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web posted August 13, 2001

California victims can't sue gunmakers

Victims cannot sue weapons manufacturers for damages when criminals use their products illegally, the California Supreme Court ruled on August 6 in a closely watched case testing gunmaker liability.

The high court's decision -- whether a gun manufacturer can be sued on allegations it was partly responsible for a criminal shooting -- stems from a 1993 massacre of eight in a San Francisco law office skyscraper.

The justices kept in step with other courts in insulating gunmakers from liability. Every state high court and federal appellate court in the nation to consider such suits against gun manufacturers has ruled that makers of legal, non-defective guns cannot be sued for their criminal misuse.

The court ruled 5-1 that the Legislature's rules regarding product liability do not allow for such suits against gun manufacturers.

"In reaching this conclusion, we are not insensitive to the terrible tragedy that occurred on July 1, 1993," Justice Ming W. Chin wrote. "The Legislature has set California's public policy regarding gun manufacturers liability under these circumstances. Given that public policy, plaintiffs may not proceed with their negligence claim."

The decision was an important victory for weapons manufacturers and Navegar Inc., the maker of the weapon used in the skyscraper massacre. The justices overturned a California lower court decision that was the nation's only state appellate ruling allowing victims to sue a gun manufacturer for someone's criminal acts.

Surviving victims of the skyscraper rampage claimed that Navegar was liable for damages because it marketed the TEC-DC9 to appeal to criminals, and that Navegar should have foreseen that it would be used in a massacre.

Clinton signs deal to write memoirs

Former President Clinton has agreed to write his much sought-after memoirs for Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher announced August 6. Reports have stated that Clinton received as much as $10 million as an advance.

The book is expected to be out in 2003.

"President Clinton is one of the dominant figures on the global stage," Sonny Mehta, Knopf's president and editor in chief, said in a statement. "He has lived an extraordinary life, and he has a great story to tell."

Asked in a telephone interview whether the book would go into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Mehta said: "All I know is I came away from my discussions with him feeling it was going to be a pretty thorough and candid telling of his life, and that he was going to talk about all the principal events of his presidency."

"The heart of the book is what you'd expect it to be. The heart of it will be his presidency," Mehta said.

Asked about the size of the advance, Mehta replied: "We're very comfortable with the price we agreed to."

The record advance for nonfiction was $8.5 million for worldwide rights to a book by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, received an $8 million advance for her memoir.

Clinton's book will be edited by Robert Gottlieb, whose other authors have included Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the late historian Barbara Tuchman and the late publisher Katharine Graham.

'Survivor 2' player drops politics for now

Former "Survivor" contestant Michael Skupin, who had been mulling a career in politics, says he won't be running for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

Michael SkupinSkupin said August 6 he can't take the necessary time away from his family and his new company, Michael Skupin Ministries, which fights alcohol and drug addiction. Skupin also co-owns a religious software company.

"I have three children and one on the way and raising a good Christian family where the father is home is more important than any position," he said in a news release. "I want to be certain I'm doing the right thing for them."

Skupin, 39, left the CBS-TV reality show "Survivor: The Australian Outback" after suffering burns during the sixth week.

In June, he announced that he was considering a run against U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a popular Democrat from Detroit who has served in the Senate since 1978.

Skupin, from the Detroit suburb of White Lake Township, said Monday that he plans to stay active in the Republican party and possibly consider another race in the future.

"I know that I will have the opportunity again when the timing is better," Skupin told The Associated Press.

Ashcroft's gun views take heat in court case

The Justice Department plans to fight an attempt by a gun control group to introduce a document critical of Attorney General John Ashcroft's views on the Second Amendment into a court case in Texas.

The Violence Policy Center produced the document, "Shot Full of Holes," in response to a letter Ashcroft sent in May to the National Rifle Association, which has drawn heavy fire from gun control advocates.

In his letter to the NRA, Ashcroft said he believes the Second Amendment "unequivocally" protects the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms.

Critics maintain the amendment only guarantees states a collective right to maintain militias and doesn't apply to individuals.

According to an introduction to the VPC document, "the Ashcroft letter collapses of its own weight under thorough analysis."

In late July, law professors David Yassky of Brooklyn Law School and Carl T. Bogus of Roger Williams Law School filed a motion to have the document considered as "supplemental authority" in the case of U.S. v. Emerson, now before a federal appeals court in Texas.

Timothy Emerson was accused of displaying a gun in the presence of his child and estranged wife, who had filed a restraining order against him. A federal statute forbids possession of a weapon by someone under a restraining order.

A lower court dismissed the charges, but the case was appealed.

On August 7 the Justice Department filed court papers formally opposing the VPC document's introduction, which a department official said "was sufficiently unusual and improper to warrant a formal written opposition on procedural grounds."

"This amounts to a non-party [to the case] filing an unauthorized supplemental brief after the case has already submitted for a decision," the official said, referring to the document as "a long dissertation on why they think we are wrong" and a "so-called study."

Gun control critics see the Emerson case as a test of how Ashcroft's own views on individual gun rights might influence the Justice Department's attitude toward prosecuting gun law violations.

