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Court decides whether workers can be fired for off-duty pot use

Colorado’s Supreme Court will decide whether workers can be fired for off-duty marijuana use. The case will determine whether workers can be punished for private marijuana consumption.

The case in Colorado’s highest court involves Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who is suing his former employer. Coats used medical marijuana, which Colorado voters voted to legalize in 2000.

Coats became disabled after he was in car accident. He said that using medical marijuana helps with his muscle spasms.

Coats was a worker for the Dish Network until he was fired after failing a drug test. Even though he said he never used the drug at work, Coats was dismissed under the company’s drug-free policy. He maintains that his off-duty pot use is legal under a Colorado law. The Colorado Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute protects workers from being fired for activities after work. The Dish Network said that since marijuana is illegal under federal law, Coats’ marijuana use is not covered under the state law.

Dish Network argued in court that the case is not about medical marijuana. “This case need not be an endorsement or an indictment of medical marijuana”, said Dish attorney Meghan Martinez. “It’s a zero-tolerance policy. It doesn’t matter if he was impaired or not.”

The lawsuit puts a spotlight on a conflicting aspect of the state’s marijuana laws and their impact on employers’ policies. Pot is legal in Colorado, but many employers don’t have policies permitting drug use.

The state constitution further complicates the issue. It says that employers don’t have to change their anti-drug policies when employees smoke medical marijuana.

” We’re getting very confused and mixed messages from everywhere,” said Michael Evans, Coats’ lawyer. Evans believes that the case will lead to more clear policies about employees’ drug use. “At a minimum,I think everyone is going to get clarification.”

Coats hopes winning this case will help end his chronic unemployment since the Dish Network fired him. “I’ve been having a hard time finding employment, said Coats. “I want to work.”

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Rand Paul makes abortion concessions

Senator Rand Paul said that he did not object to the use of the morning after contraceptive pill, Plan B, today while at an event in South Carolina.

The views conflict with those held by many conservatives, including Sen. Paul’s, who himself sponsored a 2013 anti-abortion bill that defined fertilization as the moment of birth.

“If life starts at conception, should medicine that prevents conception like Plan B be legal?,” asked a woman during a stop at the College of Charleston.

“I am not opposed to birth control,” said Sen. Paul. After a brief pause, he clarified his answer.

“That’s basically what Plan B is,” Sen. Paul said. “Plan B is taking two birth control pills in the morning and two in the evening, and I am not opposed to that.”

Paul, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, made various stops at universities throughout South Carolina today, in an attempt to rally the youth vote that was so popular with his father. Reporters caught up to him later in the day, and peppered Paul with questions about his statement.

“Plan B is taking birth control,” Sen. Paul responded. “I am not against birth control and I don’t know many Republicans who would be indicating that they are against birth control.”

There are conservatives that denounce the wide availability of such morning after contraceptive pills and believe that the use of such drugs equates to an abortion for all intents and purposes.

Sen. Rand Paul left himself some leeway with his answer. By framing his answer in terms of the morning after pill, and ignoring Mifeprex, a pill used as an alternative to surgical abortions, Sen. Paul can continue to campaign against abortions while pointing to progressive Conservative thinking.

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Ohio puts off early voting

A divided Supreme Court ruled to delay the start of early voting in Ohio, which was originally slated to begin Tuesday. The 5-4 decision on Monday granted a request from Ohio officials to delay a judge’s ruling lengthening the swing state’s early voting schedule.

Ohio’s elections chief responded to the order from the high court by reissuing voting times. Early voting will now start on Oct. 7, under a state law that was supported by Republican lawmakers. The new schedule from Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted no longer has the evening hours and additional Sunday required by U.S. District Judge Peter Economus’ decision. Residents of Ohio now have two Saturdays and the Sunday prior to the Nov. 4 election to cast an early ballot.

U.S. District Judge Peter Economus had originally ruled to move the start of early voting to Tuesday and subsequently required Husted to set an expanded schedule. The ruling came as a response to a lawsuit over two election-related measures challenged by civil rights groups that included the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. The lawsuit was filed in May on behalf of several black churches and the state’s chapters of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.

The plaintiffs had challenged the directive that set uniform early voting times and restricted weekend and evening hours, claiming that restrictive hours made it difficult residents to vote and disproportionately affected low-income and black voters. According to the group, low-income and black voters are more likely to use the weekend and evening hours to vote early in elections.

An attorney for the plaintiffs said the high court’s last-minute ruling could cause confusion among voters.

“While not a final decision on the merits of the case, this is a real loss for Ohio voters, especially those who must use evenings, weekends and same-day voter registration to cast their ballot,” Freda Levenson, ACLU of Ohio’s legal director, said in a written statement.

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Louisiana attorney general appeals the ban on same-sex marriage ban

Louisiana’s court rulings over same sex marriage just got a little more convoluted:

This week a state judge struck down a statewide gay marriage ban, an order that directly contradicts a federal ruling on the matter that was handed down two weeks prior (which is being appealed in appellate court); meanwhile, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell motioned for the newest ruling uplifting the ban to be stayed until an appeal to the Supreme Court is made.

