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Across the Region: March 16


Court: Judge erred on archdiocese fund

A federal judge made a mistake when he ruled a $55 million cemetery trust fund off-limits in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s bankruptcy case, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects religious organizations from government interference, doesn’t protect the money because creditors seeking a share of the fund aren’t the government.

Attorneys for clergy sexual abuse victims have accused New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan of creating the trust fund when he was archbishop of Milwaukee to hide money from their clients. Their lawsuit has potentially far-reaching consequences because many Roman Catholic dioceses hold money in trust, and the victory for victims in Milwaukee could pave the way for others elsewhere. The appeals court decision is likely to be appealed.

“This is a great decision that reverberates across the country,” said Jeff Anderson, an attorney for 350 of the victims.

Tim Nixon, an attorney for the cemetery trust fund, said his firm will review its options and discuss them with the archdiocese.

“The care and maintenance of the Milwaukee Catholic cemeteries are a fundamental belief of the Catholic faith, and this decision casts a shadow over religious freedom,” Nixon said in a statement.

The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, saying it wouldn’t have the money to pay if courts ruled in favor of abuse victims who had filed lawsuits. Hundreds of victims have since filed claims against the archdiocese in bankruptcy court.

The archdiocese has proposed a reorganization plan that would give 128 victims roughly $4 million from an insurance settlement. About 450 other people who have filed claims would receive nothing.

Bankruptcy Judge Susan Kelley refused to hold a confirmation hearing on the plan until the appeals court ruled. A provision of the plan called for the archdiocese to borrow $2 million from the cemetery trust fund to help cover attorneys’ fees and other bankruptcy costs.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa said last year that the trust fund was covered by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects religious organizations from government interference. Trust fund attorneys claimed the court-appointed committee that represents sexual assault victims and others owed money by the archdiocese is an arm of the government.

The committee’s lawyers disputed that, saying the committee acts independently from the court and the bankruptcy trustee who appointed it.


Justices won’t block new trial in Iowa law school dispute.

The United States Supreme Court is declining to block a second trial over whether the University of Iowa law school improperly passed over a conservative scholar for a faculty position.

The justices on Monday rejected Iowa officials’ plea to revisit a lower court ruling in favor of school employee Teresa Wagner. Wagner claims she was discriminated against by liberal professors because she is a Republican who previously worked for anti-abortion groups.

In 2012, a jury found that the school’s former dean did not discriminate against Wagner, but a federal appeals court threw out the verdict because of a judge’s mistake.

The appeals court said Wagner is entitled to a new trial.


Judge delays ruling in Indian child welfare lawsuit

Attorneys for several Native American tribes and families that are suing South Dakota say they need to see records of a circuit court judge’s conversations to show how he ordered fellow judges to handle child custody hearings that they say violate federal law.

The attorneys for the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux tribes and several Native American parents contended during a hearing Thursday that 7th Circuit Judge Jeff Davis must reveal how he advised fellow judges to conduct 48-hour child custody hearings.

Chief U.S. District Judge Jeff Viken did not issue a ruling at the hearing. His ruling could be crucial in the 2-year-old lawsuit that alleges the state routinely violates the U.S. Indian Child Welfare Act by holding improper hearings after children are removed from homes.

The plaintiffs contend that judges act quickly and without giving Native American parents due process when children are removed from their homes. They say parents’ rights are violated at initial custody hearings, which must be held within 48 hours of an accusation of abuse. The families say they’re not allowed to challenge workers from the Department of Social Services or prove they can take care of their children.

Davis is the presiding judge of the 7th Circuit, which means he makes administrative decisions for the circuit. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say that Davis has advised his colleagues on how to conduct 48-hour hearings.

He has refused to release any documents he considers protected communication, believing he has judicial privilege. The judge also has objected to saying whether he may have had any conversations with judges on the procedures for 48-hour hearings.


Sex crime trial set for North Dakota teacher of the year

A lie detector test that Aaron Knodel’s lawyer says his client passed will not be allowed at the upcoming sex crime trial of the reigning North Dakota teacher of the year unless its accuracy can be determined ahead of time.

Knodel is accused of having sexual contact with a 17-year-old female student more than five years ago. He has pleaded not guilty to five counts of felony corruption or solicitation of a minor. He could face up to 35 years in prison if convicted.

Knodel is scheduled for a 5-7-day trial beginning March 24. Judge Steven McCullough on Monday said he won’t allow any polygraph evidence unless it’s submitted before trial so its reliability can be determined.


Bill to repeal Nebraska death penalty advances

A bill to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska has more support this year than many past attempts, a senator supporting it said on Monday after a committee unanimously advanced the proposal. The Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 to advance the bill to the full unicameral.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has fought for nearly 40 years to end capital punishment, said Monday that his bill has “as good a chance to getting passed as has ever been,” although a leading opponent has already vowed to block it with a filibuster.

Chambers said he can’t remember the measure ever advancing unanimously out of committee and this year some conservative Republican senators have said they will support the bill. For the first time, younger senators “who have never gone on a serious discussion about the death penalty” are approaching him with practical questions about the expense, difficulty and mechanics of repeal, he said.

Last week, dozens of opponents rallied at the Capitol for a public hearing on the bill, saying the death penalty extends suffering for victims’ relatives and wastes tax money on appeals, especially since the state can no longer carry out approved executions.

Nebraska’s supply of the required anesthetic, sodium thiopental, expired in December 2013. The drug is no longer produced in the United States, and European Union countries are prohibited from selling the drug for use in capital punishment. The state Department of Correctional Services has not yet obtained a new supply of the drug.

Nebraska has 11 men currently on death row.

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