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New toy: Drupal

kilded-it-now-wut.jpgSara Frug, one of LII’s editors, wrote a little bit about what she’s been up to recently:

“Every so often, when we’ve been very, very, good, we get to play with some new software. On the editorial side of the LII operation, the latest shiny things have been WordPress, the software that runs this blog, and Drupal, a web content management system which we’re adapting to run the rest of our editorially-generated content.

Drupal is an extremely flexible system: it comes very minimally configured, and it lets you customize user roles, content type definitions, categories; and when that’s not enough, it lets you install more pieces of software to extend the system. All of this flexibility, however, means that it takes a while to figure out how best to set things up.

Eager to commiserate trade notes with other Drupal folk, I met up with LII programmer Brian Hughes at Drupalcon Boston 2008. We took in some panel presentations, met a bunch of great folks, and in the process of learning a bunch of new tricks, re-discovered how unusual our little operation really is.

My favorite part of the conference was the “Birds of a Feather” track — basically a space for people doing similar things to meet each other and talk about the work they do, the problems they’ve run into, and the solutions they’ve found. Some of the highlights: a demo from Penn State for a complete course management system; a discussion about interfaces for search; and a meetup that I stumbled into on legal issues around open source projects. It was a great pleasure to meet so many others so kindred in so many different ways.

So why did I say that all of this reminded us of how unusual the LII is? It’s because we’re such an odd hybrid: a research group and an outreach operation; a site with heavy editorial workflow and an automation-based text-processing shop; a university project with the culture of a tech startup. We might sometimes wonder whether we are impossibly chimeric, but ultimately we have the same challenge as everyone else: remembering that all of these new toys are really just to help us do useful things with information.”

LIIBULLETIN: Indiana v. Edwards

supct.jpegOn Wednesday March 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Indiana v. Edwards. Ahmad Edwards, the defendant in the case, stole a pair of shoes from an Indiana department store and then shot at the store security guard who chased after him, wounding the guard and a passer-by. The State of Indiana charged Edwards with theft, criminal recklessness, battery, and attempted murder. After six years of treatment for schizophrenia, an Indiana trial court declared Edwards competent to stand trial, but, when Edwards made a request to represent himself, the judge said that as a diagnosed schizophrenic he was not competent to represent himself. Edwards went to trial with counsel, a jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to thirty years in prison. Edwards appealed, arguing that the court deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to represent himself at trial. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with Edwards, and the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s decision.

The Supreme Court will now consider whether states may adopt a higher standard for measuring competency to represent oneself at trial than for measuring competency to stand trial. Allowing a trial court to bring a defendant to trial while simultaneously limiting his Sixth Amendment right of self-representation touches on sensitive issues of defendant autonomy and judicial fairness. Yet denying trial courts such discretion may prevent them from making crucial assessments and trial management decisions concerning mentally ill defendants.

The full analysis, including a comprehensive set of links to briefs on both sides of the argument, is here:

LIIBULLETIN: Munaf v. Geren and Geren v. Omar

On Tuesday March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Munaf v. Geren (06-1666) and Geren v. Omar (07-394), both appealed from the United States Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit (2007). The cases present the Supreme Court with another chance to address habeas corpus issues raised by the international war on terrorism. Omar and Munaf, both American citizens, were detained in Iraq by U.S. military forces operating as part of a multi-national military coalition. While still in custody of the U.S. military in Iraq, Omar filed a habeas corpus petition in the D.C. District Court, asking that he either be released or brought to the U.S. for trial. The District Court granted the habeas petition and issued an injunction preventing the U.S. military forces from transferring Omar to Iraqi custody. Munaf, however, was transferred to Iraqi custody, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. The same D.C. District Court denied Munaf’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, holding that since he had been convicted in a foreign court, the U.S. federal courts no longer had habeas jurisdiction.

The writ of habeas corpus “has for centuries functioned as the ‘symbol and guardian of individual liberty’” and is used today in a wide variety of detention cases, including those by the executive branch undertaken as part of the war on terror. (Omar v. Harvey, 479 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2007), citing Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U.S. 54, 58 (1968)). The power of a federal district court to entertain a petition for habeas corpus from an American citizen detained on American soil is firmly established. The question that arises in these cases is whether the same court has the power to hear a habeas petition from American citizens detained in the international war on terrorism by U.S. authorities acting as part of a multi-national force on foreign soil.

The full analysis, including a comprehensive set of links to briefs on both sides of the argument, is here:

LIIBULLETIN: Rothgery v. Gillespie County, Texas

Last Monday, March 17th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Rothgery v. Gillespie County, TX (07-440). In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court will clarify when an arrested person’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches. In resolving this issue, the Court must balance the accused person’s liberty interests with law enforcement officials’ interest in retaining effective investigatory techniques. Upholding the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit would maintain a bright-line standard concerning the right to counsel and permit a wide scope of permissible police investigatory tactics. However, this standard could easily be abused and undermine the very rights that the Sixth Amendment was intended to protect. Regardless of outcome, this case will have a profound impact on the efficiency and costs of administering criminal adjudicatory proceedings.

The full analysis, including a comprehensive set of links to briefs on both sides of the argument, is here:

LIIBULLETIN watches the big boats

371D0EAD-DC93-4AE8-8D98-E19FBC308D02.jpgOn February 26, the Supreme Court hears arguments in Allison Engine Co. v. United States.

In 1985, the U.S. Navy contracted with two shipyards for the production of a new fleet of destroyers. Each destroyer required an electrical generator set to provide electricity. Several companies became involved in the project to build the generator sets. None of these companies billed the federal government, but rather billed the company directly above them in the chain of production. The company directly above them did not include these bills when submitting for payment from the government. This case began when two whistleblowers sued their former employer and other government subcontractors under the False Claims Act. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio dismissed their claim after holding that no FCA violation could occur without evidence that the federal government actually relied on a fraudulent bill. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the case should continue because the False Claims Act does not categorically require proof that the fraudulent bill was actually presented to the federal government. The ultimate decision by the Supreme Court could have important economic consequences for taxpayers, government contractors, and any party who seeks to file suit under the False Claims Act. Continues…

DC620F4D-9C22-4882-923E-BA5D65839732.jpgOn Thursday, February 27, the Supreme Court hears arguments in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, a case at the intersection of maritime law, environmental regulation, and tort law.

In 1989 the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, off the Alaska coast, spilling millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. In the years following the spill, Exxon would pay millions of dollars in private claims and over a billion dollars to settle government suits under environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). An additional class action suit by private parties sought compensatory damages for economic harm, as well as punitive damages (a civil penalty for particularly egregious conduct). In the final suit, an Alaska district court awarded roughly $20 million in compensatory damages against Exxon—and $5 billion in punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit eventually reduced the punitive damages award to $2.5 billion but upheld the decision to award such damages. Exxon now asks the United States Supreme Court to strike down the award of punitive damages or reduce its amount. In addressing Exxon’s petition, the Court must set maritime law standards for punitive damage awards against a ship’s owner for acts of the ship’s master. The Court will also consider whether Congress meant penalties under the CWA to be the full punishment for a spill, excluding punitive damages under maritime law. Continues…

Ripeness : definition of the day

ripe.jpegBecause Federal Courts only have constitutional authority to resolve actual disputes (see Case or Controversy) legal actions cannot be brought before the challenged law or government action has produced a direct threat to the party suing. Before then, the matter is said to be not yet “ripe” for judicial resolution. For Supreme Court decisions focusing on the “ripeness” issue, see, e.g., Reno v. Catholic Social Servs., 509 U.S. 43 (1993) and Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992). From Wex.