In Brief: October 14, 2020

Barrett bats away tough Democratic confirmation probing

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett batted away Democrats’ skeptical questions Tuesday on abortion, health care and a possible disputed-election fight over transferring presidential power, insisting in a long and lively confirmation hearing she would bring no personal agenda to the court but decide cases “as they come.”

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The 48-year-old appellate court judge declared her conservative views with often colloquial language, but refused many specifics. She declined to say whether she would recuse herself from any election-related cases involving President Donald Trump, who nominated her to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is pressing to have her confirmed before the the Nov. 3 election.

“Judges can’t just wake up one day and say I have an agenda — I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion — and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world,” Barrett told the Senate Judiciary Committee during its second day of hearings.

“It’s not the law of Amy,” she said. “It’s the law of the American people.”

Barrett returned to a Capitol Hill mostly shut down by COVID-19 protocols, the mood quickly shifting to a more confrontational tone from opening day. She was grilled by Democrats strongly opposed to Trump’s nominee yet unable to stop her. Excited by the prospect of a judge aligned with the late Antonin Scalia, Trump’s Republican allies are rushing ahead to install a 6-3 conservative court majority for years to come.

Supreme Court halts census in latest twist of 2020 count

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the Trump administration can end census field operations early, in a blow to efforts to make sure minorities and hard-to-enumerate communities are properly counted in the crucial once-a-decade tally.

The decision was not a total loss for plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the administration’s decision to end the count early. They managed to get nearly two extra weeks of counting people as the case made its way through the courts.

However, the ruling increased the chances of the Trump administration retaining control of the process that decides how many congressional seats each state gets — and by extension how much voting power each state has.

The Supreme Court justices’ ruling came as the nation’s largest association of statisticians, and even the U.S. Census Bureau’s own census takers and partners, have been raising questions about the quality of the data being gathered — numbers that are used to determine how much federal funding and how many congressional seats are allotted to states.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, the Census Bureau said field operations would end on Thursday.

Possible safety issue spurs pause of COVID-19 antibody study

Independent monitors have paused enrollment in a study testing the COVID-19 antiviral drug remdesivir plus an experimental antibody therapy being developed by Eli Lilly that’s similar to a treatment President Donald Trump recently received.

Lilly confirmed Tuesday that the study had been paused “out of an abundance of caution” and said safety is its top concern. The company would not say more about what led to this step.

The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which sponsors the study, would not immediately comment.

Antibodies are proteins the body makes when an infection occurs; they attach to a virus and help it be eliminated. The experimental drugs are concentrated versions of one or two specific antibodies that worked best against the coronavirus in lab and animal tests.

This study was testing a single antibody that Lilly is developing with the Canadian company AbCellera. Trump received an experimental two-antibody combo drug from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.

More masks, less play: Europe tightens rules as virus surges

GENEVA — Governments across Europe are ratcheting up restrictions to try to beat back a resurgence of the coronavirus that has sent new confirmed infections on the continent to their highest weekly level since the start of the pandemic.

The World Health Organization said Tuesday there were more than 700,000 new COVID-19 cases reported in Europe last week, a jump of 34% from the previous week. Britain, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of the new infections.

The increasing caseload is partly the result of more testing, but the U.N. health agency noted that deaths were also up 16% last week from the week before. Doctors are warning that while many of the new cases are in younger people, who tend to have milder symptoms, the virus could again start spreading widely among older people, resulting in more serious illnesses.

From wire sources

Italy and France are restricting parties and putting limits on restaurants and bars. The Netherlands went further and ordered the closing of all bars and restaurants, And to discourage partying at home, it banned the sale of alcohol after 8 p.m.

The Czech Republic is closing all schools until Nov. 2, while Latvia is ordering teenagers to switch to distance learning for a week. And Britain unveiled a three-tiered system for deciding what restrictions to impose, based on how severe the outbreak is in certain areas.

Agent: Michigan, Virginia governors mentioned in kidnap plot

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Members of anti-government paramilitary groups implicated in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor ahead of the November election because of her measures to slow the coronavirus also discussed abducting Virginia’s governor, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

The disclosure came during a federal court hearing in Grand Rapids, where agent Richard Trask revealed new details about investigators’ use of confidential informants, undercover agents and encrypted communication to thwart the purported scheme to abduct Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

A judge ordered three of six men charged in the case held without bond until trial, delaying rulings on two defendants. Another was ordered returned to Michigan from Delaware.

“They discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders” they had issued to deal with the pandemic, Trask said, referring to a June 6 meeting in Dublin, Ohio, attended by roughly 15 members of anti-government groups from “four or five states.” A criminal complaint said at least two of the defendants were among them.

It wasn’t immediately clear if talk of targeting Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, continued beyond the meeting. Nothing from the complaint or Trask’s testimony indicated that anyone had been charged with plotting against Northam.

NASA’s new moonshot rules: No fighting or littering, please

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s new moonshot rules: No fighting and littering. And no trespassing at historic lunar landmarks like Apollo 11’s Tranquility Base.

The space agency released a set of guidelines Tuesday for its Artemis moon-landing program, based on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and other agreements. So far, eight countries have signed these so-called Artemis Accords.

Founding members include the U.S., Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he expects more countries to join the effort to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024.

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It promises to be the largest coalition for a human spaceflight program in history, according to Bridenstine, and is expected to pave the way for eventual Mars expeditions.

It’s important not only to travel to the moon “with our astronauts, but that we bring with us our values,” noted NASA’s acting chief for international and interagency relations, Mike Gold.

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