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U.S. Supreme Court
Split high court throws out Louisiana abortion clinic limit

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics, reasserting a commitment to abortion rights over fierce opposition from dissenting conservative justices in the first big abortion case of the Trump era.

Chief Justice John Roberts and his four more liberal colleagues ruled that a law that requires doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals violates abortion rights the court first announced in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

The outcome is far from the last word on the decades-long fight over abortion with dozens of state-imposed restrictions winding their way through the courts. But the decision was a surprising defeat for abortion opponents, who thought that a new conservative majority with two of President Donald Trump’s appointees on board would start chipping away at abortion access.

The key vote belonged to Roberts, who had always voted against abortion rights before, including in a 2016 case in which the court struck down a Texas law that was virtually identical to the one in Louisiana.

The chief justice explained that he continues to think the Texas case was wrongly decided, but believes it’s important for the court to stand by its prior decisions.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote. He did not join the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer for the other liberals in Monday’s decision, and his position left abortion-rights supporters more relieved than elated.

The case was t he third in two weeks in which Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, joined the court’s liberals in the majority. One of the earlier decisions preserved the legal protections and work authorization for 650,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The other extended federal employment-discrimination protections to LGBT Americans, a decision that Justice Neil Gorsuch also joined and wrote.

In dissent on Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Today a majority of the Court perpetuates its ill-founded abortion jurisprudence by enjoining a perfectly legitimate state law and doing so without jurisdiction.”

Trump’s two high-court picks, Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were in dissent, along with Samuel Alito. The presence of the new justices is what had fueled hopes among abortion opponents, and fears on the other side, that the Supreme Court would be more likely to uphold restrictions.

The Trump administration had sided with Louisiana in urging the court to uphold the law. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany criticized the decision. “In an unfortunate ruling today, the Supreme Court devalued both the health of mothers and the lives of unborn children by gutting Louisiana’s policy that required all abortion procedures be performed by individuals with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital,” McEnany said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said, “Today’s ruling is a bitter disappointment. It demonstrates once again the failure of the Supreme Court to allow the American people to protect the well-being of women from the tentacles of a brutal and profit-seeking abortion industry.”

On the other side, support for the decision mixed with a wariness that the future of abortion rights appears to rest with Roberts.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Monday’s decision by no means ends the struggle over abortion rights in legislatures and the courts.

“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today but we’re concerned about tomorrow. With this win, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. But the Court’s decision could embolden states to pass even more restrictive laws when clarity is needed if abortion rights are to be protected,” Northup said.

In his reasoning, Roberts “signaled a willingness to lessen the legal protections for abortion,” University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman wrote on the Take Care blog. However, she also acknowledged that Roberts’ “emphasis on the importance of adhering to the Court’s prior decisions does not sound like the thinking of a person who is inclined to overrule Roe v. Wade.”

A trial judge had said the law would not provide health benefits to women and would leave only one clinic open in Louisiana, in New Orleans. That would make it too hard for women to get abortions, in violation of the Constitution, the judge ruled.

But the appeals court in New Orleans rejected the judge’s findings and upheld the law in 2018, doubting that any clinics would have to close and saying that doctors had not tried hard enough to establish relationships with local hospitals.

The clinics filed an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court, asking that the law be blocked while the justices evaluated the case.

Early last year, Roberts joined with the four liberal members of the court to grant that request and keep the law on hold.

Roberts’ vote was a bit of a surprise because of his earlier vote n the Texas case. It may have reflected his new role since Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement as the court’s swing justice, his concern about the court being perceived as a partisan institution and his respect for a prior decision of the court, even one he disagreed with. Roberts didn’t write anything explaining his position at the time of the Texas case.

The regulations at issue in Louisiana are distinct from other state laws making their way through court challenges that would ban abortions early in a pregnancy. Those include bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as 6 weeks, and the almost total ban passed in Alabama.

Brud Leedom ties cucumber vines to a fence in his homestead garden along Route 30 in Sudbury on Monday afternoon.

Garden Time

Scott: Keep up the good working to keep the virus down

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott continues to urge Vermonters to do what they can to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The commissioner of the state Department of Health also said there are no new cases to report from an outbreak in Fair Haven and there have not been confirmed reports of long-term impacts from those who got the virus in the state.

At his regular news conference Monday, the governor started off by thanking those in state government who have been working since mid-March on stopping the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. He also thanked residents for their efforts, such as wearing masks in public and social distancing, because Vermont is in much better shape than other states.

According to the Department of Health, there were six new cases of the virus to report Monday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 1,208. The death toll is 56, which has remained the same for weeks.

“This has not been easy for anyone. And while we’ve come a long way, we know it’s not over and it’ll be a while longer before we’re truly back to normal,” Scott said. “But if we continue with the same spirit and commitment we’ve been going through over the past four months, I know we’ll get through this and be stronger than we were before.”

