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Court may opt to pay fees from Bible suit
Topics | 2008/03/03 19:28

Harris County Commissioners Court will decide today whether it will pay about $400,000 in legal fees to a woman who sued to have a Bible removed from a monument near the downtown civil courthouse.

All but about $40,000 in fees were incurred after the county appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Harris County officials have been poor stewards of taxpayers' money," said Randall Kallinen, lawyer for Kay Staley, a real estate agent and lawyer who sued to have the Bible removed. "They knew displaying the Bible was unconstitutional, and they continued fighting for political reasons."

County Attorney Mike Stafford said the county appealed the case because officials believed that there was a constitutional question about whether a Bible could be part of a display honoring a person.

"You can't just look at what the trial court does and give up," he said.

The court is scheduled to discuss possible payment of the legal fees in executive session.

In 1956, the county gave Star of Hope mission permission to erect the monument with a Bible displayed in it to honor a key benefactor, William Mosher. The monument was near the entrance of the then-Civil Courts Building on Fannin.

Four years ago, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake ruled that the display violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits governments from endorsing or inhibiting a religion. Lake ruled the display promoted Christianity, and the Bible was taken out.

The case could have ended a year ago when the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the case moot after the county moved the monument while the Civil Courts Building was restored. But the county appealed to the Supreme Court.



Suspect in Ivy League ID Theft in Court
Court Watch | 2008/03/03 19:27
A woman accused of using a missing person's identity to get into an Ivy League school made her first court appearance Monday, and the victim's relatives said they just want the theft suspect punished.

When Esther Elizabeth Reed was indicted last year, Brooke Henson's relatives said they hoped Reed could tell authorities where to find her.

"Of course at first, it was just giving us hope that Brooke was alive," Lisa Henson, Brooke's aunt, said Monday.

Investigators have since said they don't think Reed had anything to do with Henson's 1999 disappearance.

Reed is accused of stealing Henson's identity in 2003 and posing as her to obtain false identification documents, take a high school equivalency test and get into Columbia University.

She was indicted last year and made her first court appearance Monday on federal charges of identity theft, mail and wire fraud and obtaining false identification documents. If convicted on all four charges, Reed faces a possible $1 million fine and 47 years in prison, time Lisa Henson said she hopes Reed will serve.



Justices reject appeal by Adelphia founder, son
Legal Network | 2008/03/03 19:20
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected on Monday an appeal by Adelphia Communications Corp founder John Rigas and his son Timothy of their conspiracy and fraud convictions.

The justices declined to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in New York which upheld the pair's convictions on 22 of 23 counts of conspiracy and securities and bank fraud.

A jury found the father and son guilty in 2004 of the charges that accused them of concealing loans and stealing millions from the cable operator.

John Rigas, formerly Adelphia's president and chief executive officer, was sentenced in 2005 to 15 years in prison, while Timothy Rigas, the former finance chief, was sentenced to 20 years. They began serving their prison terms last year.

In the appeal, defense attorneys argued that federal prosecutors were required to prove that John and Timothy Rigas had violated Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or call an expert accounting witness in order to convict them of securities fraud.

The attorneys also argued that the reversal by the appeals court of the bank fraud convictions on count 23 for John and Timothy Rigas required the reversal of their bank fraud convictions on count 22.



A Selection of Breyer's Hypotheticals
Court Watch | 2008/03/02 22:18
The nine justices in black robes file into the Supreme Court consumed with thoughts about the great legal issues of the day. Only one of them is likely to ask questions involving raccoons, an unruly son, pet oysters or even the dreaded "tomato children."

When Justice Stephen Breyer leans toward his microphone at the end of the bench, lawyers can expect to be asked almost anything. The 69-year-old Breyer is the court's most frequent practitioner of the hypothetical question, a conjurer of images that are unusual and occasionally bizarre.

"The last time I was up there arguing, it was easier for him to wrap his mind around bicycle pedals," said Carter Phillips. The experienced Supreme Court lawyer recalled an exchange with Breyer during arguments over patents for computer chips.

"He kept shifting the focus over to bicycle pedals and I was trying to live with him in that world," Phillips said. "I was taking the bicycle pedals and putting them on my Stair Master."

The hypothetical is a mainstay of Supreme Court arguments. At their best, such questions help justices address what is bothering them after they have pored over hundreds of pages of dense, often dry legal briefs.

"The point is to try to focus on a matter that is worrying me," Breyer said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Sometimes it's easier to do that with an example."

From the lawyer's perspective, the well-constructed example "helps focus the mind," said Roy Englert, a Supreme Court lawyer who studied antitrust law under Breyer at Harvard Law School.

One recent case involved punishment for repeat criminals under a difficult-to-decipher provision of federal law. The image Breyer called to mind was one to which any parent or sibling could relate.

"Suppose with your own children: 'I told you half an hour ago not to interrupt your sister when she is doing her homework. This is the second time you've done it.' Wouldn't you, with your own child — I would with mine — think that the second time he did it was worse behavior than the first time?" Breyer said. "I just told him not to."

The point was succinct and sweet. "It's a familiar example, your honor," conceded Charles Rothfeld, the lawyer for the recidivist whose case was before the court.

The justices generally have distinct styles in the way they ask questions.

Antonin Scalia makes liberal use of sarcasm. John Paul Stevens begins with an unassuming, "May I ask ...?" Then, Phillips said, "it's a dagger through the heart." Ruth Bader Ginsburg digs deep into the case record and is a stickler for following the rules.

Breyer, said Supreme Court specialist Thomas Goldstein, sometimes comes up with a situation "that is so extreme that it makes you think just about the legal principle because the facts are impossible."

Or, as Breyer said, "An odd example can call particular attention to the point."

Goldstein was on the receiving end of such a question in a dispute last year over the patent for a gas pedal.

"Now to me, I grant you I'm not an expert, but it looks at about the same level as I have a sensor on my garage door at the lower hinge for when the car is coming in and out, and the raccoons are eating it," Breyer said. "So I think of the brainstorm of putting it on the upper hinge, OK? Now I just think that how could I get a patent for that?"

Englert said Breyer is still the law professor he knew 30 years ago. "He had to learn how to keep a bunch of 22-to-25-year-olds entertained and interested," Englert said.



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