Supreme Court Justice Sonia Maria Sotomayor presses the countdown ball in New York’s Times Square to celebrate the ball drop at the annual New Years Eve celebration on December 31, 2013 (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / Getty Images)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had a busy New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t enough that she pressed the button that started the descent of the New Year’s Eve crystal ball in New York’s Times Square, and led the final 60-second countdown to 2014. A few hours earlier, she granted a temporary injunction preventing enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate against religious organizations that object to providing birth control coverage.
Acting as the circuit justice handling emergency appeals from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Sotomayor approved a request filed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Her legal move overshadowed the ball drop for some, but the Bronx native was mostly applauded for her role in the New York extravaganza.
“Justice Sotomayor is an inspiration to many, and it is a privilege to welcome her to our celebration to ring in 2014,” Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins said. “Who better to join us in the crossroads of the world than one of New York’s own?” As it turned out, Sotomayor was barely seen or heard on most television networks as the ball dropped. But she was spotted with a lineup of other participants dancing in a Rockettes-like routine to the tune of “New York, New York.”
Sotomayor’s assignment is a first for a Supreme Court justice, though other justices have played prominent parts in similar events. In 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia, another New York native, served as grand marshal for the city’s Columbus Day Parade. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, since retired, was the grand marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena in January 2006, a year after Mickey Mouse served in that role. — Tony Mauro
ROBERTS DELIVERS WARNING OVER CUTS
In his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on Dec. 31 warned that continued severe budget cuts would result in courtroom layoffs, trial delays and a “deepening threat to public safety at courts around the country.” Perpetuating “a hard freeze at the sequester level,” Roberts said, would extend an emergency $15-per-hour rate reduction for private lawyers representing indigent criminal defendants, and reduced security for court personnel. It also would “pose a genuine threat to public safety” by postponing criminal trials, while delays on the civil side would mean “commercial uncertainty, lost opportunities and unvindicated rights.” Roberts said he would have preferred to focus on other matters in his annual report, but “the budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts.” Roberts said he was grateful the recent budget agreement establishes new limits that provide “an opportunity for the judiciary to receive some needed relief from sequestration” in the next two years. — Tony Mauro
JUDGE ASKED TO UNSEAL DOCS
A former lobbyist caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal has asked a federal judge to unseal government records and shed light on the “trial penalty” — the premium the government seeks to extract from defendants who exercise their right to trial instead of taking a plea offer. Kevin Ring, sentenced earlier to 20 months in prison, has asked the federal district court in Washington to release portions of a government PowerPoint presentation given to him as part of pre-indictment dealings in 2008. Back then, the government required the document to be kept secret, presumably to protect the secrecy of the government’s then-continuing investigation into the Abramoff matter, according to Ring’s attorneys, Andrew Wise and Timothy O’Toole of Miller & Chevalier in Washington. Wise and O’Toole point to “considerable recent public discussion about the trial penalty,” including a Dec. 5 report from Human Rights Watch, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How U.S. Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.” — Todd Ruger
BUGS IN COURT
The Smithsonian Institution has an insect problem. Not the kind requiring an exterminator, though — this one involves lawyers. The Smithsonian wants a federal judge to alter the terms of an endowment left by Carl Drake, a professor of entomology and zoology who became a researcher at the Smithsonian in the late 1950s. The institution filed a petition in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Dec. 30. When Drake died in 1965, he left a collection of an order of insects known as hemiptera-heteroptera to the Smithsonian, as well as an endowment designated primarily for buying more bugs. But according to the Smithsonian, the endowment’s growth over the past 40 years — it now stands at $4 million — outpaced the number of insect collections available for purchase. The institution said it used the endowment to finance fieldwork to collect insects, but that work had declined since 2005 due to mounting regulatory and permitting challenges. Requiring the Smithsonian to adhere to Drake’s will would be “impracticable, impossible and/or wasteful,” Jennie Kneedler, a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer, wrote in the Smithsonian’s petition. — Zoe Tillman
FORMER SENATOR RUNS AGAIN
A member of the Supreme Court Bar — who has a unique connection to a movie in theaters now — is making a run for the Senate. Larry Pressler, 71, who became a member of the bar in 1975, announced in December that he would run for the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. Pressler spent 22 years in Congress as a Republican, with four in the House and 18 in the Senate. The Harvard Law School graduate authored the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and then lost a reelection bid to Johnson. He was a senior partner at O’Connor & Hannan in Washington from 1997 to 2002, and chairman of the firm’s telecommunications and business group. He went on to found the Pressler Group in Washington. Now he’s staging a political comeback as an independent. Pressler became well known for refusing to take a bribe as part of the FBI’s Abscam investigation that led to the conviction of a senator, six House members and other officials. The sting is depicted in the film “American Hustle,” which had grossed $59 million through December. Pressler, who took in a showing of the movie in Sioux Falls, said he was right about his hunch he wouldn’t be depicted in the film, The Washington Post reported. — Todd Ruger
POKING FUN AT THE NSA
The U.S. Department of Justice is trying to resolve a suit in Maryland — without further litigation — over the right to parody federal agencies. U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis on Dec. 30 gave the government more time — until Feb. 18 — to respond to the complaint, filed in October.
Dan McCall sued the National Security Agency asserting his right to promote T-shirts, mugs, posters and other items that poke fun at government snoops. One design, for example, features an altered NSA logo that says, “peeping while you’re sleeping” and “The NSA: The only part of the government that actually listens.” McCall’s lawyers, including Paul Levy of Public Citizen Litigation Group and Ezra Gollogly of Kramon & Graham, contend the satire is protected under the First Amendment. Jason Medinger, an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, said in a court filing in late December that the lawyers in the case are “currently in discussion to resolve” the dispute without further litigation. — Mike Scarcella
SECOND CHANCE FOR FARMERS
Hundreds of potential claimants in the landmark black farmers’ discrimination case are challenging the denial of their claims for a share of a $1.25 billion settlement fund. The federal government agreed to settle claims of loan discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture not covered by a previous settlement in 1999. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman approved the new settlement in 2011. Since then, Friedman wrote in a recent court filing, he has received a flood of challenges from claimants who sought compensation in the latest deal. In his Dec. 31 opinion, Friedman told lawyers for the class and the U.S. Department of Justice to respond by Jan. 30 to issues raised by the challengers. Some nonprevailing claimants said the claims administrator wrongly found that they failed to apply for certain assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture between January 1981 and December 1996, the period covered by the settlement. Others filed general form letters seeking reconsideration. A lead attorney for the class, Andrew Marks of Coffey Burlington, could not be reached for comment. — Zoe Tillman
When federal lawmakers return to Washington in the coming days, Yelp Inc. will be waiting. The business review website in late December registered its public policy official, Laurent Crenshaw, as its first federal lobbyist, according to a filing with Congress. Yelp will lobby on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act; Communications Decency Act provisions that shield websites from liability for content their users post online; pending patent lawsuit reform legislation; and the possible introduction of federal legislation to block strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which are actions designed to quiet critics through the threat of costly litigation. Crenshaw joined Yelp in November to work as its first lobbyist in D.C., after stepping down as a legislative director to House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. — Andrew Ramonas