In Lafayette this week, state judge Edward Rubin struck down Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage, which directly defied a federal ruling upholding the law. Attorney General Caldwell will appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which has a number of similar cases from across the country that it could put on its docket.

“If the Supreme Court decides not to hear it, they’ll have to lift the stays,” said Keith Werhan, a constitutional law professor at Tulane University. “The court’s concern is they don’t want a lot of people getting married. So if they come back and hear it but not uphold it, the question is what to do with the status of all those relationships.”

Earlier this month, federal judge Martin Feldman became the first federal judge to rule that same-sex marriage bans did not defy the equal rights and due process afforded by the Constitution.

All of the legal complications arose when a California same-sex couple, Angela Costanza and Chasity Brewer, moved to Louisiana. Although married in the Golden State, Louisiana did not recognize their union as legal, which posed problems when Costanza tried to adopt Brewer’s son.

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FBI claims to know identity of ISIS executioner

The FBI may have discovered the identity of the masked, English-speaking ISIS militant who appeared in propaganda videos murdering American hostages. FBI Director James Comey declined to reveal the name, but says that the suspect is likely from somewhere in North America.

Several videos in which Western hostages appear to be beheaded have all shown a hooded man – likely to be the same one in each – delivering statements against Western actions against ISIS in Iraq before taking his knife to the hostages’ throats.

American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines were all killed in this fashion. The life of another British citizen, Alan Henning, was threatened in the last video.

Top U.K. officials had previously said the executioner appeared to be British. During that time, British Prime Minister David Camero had said many British citizens may be sympathetic to ISIS’ cause.

“First of all let me condemn completely the barbaric and brutal act that has taken place. And let’s be clear what that act is: it is an act of murder. And murder without any act of justification,” Said Camero. “But we know far too many british citizens have travelled to Iraq and travelled to Syria to take part in extremism and violence.”

Comey also spoke today about the Khorasan Group, another target of U.S. airstrikes this week in Syria. The little-known group was “nearing the execution phase for an attack in Europe or the homeland,” U.S. officials have said. And the group was working to produce “creative” new designs for bombs that could be smuggled onto U.S.- or Europe-bound flights, sources have said.

“That group was at the top of my list of things that I worry about … [because] it is a collection of very bad and experienced terrorists, operating in a safe haven, into which we don’t have complete visibility,” Comey said.

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FBI and Pentagon: Khorasan group's "imminent" threat may have been exaggerated

Although Pentagon officials described the threat posed by the Khorasan Group, an Al Qaeda offshoot that has been targeted during the US airstrikes againt ISIS, as “imminent,” officials at both the Pentagon and the FBI claim that there was no conclusive evidence that the group was remotely close to attacking the United States.

“It’s hard to say whether that’s tomorrow, three weeks from now or three months from now,” F.B.I. director James Comey told reporters, according to the Associated Press. “But it’s the kind of threat you have to operate under the assumption that it is tomorrow.”

However, US officials maintain that assessing threats and properly dealing with them is like trying to wipe off a foggy mirror in a steamy bathroom. Although sometimes a fruitless or futile effort, it still must be done.

“We don’t have complete visibility,” Comey said of Syria, but added that “what I could see concerned me very much that they were working toward an attack.”

Rear Admiral John Kirby, spokesman for the Pentagon, echoed the FBI’s sentiments.

“I don’t know that we, you know, can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months. It doesn’t matter,” Kirby said.

Officials are content with branding counter-terrorism efforts as welcomed and necessary to the safety of citizens, disregarding any perception that US officials capitalized on fear tactics as hokum.

“I mean, so we can have this debate about, you know, whether it was valid to hit them or not or whether it was too soon or too late,” Kirby later added. “We hit them. And I don’t think, you know, we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

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Water vapor detected on Neptune-sized exoplanet

According to a NASA statement, a team led by Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, College Park, has found evidence of water vapor on an exoplanet orbiting a star 120 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. The team used observations taken by the NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler space telescopes.

The planet, HAT-P-11b is part of a class of exoplanets known as exo-Neptunes, which are comparable in size to the ice giant Neptune in our own solar system. Unlike Neptune, which is the farthest planet from the Sun in our solar system, HAT-P-11b orbits extremely close to its host star, completing one revolution every five days. It is hypothesized to harbor a rocky core beneath its gaseous atmosphere.

Previous studies have documented the presence of water vapor in the thick atmospheres of Jupiter-like exoplanets. However, detecting molecules in the atmospheres of smaller exoplanets, such as exo-Neptunes, is more difficult.

The research team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to observe the planet with transmission spectroscopy, in which the planet was observed as it transited across the face of its host star; different molecules, such as water, produce different spectra by absorbing different wavelengths of the star’s light as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere.

