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Legal News Round Up: February 2023

Nicola Sturgeon Resigns as Scottish First Minister

Nicola Sturgeon will resign as First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party after more than eight years in power.

The resignation, announced on February 15, comes as Sturgeon faces challenges on many fronts. She has struggled to chart a path forward following a U.K. Supreme Court decision last year that found the Scottish Parliament cannot hold a second independence referendum without the consent of the British Parliament. In addition, Sturgeon has come under intense scrutiny for championing the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. The bill, which would make it considerably easier for individuals to change their legal gender, passed through the Scottish Parliament before being blocked from receiving royal assent by the U.K. government. Sturgeon expressed outrage and planned to challenge Westminster in court, but polling consistently indicates widespread public opposition to the bill. The controversy only worsened after a double rapist was housed in a female-only prison upon identifying as a transgender woman.

Sturgeon insists she had been planning to resign even before her recent difficulties due to the increasing pressures of political life.

“The nature and form of modern political discourse means there is a much greater intensity – dare I say it, brutality – to life as a politician than in years gone by,” she said in her resignation speech. “All in all – and for a long time without it being apparent – it takes its toll, on you and on those around you.”

Sturgeon has indicated she will remain in her role until a new leader is elected.

U.S. Supreme Court considers Legal Liability for Internet Companies

The family of a woman who died in a terrorist attack in 2015 is suing YouTube for recommending ISIS recruitment videos to users on the platform. The case, Gonzalez v. Google, is currently being considered by the United States Supreme Court and could have sweeping implications for large technology companies.

The case will determine whether a social media platform that uses algorithms to recommend content is protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Enacted in 1996, Section 230 has long ensured that internet companies cannot be held responsible for messages published on their platforms by third parties. Supporters, including the American Civil Liberties Union, warn that repealing the law would undermine the free and open exchange of information by pressuring social media companies to enforce strict censorship upon users. Opponents claim the law leaves social media companies unaccountable and is outdated given the dramatic evolution of the digital landscape since its passing. A host of large technology companies, including Microsoft, Pinterest, and Etsy, have filed amicus briefs in defense of Google.

The justices at times appeared skeptical of the petitioners’ arguments. Justice Clarence Thomas pushed back after lawyer Eric Schnapper claimed that YouTube aided and abetted ISIS by recommending its propaganda to users. Justice Elena Kagan, however, acknowledged at one point that Section 230 was a “pre-algorithim statute” that might not be entirely applicable to a “post-algorithim world.”

Former Memphis Police Officers Plead Not Guilty in Tyre Nichols Killing

Five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty in the killing of Tyre Nichols in a February 17 court hearing. The officers—Desmond Mills, Jr., Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley,

Justin Smith, and Emmitt Martin III—all face second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression charges. Tyre Nichols died days after being pepper sprayed, tasered, and severely beaten by the officers during a traffic stop on January 7. The Memphis Police Department said that one of the officers, Demetrius Haley, took a picture of Nichols after the beating and sent it to at least five other people, including one outside of the Police Department. None of the officers left their body cameras on long enough to record the entire incident, despite policies requiring them to do so. More than a dozen police officers have faced disciplinary action as a result of the killing. The police department has expressed its commitment to "taking every measure possible to rebuild the trust that has been negatively affected by the death of Mr. Tyre Nichols."

U.S.-China Tensions Rise Over Spy Balloons, War in Ukraine

Tensions between the United States and China rapidly deteriorated over February, following disputes over spying, Taiwan, the war in Ukraine, and other issues. The month began with a diplomatic crisis as a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew across the United States before being shot out of the sky by the American military on February 4. Amidst widespread outrage, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a high-stakes diplomatic visit to Beijing, calling the incident a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law. The United States was on heightened alert following the incident, shooting down multiple other balloons, most or all of which are thought to have been benign. The Chinese government, meanwhile, claimed the flying object was a weather balloon that accidentally drifted into U.S. airspace and accused the Biden administration of overreacting. In addition, China accused the United States of flying its own balloons over Chinese airspace more than ten times in the past nine months, allegations the White House has denied.

Although China has thus far hesitated to provide support to Russia in its war efforts in Ukraine, the Biden administration claims that the government is inching closer to providing the Kremlin with lethal support, including weapons and ammunition. Only days before the first anniversary of the invasion, Chinese diplomat Wang Yi met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. American officials have repeatedly threatened severe consequences if China offers lethal assistance to Russia.

“Any steps by China to provide lethal support to Russia would only reward aggression, continue the killing, and further undermine a rules-based order,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in her Munich Security Conference speech on February 18.

Unsurprisingly, Taiwan continued to be a major source of contention between the United States and China. On February 23, the United States announced that it will quadruple its troop presence on the island, from roughly 30 to 200 troops. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and National Security Council chief Wellington Koo met U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and other American officials in Washington this month. Members of the House of Representatives also visited Taiwan and called for the Biden administration to immediately increase its shipment of weapons to the island. The Chinese government has long claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and expressed its steadfast commitment to reuniting the island with the homeland by whatever means necessary.

U.S. Says Russia Has Committed Crimes Against Humanity in Ukraine

The United States has formally determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity in its invasion of Ukraine, Vice President Kamala Harris announced on February 18 at the Munich Security Conference.

“From the starting days of this unprovoked war, we have witnessed Russian forces engage in horrendous atrocities and war crimes,” Harris said. “Their actions are an assault on our common values, an attack on our common humanity.”

The war in Ukraine has displaced millions and resulted in many thousands of deaths. After a report uncovered abuses against civilians by the Russian armed forces, Matilda Bogner, head of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said Russia may be guilty of war crimes last December.

Harris expressed the United States’ continued commitment to bolstering the NATO alliance, fueling Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself from Russian aggression, and pursuing those responsible for war crimes under international law.

“To all those who have perpetrated these crimes and to their superiors who are complicit in these crimes: you will be held to account,” she said.

The declaration came mere days before President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv, the closest a sitting president has come to an active conflict not controlled by the American military since Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. February 24, 2023 marked one year since the invasion began.


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