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U.S. Supreme Court
Split high court throws out Louisiana abortion clinic limit

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics, reasserting a commitment to abortion rights over fierce opposition from dissenting conservative justices in the first big abortion case of the Trump era.

Chief Justice John Roberts and his four more liberal colleagues ruled that a law that requires doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates abortion rights the court first announced in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

The outcome is far from the last word on the decades-long fight over abortion with dozens of state-imposed restrictions winding their way through the courts. But the decision was a surprising defeat for abortion opponents, who thought that a new conservative majority with two of President Donald Trump’s appointees on board would start chipping away at abortion access.

The key vote belonged to Roberts, who had always voted against abortion rights before, including in a 2016 case in which the court struck down a Texas law that was virtually identical to the one in Louisiana.

The chief justice explained that he continues to think the Texas case was wrongly decided, but believes it’s important for the court to stand by its prior decisions.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote. He did not join the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer for the other liberals in Monday’s decision, and his position left abortion-rights supporters more relieved than elated.

The case was t he third in two weeks in which Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, joined the court’s liberals in the majority. One of the earlier decisions preserved the legal protections and work authorization for 650,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The other extended federal employment-discrimination protections to LGBT Americans, a decision that Justice Neil Gorsuch also joined and wrote.

In dissent on Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction.”

Trump’s two high-court picks, Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were in dissent, along with Samuel Alito. The presence of the new justices is what had fueled hopes among abortion opponents, and fears on the other side, that the Supreme Court would be more likely to uphold restrictions.

The Trump administration had sided with Louisiana in urging the court to uphold the law. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany criticized the decision. “In an unfortunate ruling today, the Supreme Court devalued both the health of mothers and the lives of unborn children by gutting Louisiana’s policy that required all abortion procedures be performed by individuals with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital,” McEnany said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said, “Today’s ruling is a bitter disappointment. It demonstrates once again the failure of the Supreme Court to allow the American people to protect the well-being of women from the tentacles of a brutal and profit-seeking abortion industry.”

On the other side, support for the decision mixed with a wariness that the future of abortion rights appears to rest with Roberts.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Monday’s decision by no means ends the struggle over abortion rights in legislatures and the courts.

“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today but we’re concerned about tomorrow. With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. But the Court’s decision could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected,” Northup said.

In his reasoning, Roberts “signaled a willingness to lessen the legal protections for abortion,” University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman wrote on the Take Care blog. However, she also acknowledged that Roberts’ “emphasis on the importance of adhering to the Court’s prior decisions does not sound like the thinking of a person who is inclined to overrule Roe v. Wade.”

A trial judge had said the law would not provide health benefits to women and would leave only one clinic open in Louisiana, in New Orleans. That would make it too hard for women to get abortions, in violation of the Constitution, the judge ruled.

But the appeals court in New Orleans rejected the judge’s findings and upheld the law in 2018, doubting that any clinics would have to close and saying that doctors had not tried hard enough to establish relationships with local hospitals.

The clinics filed an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court, asking that the law be blocked while the justices evaluated the case.

Early last year, Roberts joined with the four liberal members of the court to grant that request and keep the law on hold.

Roberts’ vote was a bit of a surprise because of his earlier vote n the Texas case. It may have reflected his new role since Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement as the court’s swing justice, his concern about the court being perceived as a partisan institution and his respect for a prior decision of the court, even one he disagreed with. Roberts didn’t write anything explaining his position at the time of the Texas case.

The regulations at issue in Louisiana are distinct from other state laws making their way through court challenges that would ban abortions early in a pregnancy. Those include bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as 6 weeks, and the almost total ban passed in Alabama.

AJ Pierce, 2, of Northfield, enjoys Playground 2000 in Barre on Monday as the state lifted restrictions on the use of playgrounds that had been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Back into Action

Scott: Keep up the good working to keep the virus down

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott continues to urge Vermonters to do what they can to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The commissioner of the state Department of Health also said there are no new cases to report from an outbreak in Fair Haven and there have not been confirmed reports of long-term impacts from those who got the virus in the state.

At his regular news conference Monday, the governor started off by thanking those in state government who have been working since mid-March on stopping the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. He also thanked residents for their efforts, such as wearing masks in public and social distancing, because Vermont is in much better shape than other states.

According to the Department of Health, there were six new cases of the virus to report Monday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 1,208. The death toll is 56, which has remained the same for weeks.

“This has not been easy for anyone. And while we’ve come a long way, we know it’s not over and it’ll be a while longer before we’re truly back to normal,” Scott said. “But if we continue with the same spirit and commitment we’ve been going through over the past four months, I know we’ll get through this and be stronger than we were before.”

Some states, such as Texas and Florida, are seeing record numbers of new cases of the virus while Vermont continues to be in good shape.

But there have been a handful of outbreaks of the virus around the state. Earlier this month, the state announced multiple people had tested positive for the virus at a worksite in Fair Haven. On Friday, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Department of Health, said there were 12 cases from that site with ten of those who tested positive coming New York and the remaining two from Vermont.

