Time for a Supreme Court retrospective; ‘goodbye and good riddance’

Three days after assuming the presidency in 2009, Barrack Obama looked House and Senate Republican leaders in the eye and uttered the phrase, “Elections have consequences.” The just-concluded term of the U.S. Supreme Court proves the former president was exactly right — most likely much to his chagrin. I know I have written about the court often over the past few months. Thankfully, this will be the last time I address the topic for a while because the justices are headed off to do whatever they do when they remove their robes and go on vacation. Here is a retrospective on the 2021-2022 term, which, by any measure, was one of the most consequential in history.

I will begin with the biggie: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the 6-3 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and tossed nearly a half-century of legal precedent on the trash heap of history. With hours of the decision, Ohio AG David Yost successfully petitioned a federal court to lift a stay on the state’s “heartbeat bill,” which bans abortions after six weeks and does not include an exception for rape or incest. A few days later a 10-year-old girl who was six weeks and three days pregnant as result of a sexual assault was forced to travel to Indiana to receive the medical care she needed.

The 6-3 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assoc. v. Bruen eviscerated a New York state law that required residents to obtain a permit to carry a weapon and will make it extremely difficult for other states to strengthen their gun safety regulations. Keep in mind, this is the same year in which there were mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and the July 4th massacre in Highland Park, Ilinois, where seven people died including the parents of a 2-year-old toddler who was left to wander down the street as her mother and father laid dead.

A number of decisions eroded the constitutional wall the Founding Fathers erected between church and state. Most notable were Carson v. Makin, which will make it easier for state governments to divert tax dollars from public education to religious schools, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which cleared the way for prayer at public school football games and other events.

The conservative 6-3 majority struck a blow in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency by curtailing the EPA’s ability to order existing power plants to reduce their carbon emissions. Ironically, this means that if more kids are born as a result of Dobbs it will be more difficult for them to breathe. Just saying.

Because the federal government has not broken enough promises to or heaped enough indignity upon Native Americans, the Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. Conservative Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s three liberals in dissent arguing that the decision reneges on the federal government’s centuries-old promise that tribes would remain forever free from interference by state authorities.

Because even a stopped clock is right twice a day, I will acknowledge that the justices ruled correctly in a few cases, including Biden v. Texas, a 5-4 ruling that permitted the current administration to reverse a Trump-era policy that requires asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are reviewed in U.S. courts. And Biden v. Missouri approved a federal vaccine mandate for health care workers employed at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

So, with that, I will say goodbye and good riddance to SCOTUS’s 2021-2022 term and take a three-month break from writing about the Supreme Court.

Leak of Alito’s draft Roe v Wade opinion threatens American jurisprudence

By defending people charged with crimes I protect justice for all

During my career as a criminal defense attorney, I have represented hundreds of people who have been charged with serious offenses. From time to time either the nature of a particular case and/or its outcome will attract the attention of MahoningMatters and other media outlets. I know this will come as a shock, but I […]

Using the civil justice system to hold perpetrators accountable for criminal acts

Attorney David BetrasAs many of you know, I am representing Cameron Morgan, the 23-year-old woman who was punched in the face and then dragged into the street by Andrew Walls in Akron on Feb. 26. The incident garnered nationwide media attention hours after video of the racially motivated attack went viral.

Since then, Walls has admitted to being a member of the Proud Boys, an organization identified as an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and as a terrorist entity by the Canadian government. In what I can only characterize as a sad commentary on the current state of our society, Cameron and her father David, who is a Youngstown native, have been attacked by the Proud Boys and their supporters.

Despite being the targets of threats, intimidation tactics and racial slurs, Cameron and David remain resolute: Walls, along with anyone and everyone who aided and abetted him, must be held accountable for their actions.  In addition to the criminal offenses, Walls already faces the possibility that he will be charged under state and/or federal hate crime statutes — as he should be. Part of that accountability will include me keeping my promise to sue everyone who is any way responsible for the assault “into oblivion.”