Some states, such as Texas and Florida, are seeing record numbers of new cases of the virus while Vermont continues to be in good shape.

But there have been a handful of outbreaks of the virus around the state. Earlier this month, the state announced multiple people had tested positive for the virus at a worksite in Fair Haven. On Friday, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Department of Health, said there were 12 cases from that site with ten of those who tested positive coming New York and the remaining two from Vermont.

Levine said there are no new cases to report from that cluster. He said testing was conducted in Fair Haven over the weekend. More than 200 tests were administered and Levine said they all came back negative.

He said while it’s too soon to say that outbreak has been contained, the indications are the virus isn’t spreading there “by leaps and bounds.”

Because the virus is new, health experts don’t know what its long-term impact will be or if it causes lifelong complications. There have been reports of people suffering shortness of breath or diminished lung capacity weeks after they’ve been deemed “recovered” from the virus.

But the commissioner said there haven’t been any such reports yet in Vermont.

“I think that’s the million dollar question that people here and elsewhere in the world want to know the answer to. The fact is we just don’t have that much knowledge at this point in time,” Levine said.

He said anecdotally he’s heard about cases here where patients didn’t appear to suffer any permanent damage from the virus after tests and scans were conducted, but he again urged it was too soon to know.



House allocates nearly $1 billion in COVID relief

Federal deadlines limited how much COVID-19 relief funds the House opted to invest in broadband expansion, according to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson.

Johnson, D-South Hero, spoke remotely at a virtual news conference Monday about how the House voted late last week to appropriate nearly $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid.

She was joined by House Majority Leader, Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Kitty Toll, D-Danville, and Chairwoman of theHhouse Committee on Ways and Means, Janet Ancel, D-Calais,

Toll said the House allocated $20 million in federal funds to broadband connectivity.

“Which is critical as we have learned the greater need for connectivity as our children were learning remotely and more people were forced to work remotely due to the pandemic,” she said. “Within that $20 million there was an extension of broadband, last-mile connections, telehealth, and long-term planning into the future so that Vermonters can work remotely by choice, or if by need, and the same for children learning, whether it’s pre-k through 12 or higher education, either by choice or by need.”

Johnson was asked, given that federal rules require coronavirus relief funds be spent by the end of the year, if it was possible to get said connectivity projects up and running within the given time frame. She said that’s one reason the allocation is $20 million — not $100 million.

“Honestly, we were trying to figure out how to invest a whole lot more, specifically so we could get as much build-out as possible, and it was the time factor that was the biggest limitation for us,” she said.

The legislature had been looking at how to expand high-speed internet access prior to the pandemic. The funds allocated so far could see up to 1,000 “last-mile” homes connected by the end of December, and there’s $800,000 in there for telehealth services, which many providers are moving towards. She said since last year, when the Legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of communications districts, several have already formed while others are working on coming together.

“I hope we’re able to spend $20 million in closing that digital divide; we’ve always known it was there,” she said. “Real estate agents tell us all the time that properties are more or less desirable based on whether there’s cell service and high speed access at that property.”

She said seeing the number of students who had challenges learning remotely after the pandemic led to school closures was further evidence of the need for greater broadband access.

“We felt like this was the largest reasonable chunk of money that we could put into closing that digital divide in Vermont and we’ll be keeping a close eye on it,” she said.

Getting all addresses in the state high speed broadband could cost between $85 million and $293 million, according to Clay Purvis, director of the Telecommunications and Connectivity Division at the Department of Public Service, who testified before the Senate Committee on Finance in late April.

The representatives highlighted other action taken by the House so far this year.

“There’s more to come in August, but the main focus of our extended session was to pass critical legislation to help get Vermonters through this crisis,” said Johnson. “A very significant piece of that was a $275 million investment in stabilizing our healthcare system that stepped up when we needed them to and really found ways to serve all Vermonters and keep Vermonters safe. We are so grateful for everything that they’ve done.”

She said the relief funds available to medical providers are calculated to keep them in businesses and are not based on their spending.

With regard to economic relief, Toll said a $70 million package had been passed previously with guidance on how to apply and how funds can be used to be released by the administration soon. The money approved by the House on Friday contained another $93 million, for a total of $163 million in economic aid.

“Additionally, we passed a hazard pay provision which includes $28 million,” said Toll. “The federal guidance from the Treasury continues to change and the focus really was on front line workers in the health care field.”

Another $12 million went to child care centers, she said.

According to Ancel, about $85 million approved by the House will be direct aid to Vermonters. It includes $5 million for foreclosure protection; $25 million for eviction protection; $250,000 for landlord counseling and assistance; $6.2 million for rehousing initiatives; and $32 million to Vermont Housing and Conservation to distribute in the form of housing grants. Toll said the latter represents an opportunity to make long-term investments that will extend beyond the pandemic crisis.

