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Supreme Court Hears Appeal From College Official Fired For Testimony On Corruption

By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday sounded ready to rule that a public employee who testifies about corruption in his government department cannot be fired for revealing the truth.

But first justices will need to confront their own 2006 ruling that sharply limited the free-speech rights of such workers.

“Why do we put people at risk for telling the truth?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as the court heard the case of an Alabama community college official who was dismissed after revealing that a state legislator was drawing a salary for a college job but doing no work.

Edward Lane, the fired official, lost his free-speech lawsuit last year against the college president who dismissed him after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, under the 2006 Supreme Court precedent, Lane was not protected.

Although teachers and other public employees are free to speak as citizens, the high court ruled, the First Amendment does not protect them if they learn something on the job and reveal it to the public over the objections of their employer. The 5-4 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos rejected a suit by a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who was demoted after raising questions about the validity of a disputed search warrant.

The court’s opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the deputy district attorney was speaking about an internal complaint. He was “not speaking as a citizen for First Amendment purposes,” Kennedy said.

That decision left public employees with little protection from supervisors upset by their comments.

Civil libertarians, whistle-blowers and public employee unions supported Lane in his appeal and urged the justices to revisit the issue so that public employees who expose corruption can be better protected.

In Lane’s case, federal prosecutors had ordered him to testify in the corruption trial of the state legislator.

“Well, what is he supposed to do?” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked an attorney defending the college president. “He gets a subpoena” from the prosecutor and has to tell the truth in court.

“Mr. Chief Justice, we would never suggest anybody not comply with a subpoena and testify truthfully,” said Mark Waggoner, a lawyer from Birmingham.

“But you are suggesting he can be fired if he does it,” Roberts replied.

Sotomayor said the court should retreat from what it said in the Garcetti decision. “If someone is called to testify truthfully about a matter of public concern, should they be able to be fired under the First Amendment?”

It was clear she and most others thought the answer was no.

But Lane may win only a partial victory. Several justices said that although Lane had a strong free-speech claim, Central Alabama Community College President Steve Franks could avoid paying damages because the law was unclear.

The court usually shields police or other public officials from paying damages for violating a constitutional right if the law was not clear at the time. A decision in Lane v. Franks is due by late June.

Meanwhile, the court agreed Monday to hear the case of a Florida fisherman who was ensnared by a federal law designed to prevent white-collar criminals from shredding documents.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act makes it a crime to hide documents or any “tangible object” to thwart a federal investigation. Fisherman John Yates was accused by a federal agent of reeling in red grouper that were under the 20-inch minimum, then tossing them overboard to hide the evidence.

Yates was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The justices will hear his appeal arguing that the so-called anti-shredding provision should not apply to fish.

OZinOH via Flickr

MH370 Relatives Reject Malaysian Conclusions On Plane

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Relatives of flight MH370 passengers have denounced the Malaysian government’s suggestion that it would soon look into issuing death certificates for those on board despite no proof yet of what happened to the plane.

The statement, issued in response to a weekend briefing that Malaysian officials gave to families in Kuala Lumpur, also called for a review of satellite data that Malaysia says indicates the plane likely crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

“We, the families of MH370, believe that until they have conclusive proof that the plane crashed with no survivors, they have no right to attempt to settle this case with the issuance of death certificates and final payoffs,” said the statement by the “United Families of MH370.”

In Sunday’s briefing, a Malaysian official said the government would look into a timetable for issuing death certificates for passengers on the Malaysia Airlines flight, which are required for families to seek insurance payments, settle debts and address a range of other issues.

Deputy Foreign Minister Hamzah Zainudin also asked relatives in the meeting to submit a proposal for government financial assistance for families as the MH370 search wears on.

But relatives, who have repeatedly accused the government and national airline of botching a response to the plane’s disappearance and withholding information, said Malaysian authorities were playing an agonising “cat and mouse game” over the fate of their loved ones.

“WE ARE IN UTTER OUTRAGE, DESPAIR AND SHOCK!” the statement said, using bold caps.

Malaysian officials could not immediately be reached to comment. The government and airline deny they are hiding anything.

The Boeing 777 went missing March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard.

Malaysia says satellite data indicates the plane crashed in the remote Indian Ocean but no proof has been found despite an intensive multi-nation sea search.

Demanding hard evidence, some vocal relatives have repeatedly said they were unconvinced by Malaysia’s conclusions on the data analysis, performed by British satellite communications firm Inmarsat.

“They have failed to share why they would accept a single source (Inmarsat) for analysis utilising a never before attempted method, as their sole grounds for determining that the plane is under the water and all lives lost,” the families said.

The statement said they requested an independent peer review, but the suggestion was rejected on grounds Inmarsat’s data was under privacy protections.

In the Sunday meeting, “not a single one of our questions was answered,” it added.

A public opinion poll published last week found that more than half of Malaysians believe their scandal-prone government — which has controlled the country for 57 years — is hiding the full truth on MH370.

Shen Bohan/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT