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East High's Alec Patino reaches second against North during baseball action at North High in Sioux City, Iowa,, Friday, July 14, 2017. (Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal)

Justices strike down abortion law

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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 other rulings Monday:

  • The court refused to block the execution of four federal prison inmates who are scheduled to be put to death in July and August. The executions would mark the first use of the death penalty on the federal level since 2003. The court’s action leaves no obstacles standing in the way of the executions, the first of which is scheduled for July 13.
  • Justices made it easier for the president to fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The court’s five conservative justices agreed that restrictions Congress imposed on when the president can fire the agency's director violated the Constitution. The decision doesn’t have a big impact on the current head of the agency. Kathy Kraninger, who was nominated to her post by the president in 2018, said she believed the president could fire her at any time.
  • The court left in place a decision that rejected environmental groups' challenge to sections of wall the Trump administration is building along the U.S. border with Mexico. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Southwest Environmental Center challenged a federal law that allows the secretary of Homeland Security to waive any laws necessary to allow the quick construction of border fencing. The groups argued that violates the Constitution's separation of powers. But a lower court dismissed the case and justices agreed.
  • The Supreme Court upheld a provision of federal law that requires foreign affiliates of U.S.-based health organizations to denounce prostitution as a condition of receiving taxpayer money to fight AIDS around the world. Kavanaugh wrote for the court's conservatives that “plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates are foreign organizations, and foreign organizations operating abroad possess no rights under the U. S. Constitution.”

Shelly Walker of Sioux City and her daughter, Hailey, 7, kayak Monday at Crystal Cove Park in South Sioux City under an overcast sky. Tuesday is expected to be partly sunny, according to the National Weather Service, with a high near 92, and heat index values as high as 102. Tuesday night into Wednesday morning will be mostly cloudy with a low around 70, and showers and thunderstorms likely, mainly after 1 a.m.

Officials: White House aware of Russian bounties in 2019

WASHINGTON — Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.

The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.

The White House did not respond to questions about Trump or other officials’ awareness of Russia’s provocations in 2019. The White House has said Trump was not — and still has not been — briefed on the intelligence assessments because they have not been fully verified. However, it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of a doubt before it is presented to top officials.

Bolton declined to comment Monday when asked by the AP if he had briefed Trump about the matter in 2019. On Sunday, he suggested to NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Trump was claiming ignorance of Russia’s provocations to justify his administration’s lack of a response.

“He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it,” Bolton said.

The revelations cast new doubt on the White House’s efforts to distance Trump from the Russian intelligence assessments. The AP reported Sunday that concerns about Russian bounties were also included in a second written presidential daily briefing earlier this year and that current national security adviser Robert O’Brien had discussed the matter with Trump. O’Brien denies he did so.

The administration’s earlier awareness of the Russian efforts raises additional questions about why Trump did not take any punitive action against Moscow for efforts that put the lives of American servicemembers at risk. Trump has sought throughout his time in office to improve relations with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, moving earlier this year to try to reinstate Russia as part of a group of world leaders it had been kicked out of.

Officials said they did not consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given that Russian meddling in Afghanistan is not a new occurrence. The officials with knowledge of Bolton’s apparent briefing for Trump said it contained no “actionable intelligence,” meaning the intelligence community did not have enough information to form a strategic plan or response. However, the classified assessment of Russian bounties was the sole purpose of the meeting.

The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the highly sensitive information.

The intelligence, which surfaced in early 2019, indicated Russian operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 during the Obama administration.

Eight Republican lawmakers attended a White House briefing Monday about the allegations. Members of Congress in both parties called for additional information and consequences for Russia and Putin. Eight Democrats were to be briefed Tuesday morning.

Republicans who were in the briefing expressed alarm about Russia’s activities in Afghanistan.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger were in the briefing Monday, which was led by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

McCaul and Kinzinger said in a statement that lawmakers were told “there is an ongoing review to determine the accuracy of these reports.”

“If the intelligence review process verifies the reports, we strongly encourage the Administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable,” they said.