Fortunately, a little-known and seldom-used provision of Ohio law empowers me to do exactly that. Section 2307.60 of the Ohio Revised Code enables “Anyone injured in person or property by a criminal act… [to] recover full damages in a civil action … ” including punitive damages, exemplary damages and attorney’s fees. For those of you who did not go to law school and are wondering: Exemplary damages are awarded when a defendant’s conduct is found to be willfully malicious, violent, oppressive, wanton or grossly reckless. Anyone who has seen the disturbing video will agree that Walls’ actions certainly check all those boxes. Here is one of the best features of the law: According to the Ohio Supreme Court decision in Buddenberg v. Weisdack, a civil cause of action for injuries based on a “criminal act” may be brought under this provision, even if the offender has not been convicted criminally.

In other words, I do not have to wait for Walls’ case to move through the criminal courts. I may sue him now — and believe me, I will. The other important thing to know about the provision is that I can also use it to sue others who may have committed criminal acts and are in some way related to the incident, even if they are never charged with or convicted of a crime. All I need to do to prevail in a civil proceeding is prove that the defendant committed a criminal offense that harmed my client.

I have in the past written about the many ways trial lawyers have made our nation and world safer by filing lawsuits that forced corporations to remove dangerous cars, drugs, medical devices and other products from the marketplace. Now, thanks to a courageous young woman and her father, I will have the opportunity to use the civil justice system to punish racism, hate and violence. The prospect makes me proud to be an attorney and a citizen of the greatest country in the world.

The Cameron Morgan Attack: Hate and those who spread it, are tearing our nation apart.

During my 30-plus year career as a criminal defense and personal injury attorney I have viewed many disturbing images: autopsy photos, disfiguring injuries resulting from dog bites, surveillance cam footage of a murder, third degree burns suffered in an industrial accident. You name it, I have seen it. But few of those images have been […]

Judge dismisses felony charges against former Liberty Schools Superintendent Joe Nohra

In a ruling handed down on Wednesday, December 30, 2021, Trumbull County Common Pleas Court Judge Ronald Rice dismissed six felony counts that had been lodged against former Liberty Local Schools Superintendent Joe Nohra earlier this year. The ruling came in response to a motion filed by Atty. David Betras arguing that the statutes under which Mr. Nohra had been indicted were unconstitutionally vague. In a well reasoned six-page decision Judge Rice agreed:

“Therefore, upon reconsideration of Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Counts 1-6 of the Indictment for Vagueness, the Court finds by clear and convincing evidence the Defendant has presented a presently existing set of facts that make the statutes unconstitutional and void when applied to those facts. The Defendant’s Motion is well taken and the same is hereby granted.” The decision may be viewed and downloaded here: Rice dismissal of Nohra felony charges

Atty. Betras hailed the decision as a victory for Mr. Nohra and the justice system. “As we have said previously, Mr. Nohra, at the discrection of the school board, and with approval of legal counsel, took appropriate action to protect the district and the taxpayers. He should have been commended instead of prosecuted,” Betras said.

Media coverage of the dismissal may be accessed by following these links: Vindicator       WKBN     WFMJ

Atty. Betras said BKM is prepared to mount a vigorous defense against the remaining misdemeanor charges that were included in the indictment.

When Mr. Nohra was indicted Atty. Betras pledges that the BKM legal team would aggressively defend Mr. Nohra in court and in the court of public opinion. “We simply won’t allow the people we represent to be smeared or damaged by rumors and innuendo,” he said. The firm also released the following statement on Mr. Nohra’s behalf:

“Mr. Nohra emphatically and categorically denies the baseless allegations contained in the indictment handed down yesterday by the Trumbull County Grand Jury.

After being presented with credible evidence that an employee of the Liberty Local Schools was engaged in activities that constituted theft in office, Mr. Nohra, with the knowledge and approval of the members of the Liberty Local Schools Board of Education and the Board’s legal counsel, initiated an investigation that resulted in the suspect employee’s resignation from the school system.