Levine said there are no new cases to report from that cluster. He said testing was conducted in Fair Haven over the weekend. More than 200 tests were administered and Levine said they all came back negative.

He said while it’s too soon to say that outbreak has been contained, the indications are the virus isn’t spreading there “by leaps and bounds.”

Because the virus is new, health experts don’t know what its long-term impact will be or if it causes lifelong complications. There have been reports of people suffering shortness of breath or diminished lung capacity weeks after they’ve been deemed “recovered” from the virus.

But the commissioner said there haven’t been any such reports yet in Vermont.

“I think that’s the million dollar question that people here and elsewhere in the world want to know the answer to. The fact is we just don’t have that much knowledge at this point in time,” Levine said.

He said anecdotally he’s heard about cases here where patients didn’t appear to suffer any permanent damage from the virus after tests and scans were conducted, but he again urged it was too soon to know.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

House allocates nearly $1 billion in COVID relief

Federal deadlines limited how much COVID-19 relief funds the House opted to invest in broadband expansion, according to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson.

Johnson, D-South Hero, spoke remotely at a virtual news conference Monday about how the House voted late last week to appropriate nearly $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid.

She was joined by House Majority Leader, Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Kitty Toll, D-Danville, and Chairwoman of theHhouse Committee on Ways and Means, Janet Ancel, D-Calais,

Toll said the House allocated $20 million in federal funds to broadband connectivity.

“Which is critical as we have learned the greater need for connectivity as our children were learning remotely and more people were forced to work remotely due to the pandemic,” she said. “Within that $20 million there was an extension of broadband, last-mile connections, telehealth, and long-term planning into the future so that Vermonters can work remotely by choice, or if by need, and the same for children learning, whether it’s pre-k through 12 or higher education, either by choice or by need.”

Johnson was asked, given that federal rules require coronavirus relief funds be spent by the end of the year, if it was possible to get said connectivity projects up and running within the given time frame. She said that’s one reason the allocation is $20 million — not $100 million.

“Honestly, we were trying to figure out how to invest a whole lot more, specifically so we could get as much build-out as possible, and it was the time factor that was the biggest limitation for us,” she said.

The legislature had been looking at how to expand high-speed internet access prior to the pandemic. The funds allocated so far could see up to 1,000 “last-mile” homes connected by the end of December, and there’s $800,000 in there for telehealth services, which many providers are moving towards. She said since last year, when the Legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of communications districts, several have already formed while others are working on coming together.

“I hope we’re able to spend $20 million in closing that digital divide; we’ve always known it was there,” she said. “Real estate agents tell us all the time that properties are more or less desirable based on whether there’s cell service and high speed access at that property.”

She said seeing the number of students who had challenges learning remotely after the pandemic led to school closures was further evidence of the need for greater broadband access.

“We felt like this was the largest reasonable chunk of money that we could put into closing that digital divide in Vermont and we’ll be keeping a close eye on it,” she said.

Getting all addresses in the state high speed broadband could cost between $85 million and $293 million, according to Clay Purvis, director of the Telecommunications and Connectivity Division at the Department of Public Service, who testified before the Senate Committee on Finance in late April.

The representatives highlighted other action taken by the House so far this year.

“There’s more to come in August, but the main focus of our extended session was to pass critical legislation to help get Vermonters through this crisis,” said Johnson. “A very significant piece of that was a $275 million investment in stabilizing our healthcare system that stepped up when we needed them to and really found ways to serve all Vermonters and keep Vermonters safe. We are so grateful for everything that they’ve done.”

She said the relief funds available to medical providers are calculated to keep them in businesses and are not based on their spending.

With regard to economic relief, Toll said a $70 million package had been passed previously with guidance on how to apply and how funds can be used to be released by the administration soon. The money approved by the House on Friday contained another $93 million, for a total of $163 million in economic aid.

“Additionally, we passed a hazard pay provision which includes $28 million,” said Toll. “The federal guidance from the Treasury continues to change and the focus really was on front line workers in the health care field.”

Another $12 million went to child care centers, she said.

According to Ancel, about $85 million approved by the House will be direct aid to Vermonters. It includes $5 million for foreclosure protection; $25 million for eviction protection; $250,000 for landlord counseling and assistance; $6.2 million for rehousing initiatives; and $32 million to Vermont Housing and Conservation to distribute in the form of housing grants. Toll said the latter represents an opportunity to make long-term investments that will extend beyond the pandemic crisis.

She said the Vermont Foodbank will receive $4.7 million, while summer meals programs would get $12 million. The House also approved a Senate bill that would make it easier for those in high-risk jobs to get workers’ compensation.

Not all of the House’s activities were directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Krowinski talked about some laws aimed at improving racial equity in Vermont.

“This legislative session we began with some of this work with the passage of Act 1, establishing a task force to address social equity in our statewide academic standards,” she said. “We passed Proposition 2, a proposal of amendment to the Vermont Constitution that removes references to slavery and indentured servitude and clarifies that these act are prohibited.”

She said S.219 was passed by the House last week and sent to Gov. Phil Scott.

