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U.S. Supreme Court bolsters law banning 'robocalls'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld and strengthened a law banning the broadly unpopular but ubiquitous telemarketing practice known as robocalls, striking down an exemption to the measure that had allowed automated calls for collection of certain money owed to the government.

The court’s 7-2 ruling, written by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was a defeat for political and polling organizations seeking to use autodial technology to contact the cellphones of potential voters. They had argued that the robocall ban under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 violated free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Kavanaugh wrote that the exemption for government debt collection, added to the law in 2015, violated the First Amendment because it favored government speech over political speech by private entities without sufficient justification.

With few exceptions, autodialed calls to cellphones are illegal in the United States unless a person has given prior consent.

The groups wanted the ban on robocalls to cellphones struck down entirely, saying the law violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission had urged the court to uphold both the autodial ban and the government debt exemption.

“Americans passionately disagree about many things. But they are largely united in their disdain for robocalls. The federal government receives a staggering number of complaints about robocalls – 3.7 million complaints in 2019 alone. The states likewise field a constant barrage of complaints,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Despite the ban, the volume of automated calls has surged in recent years, with Americans receiving 58.5 billion robocalls last year, an increase of 22% from 2018, according to YouMail, a company that provides a service to block automated calls.

The amendment to the law had allowed robocalls made to collect debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government, including many student loan and mortgage debts.

During May arguments in the case – conducted by teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic – Kavanaugh sounded reluctant to rule in a way that would cause Americans to be flooded with even more robocalls.

“If you just take a peek, just a peek, at the real world here,” Kavanaugh said at the time, “this is one of the more popular laws on the books because people don’t like cellphone robocalls.”

For a graphic on major cases before the Supreme Court, click tmsnrt.rs/2mZn6MJ

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Turkish court to open Jamal Khashoggi murder trial

Court to try Saudi suspects in absentia over killing of journalist in Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

A Turkish court is set to open the trial of 20 Saudi officials indicted over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The trial will begin at Istanbul province’s main court in the district of Caglayan at 10am local time (07:00 GMT) on Friday morning, officials at the Istanbul prosecutor’s office told Al Jazeera.

Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Washington Post columnist, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, after he entered the premises to obtain paperwork for his planned marriage.

Turkish officials say Khashoggi’s body was dismembered at the consulate by the killers and his remains are yet to be found.

In March, Turkish prosecutors indicted 20 Saudi nationals over Khashoggi’s killing, including two former senior aides to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

Indictment

According to the indictment, Saudi Arabia’s former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri is accused of establishing a hit team and planning the murder of the journalist, who wrote critically of the Saudi government.

The former royal court and media adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, is accused of instigating and leading the operation by giving orders to the hit team.

Other suspects are mainly the Saudi officers who allegedly took part in the assassination operation. The Turkish prosecutors have already issued arrest warrants for the suspects.

Andrew Gardner, the senior Turkey researcher of UK-based Amnesty International, said there was an expectation the trial would shed light on new evidence and also interrogate the evidence already available.

“This trial and other efforts by the Turkish authorities have been important in keeping the murder in the spotlight, not allowing it to be forgotten,” Gardner told Al Jazeera from Istanbul.

“This trial is not replacement for a UN-led international investigation. Hopefully it will be just another stepping stone on the road to ensuring such a probe takes place. And in that sense it is incredibly valuable,” he added.

Global backlash

The assassination of Khashoggi, who was a resident of the United States, prompted a worldwide backlash against Saudi Arabia and caused lasting damage to MBS’s image in the international arena.

The CIA reportedly concluded that the crown prince ordered the killing, an accusation denied by the government in Riyadh.

Agnes Callamard, the United Nations’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, also found “credible evidence” that MBS and other senior Saudi officials were liable for the killing, in an investigative report published in June 2019. Callamard is also expected to be present at Friday’s trial. 

The Saudi government called the assassination a “rogue operation” after repeatedly denying any involvement in the incident for weeks.

Ankara’s ties with Riyadh came under intense strain after the killing of the journalist, who was personally known by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan has said the killing was ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.

In December, a court in Saudi Arabia reportedly sentenced five people to death and three to jail time for the murder after trials that took place behind closed doors.

According to Amnesty’s Gardner, a key problem in investigating the murder of Khashoggi has been a lack of cooperation by the Saudi authorities and the absence of the people accused.

“And that really underlines again how much a UN-led international investigation is required. For that, the cooperation of all parties is needed with the Turkish and Saudi authorities sharing all the evidence they collected,” he said.

In May, Khashoggi’s son Salah said in a statement his family had forgiven his father’s killers.

Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras

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Business

EU court rules against BlackRock tax break claim

LONDON (Reuters) – BlackRock is not exempt from paying value added tax (VAT) on part of a service from an outside supplier to help manage its funds, the European Union’s court ruled on Thursday.

The world’s biggest asset manager had argued that it should not have to pay VAT on all the service, as special investment funds are exempt from the tax, but Britain’s tax authority disagreed.

The First Chamber of the Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that a “single supply of management services, provided by a software platform belonging to a third-party supplier for the benefit of a fund management company, which manages both special investment funds and other funds, does not fall within the exemption provided for in that provision.”

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World News

What is the Supreme Court of the United States?

SCOTUS will not ‘nibble away’ at Roe v. Wade: Judge Napolitano

Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano on the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics.

The Supreme Court of the United States, sometimes called SCOTUS, is the highest court in the country and is made up of nine justices.

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The U.S. Supreme Court's motto is, “Equal Justice Under Law,” which is emblazoned above the Supreme Court building in Washington, according to the court’s website.

“As the final arbiter of the law, the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and, thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution,” the website states.

SUPREME COURT RULES GENERIC URLS CAN BECOME TRADEMARKS

SCOTUS is led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and eight Associate Justices, all of whom are nominated by a sitting president. Five of the nine current Supreme Court Justices are Republicans.

United States Supreme Court (Front L-R) Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, Jr., (Back L-R) Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Soto

The Associate Justices are Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and, the newest justices, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, both of whom were nominated by President Trump.

SUPREME COURT STRIKES DOWN LOUISIANA ABORTION CLINIC LAW

Justices can remain in office until they die or choose to resign or retire, unless they are impeached. But SCOTUS impeachments are rare. The last and only time this type of action was taken was in 1805, when the House passed articles of impeachment against Associate Justice Samuel Chase, according to the government website. The Senate later chose to acquit Chase.

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On Monday, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a Louisiana law seeking to require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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World News

Supreme Court rebuffs Texas vote-by-mail expansion

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday sided with Republican state officials in Texas and refused to allow broader mail-in voting in the state, leaving in place a lower court ruling blocking the expansion sought by Democrats amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The justices let stand the ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that halted a federal judge’s earlier decision to permit any voter concerned about the threat of coronavirus infection to cast a ballot by mail. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, fought the expansion of mail-in voting.

There were no noted dissents on the high court, although liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a statement saying she hopes the 5th Circuit issues a final decision on the legal merits of the case “well in advance of the November election.”

State law makes mail-in ballots available only for Texans 65 and older or if a voter meets specific disability guidelines. But the state Democratic Party went to court to try to enable all eligible voters in Texas to vote by mail during this year’s election cycle including the Nov. 3 presidential election in light of the health threat from the novel coronavirus.

The plaintiffs argued that the restrictive state law on mail-in voting violates voting rights set out in the U.S. Constitution’s 26th Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a decision finding that the Texas law, by treating voters differently by age, likely violates the 26th Amendment guarantee of the right to vote for American citizens age 18 and above.

Early voting begins on Monday for the July 14 party primary runoffs in Texas political races.

President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election this year, and other Republicans have sought to portray mail-in voting as rife with fraud, though the practice has been used widely for decades without evidence of significant problems.

Democrats have accused Republicans of pursuing policies that make it harder to cast ballots as part of a broad voter-suppression effort aimed at sidelining voters who tend to support Democratic candidates.

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World News

Supreme Court declines to change Ohio ballot initiatives policy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declined to direct Ohio to accept electronic signatures from residents seeking to place voter initiatives on the ballot rather than signing petitions in pen due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The justices in a brief order opted not to reinstate a federal judge’s May 19 ruling that had allowed organizers of proposed ballot measures, including one to raise the state’s minimum wage, to use electronic signatures and extended their deadline for collecting them. In order for a ballot initiative to be put up for a vote, organizers must secure a certain number of signatures of registered voters.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had put the judge’s ruling on hold, siding with state officials. Activists in favor of decriminalizing marijuana then asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

Under Ohio law, organizers of ballot measures must collect signatures in “wet” ink from registered voters in-person. Individuals and organizations seeking to put issues directly before the voters sued Ohio Governor Mike DeWine in April, saying his stay-at-home order intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus made meeting those requirements effectively impossible.

The activists did not challenge the legality of DeWine’s stay-at-home order. Instead, they sought the relaxation of signature-gathering rules, saying their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment were being violated.

A federal judge in Columbus ruled in their favor, saying the ballot initiative organizers “have no hope of collecting the required number of signatures from the required geographic distribution” before a July deadline.

The 6th Circuit put that decision on hold, however, finding that the ballot rules should be enforced even during the pandemic. The appeals court said there were creative ways for activists to collect signatures such as bringing their petitions to the homes of voters.

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