The actions described in the indictment were conducted in conjunction with and for the sole purpose of facilitating the above-referenced investigation. The members of the Board of Education and the Board’s legal counsel approved the use of surveillance equipment before it was installed. In addition, written Board policy authorizes the superintendent to utilize surveillance equipment when necessary and with approval of the Board which Mr. Nohra sought and received.

Mr. Nohra ensured that the Board members and their legal counsel were kept fully informed during each step of the investigation, were apprised of the evidence of wrongdoing that was gathered and were aware of its outcome. 

My client is both bewildered and astounded that he now faces criminal charges for taking decisive steps to protect the taxpayers and looks forward to defending himself against these ludicrous accusations.”

PREP Act Liability Protections worked, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and life-saving

Attorney David BetrasAs Brad Pitt and J-Lo know only too well, being a celebrity, a status I achieved thanks in no small part to this column and the quite fetching full-color headshot that runs with it, can sometimes be a pain in the gluteus maximus. That pain has become excruciating in recent weeks as a growing number of incredibly intense people have accosted me in public because I believe everyone should receive the COVID-19 vaccine and I support vaccination mandates.

Look, I am more than willing to engage in a fact-based debate about the pandemic and the measures being taken to end it. But I run out of patience when someone shoves their smartphone in my face while I am sitting in a restaurant eating and screams DAVID, DAVID, look at this Facebook post—thanks for that Mark Zuckerberg—and then proceeds to tell me at the top of their lungs that the vaccines contain computer chips, are made from dead babies, will alter my DNA, and render me infertile.

Well, okay, none of those things are true, a detail that has exactly zero impact on the wild-eyed disbelievers who hover around me like buzzards circling roadkill until I give up and run for the door.

A couple of days ago, however, one of the vaccine resisters who has dedicated his life to disrupting my dinner made a relatively cogent point, albeit in a belligerent manner. “Hey, Mr. Big Shot Trial Lawyer, if the vaccines are so safe, how come the government passed a law that says vaccine makers and those who dispense it can’t be sued when their poison kills and maims people? Why did they leave victims out in the cold? They did it because they know the death toll is going to be in the millions, that’s why.”

COVID Vaccination Rates, U.S. and OhioSo, my tormenter is right about one thing: the federal government has extended nearly total liability immunity to manufacturers, distributors, prescribers, and dispensers of products developed to treat, diagnose, or prevent the onset of COVID-19.

But it is important to remember that the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP) which provides the immunity was not enacted specifically to protect the makers of COVID-19 vaccines. It was enacted by Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush in 2005 in the wake of a serious bird flu outbreak. The rationale for the law was simple: the liability shield would give drug makers the protection they needed to respond quickly and effectively to a public health crisis.

When Coronavirus hit, the law worked exactly as planned. On February 4, 2020, the Trump Administration declared COVID-19 to be a public health emergency and invoked PREP. Within months the first vaccines were ready for use. Today, 191 million Americans have been vaccinated, and due in large part to vaccine mandates imposed by employers, the spread of the Delta variant is easing rapidly.

While my anti-vax buddy was right about the existence of the liability shield, he was wrong when he said those hurt or killed by the vaccine would be left out in the cold. Anyone who believes they have suffered serious side effects from a COVID-19 vaccine is eligible to file for benefits from the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CIPC), a special fund established to provide payments to anyone who was injured by any drug or treatment related to a PREP emergency declaration. To date, while 416 million doses of the vaccine have been administered only 296 COVID-19 related claims have been filed.

Now that is a statistic that should be all over Facebook.

Supreme Court will decide unprecedented number of blockbuster cases during 2021-2022 term

Attorney David BetrasLike kids counting the days until Christmas, attorneys, legal scholars, and jurisprudence junkies, including me, eagerly anticipate the first Monday in October, the day the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) begins its new term each year. We can barely control ourselves as we wait for the justices to decide which of the 7,000 cases submitted to them annually become one of the 150 or so they hear.