“Some of the highlights of that bill is it provides grant funding to local law enforcement, except it will be contingent on the Secretary of Administration confirming that law enforcement agencies have complied and complied with racial justice reporting requirements,” she said. “It creates a new crime for law enforcement, using prohibited restraint that causes serious bodily injury or death and requires the Department of Public Safety to equip all State Police with video recording devices by Oct. 1, 2020.”

Some COVID funds were allocated with racial equity in mind. Krowinski mentioned $5 million in grants are available to businesses owned by women and minorities, $50,000 went to the state Director of Racial Equity, $700,000 to public outreach for new Americans, and $1.5 million to, “disproportionately impacted communities across Vermont.”

She also noted the House having passed an increase in the minimum wage.

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com

How many people does it take to brighten up the city? It took Herb Tarlic, from Wendel Electric, to install lighting Monday on the canopy of the Pearl Street pedestrian way in downtown Barre.

It Takes One

Departing superintendent confirms impasse in contract talks

BARRE — A new approach to labor negotiations has produced a pair of all-too-familiar results in the Barre Unified Union School District. Roughly 270 unionized teachers and about 125 support staff just entered the final day of their collectively bargained contracts, even as negotiations involving new agreements have suddenly stalled.

High hopes that “interest based bargaining” could deliver speedier settlements than more adversarial negotiations historically have fizzled even as the two-town, three-school district was readying to change chief executives.

Departing Superintendent John Pandolfo, whose last official day on the job in Barre is today, had hoped to leave his successor, David Wells, with a pair of settled labor contracts.

Instead, Wells will step into the same circumstance Pandolfo did when he replaced John Bacon as superintendent of what was then the Barre Supervisory Union five years ago.

Pandolfo’s first day on the job in 2015 coincided with unionized teachers and para-educators first day working under the terms of just-expired contracts. The same will be true when Wells settles in as superintendent on Wednesday.

Citing recent correspondence, Pandolfo reluctantly acknowledged as much while briefing school directors on the status of negotiations during virtual board meeting both he and Wells attended late last week.

“I think we can publicly say … that we are officially at impasse on both the teacher negotiation and the para-educator negotiation,” Pandolfo said.

Both bargaining units are represented by the Barre Education Association and it sounds like the experiment with interest based bargaining has been abandoned in favor of a more traditional approach that starts with both sides exchanging competing proposals.

“We are waiting on the association on both counts to have formal proposals prepared that can be shared in both directions,” Pandolfo said, noting the district’s proposal is finished and in the hands of its labor attorney, Scott Cameron.

“The ball is in their court at this point,” Pandolfo said of the association.

“We feel a sense of urgency to resolve this and I certainly hope they feel a sense of urgency to resolve this,” he added.

Pandolfo’s remarks provided a rare public update with respect to negotiations started last November amid cautious optimism around involving the use of a collaborative collective bargaining process the begins with each side outlining the “goals” and “issues” the would like to address.

By January, the two sides had prioritized the list of issues and agreed to 10 articles for inclusion in the new contract. A month later they were preparing a joint statement, and in mid-March, COVID-19 forced them to regroup before finally approving the first of two public statements – each read during virtual board meetings by School Director Gina Akley.

“The negotiating teams for the association and the district resumed meeting in a modified remote (interest based bargaining) format,” Akley said reading from a prepared statement on April 23. “We had an intense discussion of the unprecedented challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has burdened our educational system with. We will be meeting weekly beginning next Wednesday to continue to work toward a settlement agreement.”

Akley, who serves as chairwoman of the board’s three-member negotiating team, read a similar statement at the May 14 board meeting – less than 24 hours after it was jointly approved by both negotiating teams.

“The parties continue challenging discussions on wages, benefits and other economic issues,” she said. “We came to agreement on language around health benefits. The parties are setting a date to continue discussions on the outstanding issues that remain.”

The two sides met – perhaps for the last time – on May 26. Board members were briefed – first publicly, then privately – on the status of negotiations at that time. The public portion noted the four-hour duration of a bargaining session they were told to not result in a jointly approved statement.

If there was a subsequent bargaining session, there hasn’t been any public mention of it, though Pandolfo indicated there has been “correspondence” that prompted him to announce the impasse.

Expired contracts have been more the rule than the exception in Barre, where mediators and fact finders have been frequent visitors and working under the terms of lapsed agreements has been relatively routine.

It took a teachers’ strike that shuttered schools for several days in 2005 to bring a divisive round of negotiations to a close and five years later school board negotiators unilaterally imposed working conditions on teachers ending another protracted round of negotiations. That one-year arrangement was eventually replaced with a collectively bargaining contract that was finally ratified nearly a year after the earlier agreement expired.

The impasse Pandolfo inherited when he took over as superintendent in 2015 was comparatively short. Declared two weeks before his July 1 start date, the impasse was over and the new contract ratified, without any outside assistance, before the end of August.

On Wednesday, Wells will step into a similar situation with financial uncertainty associated with COVID-19 as an added wrinkle.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


“These discussions are long overdue. But they are necessary and the decisions that come from them must pass the test of time. We must resolve – once and for all – systemic racism, and put an end to the violence that it inevitably brings.”

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