Under the Clinton administration the Justice Department had argued that Emerson had to prove "a reasonable relationship" between possession of a gun and "preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia" before he could raise the Second Amendment as a defense in his case.

The Bush administration's Justice Department insists it has not changed its position on the Emerson case.

"The attorney general believes there's an individual right to own a gun, but there can also be restrictions. They are not mutually exclusive," said Mindy Tucker, his spokeswoman, after gun control groups raised concerns in July.

Ashcroft defends Bush to lawyers

Attorney General John Ashcroft said he is confident the American Bar Association will apply the same standards to its reviews of Bush administration nominees as it did when vetting Clinton nominees, and rate the Bush judges highly.

"I am heartened by the ABA's ratings thus far, and am confident that, judged by the same standards used to rate the last administration, the vast majority of President Bush's nominees will continue to receive" the ABA's highest "well-qualified" rating for judges, Ashcroft said August 7.

So far, the ABA has reviewed 17 of Bush's initial 44 choices for federal trial and appeals courts and found all either qualified or well-qualified.

Those reviews were done after the nominees' names were public, instead of beforehand as was done during the Democratic Clinton administration and for eight administrations before that.

Ashcroft addressed the first gathering of the American Bar Association since the Bush administration ended the 50-year policy of using the lawyer group to do behind-the-scenes investigations on White House choices for the federal bench.

Ashcroft did not discuss the White House decision, but did allude to a conservative suspicion that the ABA has a liberal bias and treats Republican judicial nominees more harshly.

"As you may know, there are some who have called into doubt the impartiality of the ABA's judicial ratings," Ashcroft said.

He cited a recent study by Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren, which claimed that the ABA was as much as 10 times more likely to give its highest ratings to Clinton administration choices than to nominees of President Bush's father.

"Professor Lindgren attributes this disparity to a political bias in favor of liberal judges," Ashcroft said, without offering his own view. "Undoubtedly, there are others who argue that no such bias exists. In any event, I think we can agree that no political bias should exist."

The Bush White House did not cite politics or ideology in booting the ABA in March, saying no outside group should have special control over a president's picks for lifetime judicial posts.

Ashcroft also used the speech to urge the Senate to speed up confirmation of judicial nominees. He noted that only one of 11 judges nominated to the U.S. circuit court this year has had a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I know I don't need to tell you that judicial nominees mean delays in the time it takes to have one's case heard," Ashcroft said. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

Democrats have vowed to block any nominees seen as too extreme and point out that Republicans routinely blocked nominations when they controlled the Senate.

Maureen Reagan dies at 60 of cancer

Maureen ReaganMaureen Reagan, daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, died August 8 at her Sacramento, California, home after a battle with cancer.

Reagan, 60, had been undergoing radiation treatments for a malignant melanoma that had spread to her brain.

News of her death was followed by a written statement from former first lady Nancy Reagan.

"Maureen Reagan has been a special part of my life since I met Ronnie over 50 years ago," said the statement. "Like all fathers and daughters there was a unique bond between them. Maureen had his gift of communication, his love of politics and when she believed in a cause, she was not afraid to fight hard for it."

Maureen Reagan was admitted to the hospital July 6 after doctors discovered two lesions on her brain following tests to determine why she was suffering spasms and mild seizures. It said she is to undergo "whole brain radiation," with 10 treatments over a two-week period.

Before she was hospitalized, Reagan told CNN's Larry King that she had rebounded after nearly dying from the skin cancer, which had spread to her spine.

In a July 2 phone conversation on "Larry King Live," she said the treatment she had received over several months at the John Wayne Cancer Institute of St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, "seems to have worked." She was discharged in June.

While she was at the hospital, her father was treated for a broken hip in the same facility in January.

Reagan was the former president's daughter with his first wife, actress Jane Wyman. She was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 1996.

She became a spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Organization after her father revealed in 1994 that he suffered from the disease.

Maureen Reagan is survived by her husband, Dennis Revell, and her 16-year-old daughter, Rita.

Florida elections boss accused of breaking law

A Democratic party leader accused Florida's top elections official, a Republican, of violating state law by allowing political work to be done in her office during last fall's U.S. presidential election.

An initial review of computer files in the office of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who also served as co-chair of President George W. Bush's Florida campaign, revealed documents endorsing Bush for president.

Harris said repeatedly she had erected ''a firewall'' during the election between her state office and the Republican party.

Democrats said August 8 they are considering asking prosecutors to investigate, pointing to a state law that states candidates cannot ''use the services of any officer or employee of the state during working hours.''

''The law is pretty specific that you can't campaign, you can't engage yourself in a campaign, from a state office,'' state Democratic party chairman Bob Poe said.

Poe said it is particularly disturbing state workers performed political work in an office that oversees elections.

Democrats have charged Harris used her position to boost Bush's chances of winning the state.

While Democratic party presidential candidate Al Gore came out ahead in the national popular vote, a narrow victory in Florida gave Bush the state's 25 electoral votes he needed to win. A recount of thousands of Florida ballots and resulting court battles held up a resolution to the election for five weeks; Gore conceded Dec. 13.

