National Roundup


Education coalit ion sues state ov er school funding

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- A coalition that challenged Montana's public school funding system as inadequate in 2002 is now asking a judge to order the state to restore an $8 million funding cut that kicked in when the governor vetoed a bill backed by Republicans.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition filed its latest lawsuit in District Court in Helena on Friday, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported.

The lawsuit said the 2011 Legislature approved separate bills that provided a two-year, 3.43 percent inflationary increase in state funding. But with the veto of another measure by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, schools will only receive a net increase of only 2.6 percent, it states.

"Both the Legislature and Gov. Brian Schweitzer intended to provide inflationary funding for schools," said Mark Lambrecht, executive director of the coalition. "This situation significantly reduced the amount of funding available to Montana's public schools."

Schweitzer vetoed House Bill 316, which would have transferred $9 million from various earmarked revenue sources to the state general fund to help balance the budget. House Republicans included language in the school-funding bill that cut education funding by $8 million next year if the transfer measure wasn't approved.

Republicans said they wanted some assurance that tourism and mining money in HB316 would help fund schools, just as some oil-and-gas funds had been diverted for schools.

In vetoing the bill, Schweitzer said the tourism money shouldn't be diverted when the state treasury had adequate money. He also criticized Republican lawmakers for tying the two together and said he would shore up the funding with a supplemental appropriation the 2013 Legislature would have to approve.

The lawsuit asked the District Court to "compel the state to take specific steps to provide Montana public schools with the ... mandated inflationary adjustments that are required by law."

Coalition members include several Montana education groups, as well as school districts. It filed the 2002 lawsuit that led to the 2005 Montana Supreme Court ruling that said state funding of public schools was unconstitutionally inadequate.


Prosecutors want power to veto bench trials

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Prosecutors want state law changed to give them the power to say no when a defendant opts for a trial by judge instead of by jury.

The legislator and former prosecutor who introduced the bill in the Legislature says there are instances where a judge might have intentional or unintentional bias in favor of a defendant, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported.

Rep. Lynn Slaby, an Akron Republican, introduced the bill last month at the urging of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

"The whole jurisprudence system is based on the jury system," Slaby, a former Summit County prosecutor and current chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said. "Until we do away with juries entirely, it's more fair to have both sides have a right to a jury trial."

Ohio is one of 21 states that gives criminal defendants the right to choose between a bench and a jury trial, the newspaper reported. The other 29 states and federal courts give prosecutors that choice as well.

The Ohio Judicial Conference, an organization of Ohio judges, opposes the bill that it says seeks to "redefine the fundamental fairness provided by the criminal justice system" to criminal defendants.

Conference director Mark Schweikert said it could enable prosecutors to use the threat of a jury trial to drive harder bargains during plea negotiations, and a defendant would likely face higher legal fees and court costs for a jury trial compared with a bench trial.

The Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys also opposes the bill, Barry Wilford, public policy director for the association, told The Associated Press on Monday.

Wilford said prosecutors argue that the change is needed to provide an "unbiased forum," but they have offered no statistics showing defendants are more likely to be acquitted in trials by judges compared with jury trials.

"Ninety-five percent of all criminal cases end up with guilty pleas, and if there was a problem like prosecutors are talking about, these people wouldn't be pleading guilty," Wilford said.

Defense attorneys think it can be advantageous to have a judge try cases like child molestation, where they believe judges might be better able to determine a victim's credibility and be less affected emotionally than jurors might be, the newspaper reported.

Similar bills proposed before never made it out of committee, but Wilford said that might be different this time since Slaby heads the committee.


Man gets new trial in vehicular homicide case

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A man convicted of vehicular homicide will get a new trial, after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday that a jury should have heard evidence that the crash victim was also drinking.

According to evidence in the case, Jeremy Scott Nelson of Lake Park was driving a pickup truck on Aug. 17, 2008, that struck an all-terrain vehicle driven by Christopher Wade Carlson, who was killed. Nelson was convicted of three counts of vehicular homicide stemming from Carlson's death.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court reversed Nelson's convictions and found that a Becker County judge abused his discretion when he did not allow the jury to hear evidence that Carlson was drinking. Carlson had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 after the crash -- and the appeals court says that evidence was relevant.

The appeals court says negligent acts of both men were intertwined before the crash.

Evidence at trial showed Nelson was under the influence of alcohol and speeding, and drove into a ditch on County Road 1 near Lake Park seconds before he hit Carlson's ATV. But the judges say Carlson drove his ATV on a highway without lights or a side-view mirror, and drove into the ditch -- veering in front of Nelson -- just seconds before Nelson hit Carlson from behind.

The appeals court also found that the lower court erred by refusing to include detailed jury instructions on the legal definition of "causation."

Minnesota law requires the state to prove that Nelson's conduct played a substantial part in bringing about Carlson's death. The judges wrote that because Carlson veered into Nelson's path, Carlson's negligence could have been a superseding cause.

Published: Wed, Nov 23, 2011