Concerns about Russian bounties flared anew this year after members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000 in U.S. currency. The funds bolstered the suspicions of the American intelligence community that the Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and other linked associations.

The White House contends the president was unaware of this development as well. However, the information was also included in the presidential daily briefing. And officials told the AP that O’Brien did brief Trump on the matter. O’Brien has denied such a briefing occurred.

The officials told the AP that career government officials developed potential options for the White House to respond to the Russian aggression in Afghanistan, which was first reported by The New York Times. However, the Trump administration has yet to authorize any action.

The intelligence in 2019 and 2020 surrounding Russian bounties was derived in part from debriefings of captured Talbian militants. Officials with knowledge of the matter told the AP that Taliban operatives from opposite ends of the country and from separate tribes offered similar accounts.

The officials would not name the specific groups or give specific locations in Afghanistan or time frames for when they were detained.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied that Russian intelligence officers had offered payments to the Taliban in exchange for targeting U.S. and coalition forces.

June fireworks complaints in Sioux City nearly double from a year ago

SIOUX CITY -- Fireworks complaints made to the Sioux City Police Department are up 80 percent for the month of June compared to a year ago.

From June 1 to the afternoon of June 29, 306 complaints had been logged with the department, an increase of 136 complaints from June 2019.

"It definitely seems like it started sooner," Community Policing Sgt. Jeremy McClure said of fireworks being illegally discharged in the city. 

This week, McClure said the department is sending out officers who are solely tasked with responding to fireworks complaints. 

Fireworks may only be legally discharged within city limits between the hours of 1 and 11 p.m. on July 3 and 4. McClure thinks the COVID-19 pandemic is a contributing factor to the rise in complaints, as well as the proliferation of fireworks stands.

"People aren't traveling as much or there aren't many activities to do. Almost out of boredom, they're lighting off more fireworks," he said. "I think the COVID crisis plays a huge part in it this year."

Numerous noise complaints in the days leading up to 2017's Fourth of July -- Iowa's first with legalized fireworks discharge in 84 years -- led Sioux City Council members to vote in December of that year to shrink the legal fireworks discharge window from 10 days to two.

During the council's June 22 meeting, members voiced concerns about early fireworks discharges and implored residents to respect the city's fireworks ordinance. Councilwoman Julie Schoenherr asked residents to hold off on discharging fireworks so that "... it doesn't turn into a disaster; and we don't have to reconsider what we're already doing."

Amid the more than 300 complaints, McClure said only one person has been charged with a fireworks violation. Oftentimes, he said the police department will receive a fireworks complaint, and then, by the time officers arrive in the area, the individual will have already stopped shooting them off. 

Under the ordinance, a person is only permitted to use fireworks on his or her own property or a property where written permission is given. People under the age of 18 are not allowed to purchase, possess or discharge fireworks without parental supervision, and fireworks are also not be possessed or discharged by people showing visible signs of intoxication or drug use.

Illegal fireworks discharge carries a minimum $250 fine on private property and $500 on city property.

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

Fireworks are seen at Bellino Fireworks in Sioux City in this June 2018 file photo.

"In addition to handling what they normally handle, now we're also trying to respond to fireworks complaints," McClure said. "Basically, the way the ordinance is written, we pretty much either have to observe them or have a witness that's willing to testify."

McClure said he understands that residents are frustrated with the situation. He encourages them to keep reporting early fireworks discharges to police and to also talk to the offending neighbor about how their actions are disturbing them. He urges those who are violating the city's ordinance to wait a few more days until fireworks discharge is legal. 

"If you have fireworks, wait until the legal time to shoot them off, so that way you're not disturbing your neighbors," he said. "When it is time to shoot off fireworks, please do it safely. Stay sober when you're shooting off fireworks and just be courteous to your neighbors and stop shooting them off when you're not supposed to."

Coronavirus leads to crime decrease in Sioux City, beyond

Sioux City Police Department statistics released Thursday show overall calls to police had dropped from 4,938 from March 1-15 to 4,084 in the first half of this month. Traffic stops also were down from 986 in early March to 496 in early April.