However, to check whether the water vapor signature originated in HAT-P-11b’s atmosphere or in relatively cool starspots on the host star, the team used visible-light observations from Kepler and infrared observations from Spitzer. These showed that the starspots were actually too hot to produce water vapor. The water vapor was present in the atmosphere of HAT-P-11b, showing that the planet enjoys clear skies unobscured by clouds.

“This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

The new findings have been published in the journal Nature.

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Marijuana legalization initiative to appear on 2016 California ballot

The nation’s largest marijuana advocacy project, the Marijuana Policy Project, filed paperwork on Wednesday to bring a legalization initiative to the California ballot for the 2016 election.

The move takes advantage of the greater voter turnout during president elections and in particular the higher percentage of younger voters, who tend to support legalization.

Rob MacCoun, a Stanford University law professor who has studied the social impact of drug laws around the globe, says that advocates were originally deciding between putting the initiative on the November 2014 or November 2016 ballet. Ultimately, advocates chose to two more years in order to capitalize on the higher voter turnout. MacCoun notes that Hilary Clinton will likely draw more younger voters to the voting booths if she is on the ballet.

However, waiting until the 2016 election does not come without risks. According to MacCoun, the predominate risk for waiting two years is that some states will have more on-the-ground experience in legalized recreational marijuana use.

“The risk is that by 2016, we will know more about the consequences of legalization in Colorado and Washington, so the debate will shift from abstractions to actual outcomes,” he says. Bad events linked to marijuana use could potentially sour public attitudes toward more widespread legal use.

In addition, skipping the 2014 election could mean losing momentum for marijuana legalization.

Despite the potential drawbacks to waiting for the 2016 election, many advocates believe that the right choice was made and that Californians will ultimately lean towards legalization.

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Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law sentenced to life in prison

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for acting as the voice of al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Abu Ghaith responded by quoting from the Quran, praising Allah and warning the judge that there would be a price to pay for trying to “bury me alive.”

“Today, at the same moment where you are shackling my hands and intend to bury me alive, you are at the same time unleashing the hands of hundreds of Muslim youth, and you are removing the dust of their minds, and they will join the rally of the free men,” said the Abu Ghaith, warning the judge that his actions would cause a backlash in the Muslim world. “Soon, and very soon, the whole world will see, the whole world will see the end of these theater plays that are also known as trials.”

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan responded by telling Abu Ghaith that his defiant words were further proof he deserved life behind bars.

“You haven’t evidenced any doubt about the justification for what was done, and as recently as 15 minutes ago, you continue to threaten,” the judge said. “You, sir, in my assessment, are committed to doing everything you can to assist in carrying out al-Qaida’s agenda of killing Americans, guilty or innocent, combatant or noncombatant, adult or babies, without regard to the carnage that’s caused.”

Abu Ghaith, 48, was convicted in March on conspiracy charges that he was featured in the widely circulated videos used to recruit new followers willing to go on suicide missions like the events of Sept. 11. Abu Ghaith had been answering to Osama bin Laden’s requests.

Abu Ghaith took the witness stand in his own defense and calmly denied he was an al-Qaida recruiter. Instead, he claimed that his role was purely religious and aimed at encouraging all Muslims to rise up against their oppressors.

Prosecutor John P. Cronan said that Abu Ghaith’s use of religious motivations only made him much more dangerous as a recruiter.

“He did not just find himself in a bad situation he couldn’t get out of,” Cronan said. “He was all in. At no point did Sulaiman Abu Ghaith back away from that commitment.”

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Federal prison population drops by thousands

The Federal prison population has decreased for the first time in several decades, according to the Justice Department. The population dropped by roughly 4,800 over the past year.

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the issue on Tuesday, saying that the Justice Department expects to end the current budget year next week with a prison population of roughly 215,000 inmates. It would be the first time since 1980 that the federal prison population has declined during the course of a fiscal year. Furthermore, the Bureau of Prisons projected a drop of more than 2,000 inmates in the next year, and nearly 10,000 in the year after.

“This is nothing less than historic,” Holder said, addressing a conference at the New York University School of Law that was hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice. “To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity.”

The crime rate has dropped along with the prison population, Holder said, proving that “longer-than-necessary prison terms” don’t improve public safety.

Holder continued to argue that unnecessarily long prison terms may actually have a negative effect on public safety and communities.

“We know that over-incarceration crushes opportunity. We know it prevents people, and entire communities, from getting on the right track,” Holder said.

More recently, the Justice Department has encouraged a broader swath of the prison population to apply for clemency, and has supported reductions in sentencing guideline ranges for drug criminals that could apply to tens of thousands of inmates.

Holder calls for the government to come up with new ways of measuring success of its criminal justice policies. “It’s no longer adequate — or appropriate — to rely on outdated models that prize only enforcement, as quantified by numbers of prosecutions, convictions and lengthy sentences, rather than taking a holistic view.”