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Court Skeptical of Passenger Rights Law
Headline Legal News | 2008/03/06 04:57
A federal appeals panel seemed impatient Wednesday with arguments supporting the first law in the nation requiring airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers trapped in a plane delayed on the ground.

The three judges expressed skepticism that states should be allowed to impose such a law on an industry already subject to extensive federal oversight. It was likely, they implied through their questions, that federal authority would pre-empt state laws on the issue.

New York's law requires relief for people who have been trapped in a plane on the ground for at least three hours. It was passed after passengers at Kennedy International Airport were stranded on planes for more than 10 hours with no food and overflowing toilets.

The court did not immediately rule on the constitutionality of New York's Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

The judges said they were sympathetic to the needs of passengers on planes, but they seemed to agree that only the federal government can regulate airline services.

Judge Brian M. Cogan said New York's law might lead to multiple solutions by states nationwide that would subject airlines to all kinds of requirements.

Judge Debra Ann Livingston agreed.

"There is a patchwork problem in that every state should be concerned about this and probably would write different regulations," she said.

Even though the judges had not yet ruled, Judge Richard C. Wesley defended their apparent stance.

"This is a pre-emption issue. Judges aren't heartless people in black robes. Three judges must decide whether New York stepped over the pre-emption line," Wesley said.

The law was challenged before the appeals court by the Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade group representing leading U.S. airlines.

Seth Waxman, a lawyer for the trade group, told the judges that a dozen other states were considering laws similar to New York's law. He said Congress was considering its own legislation.

"If regulation is required in this area, it must be national to avoid what otherwise is a patchwork solution," Waxman said.

Barbara Underwood, arguing in defense of the law, said it required minimal standards and protected the public.

She said planes in line for takeoff might, after three hours, be forced to return to the gate to pick up more food and water and empty its restrooms or need to summon a delivery service to perform those chores.

A recent federal report showed that about 24 percent of flights nationally arrived late in the first 10 months of last year, which was the industry's second-worst performance record since comparable data began being collected in 1995.

Kennedy airport had the third-worst on-time arrival record of any major U.S. airport through October, behind the New York area's other two major airports, LaGuardia and Newark, according to the report.

Wesley called it a health and safety issue.

"What it really is about is human dignity," Underwood said.

Queens Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, a Democrat, the prime sponsor of New York's Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, said after the arguments that he was not discouraged by the questions posed by the judges. He said he would welcome a national law protecting airline customers.

"I'm hopeful the judges will preserve the law," he said.



Gault Pleads Guilty; Facing 50 Years In Prison
Court Watch | 2008/03/06 04:03

A former dog trainer who was accused of hiding a runaway girl in his West Harford home for nearly a year pleaded guilty Wednesday in Superior Court in Hartford to eight felony charges which are expected to net him a lengthy stay in prison.

Adam Gault, 41, entered guilty pleas to two counts of first-degree kidnapping, four counts of second-degree sexual assault, risk of injury to a minor and conspiracy to commit first-degree kidnapping.

Assistant State's Attorney David Zagaja said the state is recommending a 50-year prison term for Gault, which would be suspended after 30 years incarceration. He would then spend 20 years on probation.

Sentencing was set for May 19. If he had chosen to go to trial, he would have faced a maximum of 160 years.

Judge David Gold told the defendant he was considering imposing 50 years, suspended after 25 years, but that he would consider increasing the term at the time of sentencing after getting a pre-sentence report.

Gold gave Gault the option of accepting a higher sentence, or withdrawing his guilty plea at that time.

Gault was found competent to stand trial in February. He had faced nearly 40 charges. The bulk of the charges, including kidnapping, unlawful restraint, risk of injury to a minor, reckless endangerment and sexual assault, were in connection with the Bloomfield teenager who was found in his home. The girl, who was 14 when she disappeared is now 16.

A second complaint brought by a second woman was lodged subsequent to his arrest.

At Wednesday's 90-minute hearing, Gault appeared clean-shaven, with a short-cropped hair. On several occasions, when the judge asked him how he pleaded, he responded with "I'm guilty"

His other responses were limited to "Yes sir" or "no sir."

Marc Needelman, the attorney who represents the family of the 14-year-old, said he expected his clients to appear at Gault's sentencing and also make recommendations for appropriate sentences against his co-defendants, Ann Murphy and Kimberly Cray.

Gold said they would attempt to accommodate the family by having the two women appear that day.

Gault, who lived on Newington Road in West Hartford, was arrested last June when Bloomfield and West Hartford police discovered the teenager, who had been reported missing for almost a year, in a locked storage closet behind a dresser in his home.

Gault and the girl's mother and stepfather, who operate a dog day care and kennel in Bloomfield, knew each other professionally. The girl had worked for Gault in his dog training business.

The police were executing a search warrant for Gault's house and his DNA on June 6 when they came across the locked, hidden storage space and found the girl inside. At the time, investigators believed they were searching for evidence linking Gault to the girl's disappearance and possible demise.

According to court documents, DNA testing on a fetus that the victim aborted in May showed Gault impregnated the girl.



Judge Rejects Murtha Deposition Request
Court News | 2008/03/06 03:01
Attorneys for a Marine officer facing court-martial on charges he mishandled the aftermath of the deaths of 24 Iraqis may not force a Pennsylvania congressman to testify in the case, a military judge ruled.

Attorneys for Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani want to question Rep. John Murtha over his public statement that the Marines killed "in cold blood" during the attack in Haditha. Murtha said he had been briefed by the highest levels of the military about the case and that officers covered it up.

Chessani's attorneys, who released the ruling Wednesday, said they will appeal if the judge doesn't reconsider.

Chessani is the highest-ranking U.S. serviceman to face a combat-related court-martial since the Vietnam War.

"When the congressman said he was briefed by the highest levels, we need to know who they are," said Brian Rooney, Chessani's civilian defense attorney.

Rooney said Murtha's deposition would "confirm what he said to the press is accurate."

Murtha's spokesman, Matthew Mazonkey, said the congressman had no comment. A telephone call to a Marine Corps spokesman was not immediately returned.

Chessani has been charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order on allegations that he mishandled the aftermath of the Nov. 19, 2005, shooting deaths in Haditha.

He faces court-martial on April 28. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to three years in prison.

Four enlisted Marines were initially charged with murder in the case and four officers were charged with failing to investigate the deaths. Charges against several of the men have been dropped, and none will face murder charges.



Former Judge Z. Mae Jimison dies
Attorney News | 2008/03/05 14:20

Z. Mae Jimison, the first black woman to serve as a judge on the Marion Superior Court, died today. She was 64.
 
Jimison was an appointed judge from 1988 to 1990. She was on the City-County Council from 1992-95 and ran as a Democratic candidate for mayor in 1995, losing to Republican Stephen Goldsmith.

Jimison was elected to the bench in 1996, but lost her bid for reelection six years later. Her office had become known for missing records and mistakes. At one point, then-Prosecutor Scott Newman said her court had run “off the rails.”

Jimison is credited with creating the Marion County Drug Court.

Marion Superior Judge Cynthia Ayers today paid tribute to Jimison.

“As the first black woman appointed to the Superior Court of Marion County, she crossed a historic barrier and opened doors for other qualified women to become part of the judiciary in this state,” Ayers said in a statement.

“Her insistence on fairness and impartiality for all litigants, her dedication to justice, and her exemplary service to the court will long be remembered by all.”

Jimison was hopeful as she prepared to leave office in 2002.

“I always believe I should let God order my steps,” she said in a Star interview.

“I also believe that when he closes a door, he always opens a window. I am looking for my windows.”



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