Under normal circumstances, the justices go about their work in relative obscurity because the cases on the Court’s docket, which is dominated by battles between states over water rights, business disputes, and arguments about arcane legal principles, do not impact the lives of most Americans or generate much media coverage aside from long, jargon-packed pieces posted on SCOTUSblog. Believe me, if you have insomnia, spend a few minutes on the site and you will be sleeping in no time.

This year, however, is far from normal. Although the 2021-2022 term is less than two weeks old, the Court is under intense scrutiny because the justices have agreed to hear a number of cases that may ignite legal and societal firestorms while further undermining the public’s waning support for the Court which was once widely regarded, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, as the “least dangerous” branch of government.

Entrance to US Supreme CourtChief among the potential blockbusters is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which centers on a Mississippi law which, with few exceptions, prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. Dobbs gives the Court the opportunity to overturn  Roe v. Wade which established a woman’s right to choose and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which protects that right until viability. It is, quite simply, the most important reproductive rights case to come before the Court in 30 years.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen is the first significant firearms case to come before the Court since the 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that extended Second Amendment protections to individuals. Bruen arrives at the Court on appeal from the 2nd Circuit which upheld New York state’s strict gun licensure law which requires residents to obtain a permit to possess a firearm and totally bans open carry. A decision in favor of the Association could gut gun laws across the nation.

Like Bruen, Carson v. Makin which challenges Maine’s prohibition against using state funds to pay tuition for schools that offer religious instruction has nationwide implications. The justices will decide if Maine’s law violates the free exercise, establishment, and equal protection clauses of the Constitution. If they so hold, voucher programs across the U.S., including Ohio’s will be impacted and taxpayer dollars will begin flowing to schools that promote religion.

Other important cases include Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College which poses a lethal threat to race-based college admission programs,  CVS Pharmacy Inc. v. Doe which involves alleged discrimination against persons with HIV, as well as cases focused on national security, campaign finance laws, and Texas’ new draconian abortion restrictions.

The last time the Court ruled on this many consequential cases in one term was, well, never. Throughout history, cases of similar magnitude to the ones on SCOTUS’ 2021-2022 docket were heard and decided every five or ten years. As a result, one thing is certain: the justices will not labor in obscurity over the next 12 months.

Use of “Shadow Docket” is undermining public trust in the Supreme Court

Attorney David BetrasThe inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court have been veiled in secrecy since Chief Justice John Jay gaveled the first meeting of the tribunal to order 1789. Aside from hearing oral arguments and issuing decisions, the nine justices function behind tightly closed doors. The conferences in which they debate cases are conducted in private and no notes or minutes are kept, memos and communications by and between the justices are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, each justice has the sole power to release or conceal their papers, and law clerks sign iron-clad confidentiality agreements. No other branch of government is so immune to public scrutiny.

In 1955 Justice Felix Frankfurter offered this explanation for why the Court’s work must be concealed from view:

“The secrecy that envelops the Court’s work is not due to love of secrecy or want of responsible regard for the claims of a democratic society to know how it is governed. That the Supreme Court should not be amenable to the forces of publicity to which the Executive and the Congress are subjected is essential to the effective functioning of the Court.”

The veil that shrouds the Court has occasionally been pierced. Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s “The Brethern: Inside the Supreme Court” published in 1979 provided the first in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the Court thanks to Justice Potter Stewart who was the primary source for the book. In 2004, Vanity Fair reporter David Margolis persuaded several clerks to reveal the political machinations that led to the Court’s controversial decision in Bush v Gore and last year CNN’s Joan Biskupic used confidential sources inside the court to produce a number of pieces about the term’s most-watched cases.

Entrance to US Supreme CourtDespite these notable breaches, respect for the Court’s need to operate clandestinely has remained largely intact because even though the sometimes-messy process of judicial sausage-making has been concealed behind what is commonly referred to as the “Purple Curtain,” the end product has always been prominently displayed in the form of majority and dissenting opinions that clearly reveal the justices’ reasoning and positions. Those opinions—millions of pages of them—are the foundation of the American legal system. They are also the reason why the Court has always been held in high esteem by the public.

