Assange was arrested in December 2010 in relation to rape allegations in Sweden. Because the Swedish Supreme Court rejected his appeal of the charges, an arrest warrant was issued for Assange to return to Sweden for questioning. Assange was first put on house arrest in the UK, and then fled to the Ecuadorian embassy for political asylum in 2012. He has remained there since. The UN group found that his detention there is both arbitrary and a deprivation of liberty. The group called for the release of Assange as well as compensation, stating “[t]he Working Group maintains that the arbitrary detention of Mr. Assange should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected, and that he should be entitled to an enforceable right to [compensation].”

WikiLeaks, and its founder Assange, have been the subject of ongoing controversy since their website began publishing the government secrets of nations around the world, including those that led to the arrest and conviction of US Private Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of violation of the Espionage Act for releasing confidential documents related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Assange remains in the Ecuadorian embassy as the fight for his release continues.

The ten year anniversary approaches of Justice Thomas’ silence from the bench

It has been nearly 10 years since Justice Clarence Thomas has asked a question during oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Barring any surprising change of events, the Supreme Court’s return from winter break will mark the auspicious anniversary. This is a remarkable choice, as it has been at least 45 years since another member of the court passed even a single term without asking questions.

Justice Thomas has given various explanations through the years for his silence on questions, but his most recent explanation is that it is simply discourteous to pepper lawyers with questions.

“I think it’s unnecessary in deciding cases to ask that many questions, and I don’t think it’s helpful,” he said at Harvard Law School in 2013. “I think we should listen to lawyers who are arguing their cases, and I think we should allow the advocates to advocate.”

It is true that the justices are well-versed on the lawyer’s arguments by the time they hear oral arguments from the opposing lawyers, having read stacks of thorough briefs prior to the hearing. As Justice Thomas said in his speech at Harvard, “Most of the work is done in the briefs.”

New York Times columnist Adam Liptak wishes that Thomas would speak up. Thomas “has a distinctive legal philosophy and a background entirely different from that of any other justice,” Liptak writes. “Were Justice Thomas to talk, people would listen.” Liptak highlighted a 2002 comment by Thomas, when he spoke about his views on a Virginia law barring cross burning – the cross was a symbol of a “reign of terror” during “almost 100 years of lynching.”

Justice Thomas’ last question was on Feb. 22, 2006, when he questioned a technical aspect of the death penalty case before him.

Attorney blasts billionaire Rams owner in St. Louis Super Bowl ad

Nearly 112 million viewers had their eyes glued to the big screen this past weekend, watching Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. As commercials between plays have become as much a part of the entertainment as the game itself, St. Louis lawyer, Terry Crouppen, used the opportunity to broadcast his disappointment in St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s decision to relocate the team to Los Angeles. Crouppen appeared in commercials on local St. Louis stations during the Super Bowl, telling Rams owner Stan Kroenke:

“We were loyal to our football team. We bought their tickets, wore their jerseys, drank their overpriced beer. We cheered them year after losing year. And in return, they trashed us, then left us.”

“Stan, you’re worth $8 billion,” he told Kroenke, as the ad continues. “That’s not enough? Well, here’s some free advice. Just because it’s legal and you’re rich enough to do it, that doesn’t make it right.”

While the commercial will likely make no impact on Kroenke’s relocation decision, Crouppen certainly got his disappointment off his chest in a very public, and certainly expensive manner.