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New Death Penalty Ruling Highlights Tension in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled that an inmate in Missouri could be put to death via lethal injection, despite the fact that he claims it would be cruel and unusual due to a medical condition he has. This decision comes in the midst of public criticism over other recent Supreme Court death penalty rulings. In February, […]

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  • The Supreme Court ruled that an inmate in Missouri could be put to death via lethal injection, despite the fact that he claims it would be cruel and unusual due to a medical condition he has.
  • This decision comes in the midst of public criticism over other recent Supreme Court death penalty rulings.
  • In February, the Supreme Court denied a Muslim inmate the right to have an Imam with him at the time of execution, but last week voted in favor of a Buddhist man making a similar case.

Case in Missouri

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday, agreeing that a man in Missouri could be put to death via lethal injection, despite his claim that it would cause him severe pain due to a rare medical condition.

Inmate Russell Bucklew has a disease called cavernous hemangioma, which means he has blood-filled tumors in his neck, throat, and head. Bucklew and his lawyers say that the chemical compounds in a lethal injection would cause the tumors to rupture, meaning he would bleed from those areas, and be in extreme pain. They argue that because of this, lethal injection would be a cruel and unusual punishment, and suggest using a gas chamber instead.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled against this, citing that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, does not prohibit painful punishments.

“The Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death—something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes,” Justice Niel Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

He also cited that Bucklew had postponed his sentencing twice, once in 2014 and once in 2018, and claimed he was merely trying to delay it again. Gorsuch also wrote that Bucklew and his lawyers did not make a case for the gas chamber, saying they “failed to present colorable evidence that nitrogen would significantly reduce his risk of pain.”

Similar Cases in Alabama and Texas

This case is the most recent in a slew of cases regarding the death penalty that have caused tension within the Supreme Court.

In early February, the court heard the case of Domineque Hakim Ray. Ray requested that his Inam, a Muslim religious leader, be present during his execution. However, the Alabama prison he was in denied his request. The prison would only allow their Christian minister to be present and said his Imam would be allowed to watch from behind a glass window in the next room.

Ray claimed this case violated the First Amendment by giving rights to those who follow Christianity, but not to others. However, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Ray’s execution could be carried out without his Imam. They claimed he did not bring the matter up in a timely manner, as he brought the issue up 10 days before his sentencing. A few days later, Ray was executed.

A case in March tackled a similar issue. Patrick Henry Murphy, an inmate in Texas, requested a Buddhist leader be present while his death sentence was carried out, and was denied this by his prison. On March 28, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 to allow him a stay of execution, hours before his scheduled sentencing.

These two different rulings on two similar cases have left many confused. However, there are differences in state laws that could have factored into these desicions.

Alabama states that only Department of Corrections employees are allowed in the chamber, and those employees include a Christian minister.

Whereas in Texas, an inmate is allowed to be accompanied by a religious leader, but the state interpreted the law to mean a religious leader who works for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The TDCJ has both a Christian and Muslim leader, but not a Buddhist. However, the Supreme Court ruled this interpretation to be unconstitutional.

Even with this, many argue that the core arguments in each case were very similar. So, do these split rulings mean anything for the future of the Supreme Court?

Some legal experts say that this shows the shift the court will now have due to Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment, which gave the conservatives a stronghold in the court.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, told CNN that particularly in death penalty cases, stakes are very high, and stronger rifts come out.

“The stakes do not get higher than they do in death penalty cases,” she said. “And the arguments between the justices and rifts in the court may only get louder and deeper.”

See What Others Are Saying: (NPR) (Slate) (The Los Angeles Times)

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Amanda Gorman Wows the Nation With “The Hill We Climb”

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  • Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, impressed the nation when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history.
  • Gorman’s said the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol inspired her to focus on a message of hope, community, and healing in her poem.
  • Big names like Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Barack Obama, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have all praised her work.

Amanda Gorman Becomes Youngest Inaugural Poet

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wowed the nation on Wednesday as she spoke of healing, unity, hope, and what it means to be American while reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

At 22-years-old Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 16. She then became the first national youth poet laureate in 2017. 

Now, her books are topping Amazon’s Best Sellers list and they are not even scheduled to be released until the fall.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden became a fan of Gorman after watching her give a reading at the Library of Congress. She then suggested that Gorman be a part of the ceremony. 

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried,” Gorman recited during inauguration. “That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.”

Like President Biden, Gorman has struggled with a speech impediment and has been open about her experience overcoming it. She actually used poetry as a tool to correct it. First, she used it as a way of expressing herself without having to speak. Then she used it to bring her poems to life.

“Once I arrived at the point in my life in high school, where I said, ‘you know what? Writing my poems on the page isn’t enough for me,” she told CBS News. “I have to give them breath, and life, I have to perform them as I am.’ That was the moment that I was able to grow past my speech impediment.”

What Inspired “The Hill We Climb”

Gorman said the inaugural committee gave her freedom and flexibility when it came to choosing what to write about. She was well on her way before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those events then influenced her writing. 

“It energized me even more to believe that much more firmly in a message of hope, community and healing. I felt like that was the type of poem that I needed to write and it was the type of poem that the country and the world needed to hear,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  

That message came across clearly and the insurrection was depicted in part of “The Hill We Climb.”

“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy and this effort very nearly succeeded,” she said. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future history has its eyes on us.”

Nation Impressed by Gorman

“Wow…Wow, I just, wow you’re awesome,” Cooper said when closing his interview with her. “I am so transfixed.” 

Lin-Manuel Miranda also cheered Gorman on. “The Hill We Climb” notably references a line of scripture that appears in a “Hamilton” song. Gorman also said she used to sing the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” to help her say her R sounds and correct her speech impediment. 

“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise!” Oprah Winfrey wrote. “Brava Brava Amanda Gorman! Maya Angelou is cheering—and so am I.”

Winfrey also gave Gorman a ring with a caged bird on it—a reference to the famous Angelou poem— which Gorman wore during the inauguration. 

Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the onslaught of praise, saying that her words will lead the nation. 

Former President Barack Obama echoed that idea as well, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gorman promised to run for president one day. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times)

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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban

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  • President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil. 
  • Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
  • The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions. 

Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.

That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.

Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.

The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”

It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead. 

Biden To Block Trump’s Order

Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.

“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.  In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.

With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect. 

It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.

Source: Whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions

Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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