Unfortunately, in recent years the Court has repeatedly abandoned the slow, deliberative process that produced well-argued landmark decisions and precedents in favor of what University of Chicago Law School professor William Baude refers to as the “Shadow Docket”—unsigned opinions issued hastily without detailed explanations, often before the cases in question have worked their way through the federal district and appellate courts. The 6-3 ruling that allowed Texas’ draconian anti-choice law to take effect is the most recent and troubling example of the Court’s increasing embrace of this tactic.

I am not raising the issue because I disagree with the majority in the Texas case and others that have been decided via the Shadow Docket, but because the justice’s refusal to share their rationale for their decisions threatens to undermine both the nation’s jurisprudence and public support for the Court which, according to Gallup, has fallen below 50% for only the third time in the past 20 years.

As an attorney, a legal scholar, and a citizen who believes our judicial system is both the heart and soul of our democracy, I fear what may happen if Americans lose faith in the Court. For the good of our nation, I pray that the justices abandon the Shadow Docket and once again share their wisdom, knowledge, and reasoning with us.

From exploding Pintos to out of control Teslas, trial lawyers fight to make cars safer

Attorney David BetrasOn August 10, 1978, three teenage girls, sisters Lyn and Judy Ulrich and their cousin Donna traveling to volley practice on Route 33 in Goshen, Indiana were incinerated when the gas tank in their 1973 Ford Pinto exploded after the vehicle was rear-ended by a van. Technically speaking, they were killed in an auto accident. In reality, however, they were murdered by corporate greed.

That is because Ford executives, including President Lee Iacocca, knew the Pinto was a four-wheeled death trap. Rushed into production in 1970 after only two years of development and testing, the Pinto was Ford’s response to the influx of foreign-made subcompact cars into the American market that began in the late ‘60s. During the design process company engineers sounded alarms about the gas tank which was, for a number of reasons, vulnerable to rupture in low-speed rear-end collisions. They were also concerned because a large empty space behind the backseat allowed the entire back third of the car to crumple, wedging the body and frame tightly against the car doors, making them virtually impossible to open.

Fixing the lethal combination of an exploding gas tank and jammed doors would have cost the company $15 per Pinto. Iacocca’s response: “Safety doesn’t sell.” Not surprisingly, the boss’ attitude permeated the company when attorneys representing people injured and killed in the exploding cars unearthed what became known as the “Pinto Memo.” Prepared to help Ford block new fuel system safety standards being proposed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the memo’s authors estimated it would cost Ford $11 per vehicle or $137 million to comply with the new regulations. They weighed that against the $50 million in litigation and settlements costs the company would incur if the cars were not made safer. Their conclusion: “the implementation costs far outweigh the expected benefits.

Picture of Tesla that rear ended a fire truck.And so the company continued to manufacture and sell the deadly vehicles for more than a decade. During that time between 500 and 900 people were burned to death. The Pinto was not pulled from the market until the cost of settling lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims and the attendant negative publicity made the car unprofitable.

I was reminded of the Pinto debacle when I read a New York Times article about a series of accidents caused by Tesla’s autopilot system. The story focused on the death of 22-year-old Naibel Benavides who was killed when a Model S in autopilot mode traveling 66 MPH on a city street ran a stop sign and slammed into the parked Chevy Tahoe in which she was sitting. The car’s brakes were never applied.

While a Tesla is as different from a Pinto as the Wright Brothers’ plane is from an F-16, the cause of the crashes that killed the Ulrich’s and Ms. Benavides are the same: placing pursuit of profit ahead of people. Unlike Ford, GM, and other carmakers who use technology to restrict their systems to divided highways where there are no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrians, Tesla allows drivers to use autopilot anywhere and everywhere. The results are predictable and tragic: the number of accidents involving Tesla’s system is skyrocketing.

And I suspect that lawsuits filed by victims are the only thing that will stop the carnage.

Every time I think of the victims we represent or read reports about companies who place no value on human life, I am reminded of why I went to law school, why I go to work every day, and why we should all fight to preserve the civil justice system that makes our world a safer place to live.