The campaign material found on the computers in Harris' office was among tens of thousands of computer files released by Harris the week before after reporters questioned whether she had erased election records a newspaper had asked to examine.

One document was titled: ''George W. Bush Talking Points.'' It was dated March 14, 2000, and endorsed Bush's nomination for president, saying he had ''proven in Texas that he can manage like an executive, govern across party lines and lead with inclusiveness.''

Another document, a speech written for Harris, urged Republicans to support Bush and ''send the loudest possible message that we are ready to lead!''

Harris's spokesman, David Host, said the ''talking points'' speech was sent by someone outside Harris's office and she never delivered the remarks. He said he did not know who sent it. Host said he had not seen the second document and could not comment on it.

Donald Tighe, the former staff member who used the computer on which the talking points speech was found, acknowledged he did political work on office computers but said he spent working hours on state work. He now works for a non-profit group in Washington.

Harris agreed to allow news organizations to check the hard drives of four computers in her office after a report in the New York Times questioned whether Republican operatives influenced how Harris told elections officials to treat overseas absentee ballots.

News organizations including The Associated Press and the Times hired Minneapolis-based Ontrack Data International Inc. to inspect the hard drives.

Technicians with the firm said the computers showed no evidence of wholesale erasures, although some files had been deleted.

Kerry Stillman, an official with the state Commission on Ethics, could not comment on individual cases but said using state equipment and time for political activity falls under the state law governing misuse of public position.

In a statement issued by her office, Harris said: ''No partisan political activity transpired in my office during the recount period.''

The other news organizations that hired Ontrack Data are the Orlando Sentinel, the St. Petersburg Times, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Tallahassee Democrat, the Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville, the Miami Herald, the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, the News-Journal of Daytona Beach, the Palm Beach Post, the Tampa Tribune, Capitol News Service and Gannett News Service.

Ralph Nader forms new group

Ralph Nader is back with a new organization, some new goals and the same dogged determination to make the Democratic Party squirm whenever it drifts toward the center.

The veteran crusader for causes of the left calls his new grass-roots group Democracy Rising. He has initiated a series of rallies his associates hope will help heal the rift in the political left caused by his candidacy in the 2000 presidential election.

The new group, nonpartisan and nonprofit, will have an easier time working with other such nonpartisan groups interested in similar causes, organizers say.

After a rally in Portland, Ore., attended by about 7,500 last weekend, Nader said: "We plan to have rallies like this all over." Some of the cities where gatherings are likely: San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York.

"We have to replenish the well, find the young generation of leaders and galvanize existing citizen groups," Nader said.

Some political activists still blame Nader for tipping the presidential election to George W. Bush and say the division between Nader and others in his movement is deep and will only grow as his Green Party targets congressional seats in 2002. Veteran activists are wary of Democracy Rising.

"I think it's a strong possibility that he's using this to build the Green Party in order to run candidates throughout the nation," said Alice Germond, executive vice president of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "I think the rift is very deep. The environmentalists are appalled at the Bush presidency, the pro-choice majority is getting more and more appalled."

Nader got just 3 percent of the national vote as the Green Party's presidential candidate in 2000. He got 2 percent of the vote in Florida, which was decided by just over 500 votes and gave Bush the presidency. Democrats assume the 2 percent was siphoned almost exclusively from the loser, Al Gore.

Nader hopes to field more candidates in next year's congressional elections than the four dozen or so Greens who ran for Congress in 2000. Some Democrats claim to be relatively unworried about the Green Party's impact in 2002.

"People who care about a lot of the issues the Greens care about now can see they have a clear choice between the two parties," said Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The differences have never been this stark."

Environmentalists worry about the Green Party targeting congressional districts where the incumbent is both pro-environment and vulnerable.

They point to the 12th District in central New Jersey, where Democratic Rep. Rush Holt is highly regarded by environmentalists. Holt said the Green Party candidate won about 5,000 votes there in 2000, almost enough to cost Holt the victory, which came in at 750 votes.

Despite last year, Holt said he is aligned fairly closely with Nader's views in many areas, "such as environmental protection, consumer protection and standing up to special interests."

"Nader's candidacy was ultimately harmful to the outcome of the election and to environmental policies," said Deb Callahan of the League of Conservation Voters. "Those of us who work in the public interest section are left to pick up the pieces."

Any claim that Bush's election was good for the environmental movement is a myth, she insisted. "It's like saying the Vietnam War was good because it gave young people something to organize around," she said.

Nader dismisses such complaints. "Inside the (Washington) Beltway, there are some grousers," he said.

He also ducks talk of the 2004 presidential race. "I haven't ruled out going in 2004," Nader said. "It's too early to say."

The 67-year-old consumer advocate said he has been lecturing, writing and traveling to promote the Green Party.

Long a hero to many in the progressive -- some would say liberal -- movement, Nader saw the 2000 election chip away at his popularity and reduce his access in Washington.

"It came mostly after the election, for about a month and a half," he said. "Some people wrote fairly intense letters."

But more doors were closed on Nader's crusading efforts by the increased power of corporate money in Washington, he said.

"Capitol Hill has closed down on us in the last 15 years," said Nader. "One of the reasons I was running for president is because you can't get anything done any more."

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