She said the Vermont Foodbank will receive $4.7 million, while summer meals programs would get $12 million. The House also approved a Senate bill that would make it easier for those in high-risk jobs to get workers’ compensation.

Not all of the House’s activities were directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Krowinski talked about some laws aimed at improving racial equity in Vermont.

“This legislative session we began with some of this work with the passage of Act 1, establishing a task force to address social equity in our statewide academic standards,” she said. “We passed Proposition 2, a proposal of amendment to the Vermont Constitution that removes references to slavery and indentured servitude and clarifies that these act are prohibited.”

She said S.219 was passed by the House last week and sent to Gov. Phil Scott.

“Some of the highlights of that bill is it provides grant funding to local law enforcement, except it will be contingent on the Secretary of Administration confirming that law enforcement agencies have complied and complied with racial justice reporting requirements,” she said. “It creates a new crime for law enforcement, using prohibited restraint that causes serious bodily injury or death and requires the Department of Public Safety to equip all State Police with video recording devices by Oct. 1, 2020.”

Some COVID funds were allocated with racial equity in mind. Krowinski mentioned $5 million in grants are available to businesses owned by women and minorities, $50,000 went to the state Director of Racial Equity, $700,000 to public outreach for new Americans, and $1.5 million to, “disproportionately impacted communities across Vermont.”

She also noted the House having passed an increase in the minimum wage.



A patch of Early Whitetop Fleabane blooms along the roadside in the Green Mountain National Forest Moosalamoo Recreation Area on Monday morning in Goshen.

Getting Flowery

Downtown Strategic Plan
Downtown plan offers map to future

Future visitors to Rutland could step off the train looking at a park instead of a parking lot.

An “Amtrak Gateway Area Park” is among goals recommended in the recently completed rewrite of The Downtown Rutland Strategic Plan. Drawings included an expansion of Depot Park, potentially including a dog park, a playground, an open space for events and a bike share station. Creating the park would require the city to come to an arrangement with the owners of the downtown shopping plaza.

The 122-page document includes a variety of data about the downtown, conclusions drawn from that data, goals informed by those conclusions and recommended tactics to achieve them.

Many of them have to do with making downtown more attractive. Downtown Rutland Partnership Executive Director Steve Peters said with the station serving as a gateway to the city, the area immediately around it doesn’t give the best impression of Rutland.

“That’s a key spot,” he said. “It can be a little unwelcoming and that’s something we need to focus on.”

The ideas for the park are reminiscent of conceptual designs for a plaza on Evelyn Street that were included in the proposal for a downtown hotel that was floated in 2016. The hotel plan never came to fruition and the plaza design was set aside.

“There have been so many ideas over there and proposals and nothing ever seems to come of it,” said Mayor David Allaire. “It is a large parcel with frontage toward downtown which would be prime for development, but nothing ever seems to get off the ground.”

A downtown hotel figures into the strategic plan, with the proposal to put one on the site of the downtown parking pit and the former Rutland Herald building getting repeated mentions. However, that hotel proposal fell apart when the developers announced they were pulling out because the COVID-19 pandemic had interfered with their financing.

“We weren’t putting all our eggs in that basket, but that was going to be what we were hoping would be a catalyst for developing, not just that property, but a domino effect with a hundred more people coming to downtown a night.”

Allaire said the city was looking at other options for developing the property, and hasn’t given up hope of a downtown hotel.

Peters said the loss of the hotel project cast a shadow over the plans for downtown.

“I do think it’s a pretty significant factor and something we’ve just needed so badly for so long,” he said. “There are other aspects we can work on. ... If we continue to work on the appearance aspects of downtown and make it an attractive place, that’ll make it easier to get get a project like that when the environment is more favorable.”

Peters said the report codified a lot of things people have known for some time.

“For instance, with the housing aspect — we knew that,” he said. “We know we need more people downtown. Thinking that through and having a plan to make that happen was important,” Peters said.

That plan includes targeting seniors and young professionals in high cost-of-living, urban areas. It also included improving the downtown housing stock and converting office space – for which the consultants found little demand – into housing. Analysis within the strategic plan found an unmet demand for “quality downtown apartments.”

“There is a supply of households in the region making the requisite income to afford such apartments,” the plan read. “Overall, demand is expected to be much greater for rental units rather than condominium units, which have traditionally fared poorly in the Rutland market and are reported to have little demand in the local market.”

In addition to finding little demand for office space downtown – though the report identified medical offices as a “niche opportunity” – the study found little overall demand for retail space downtown.

“Downtown has generally high vacancy rates among first-floor commercial rental spaces,” the plan states. “The analysis found this is generally a ‘demand-side’ problem rather than an issue with the availability of space.”

Not long ago, the DRP was boasting a near-full occupancy on first floors. Peters said the drop-off felt sudden.

“My first year here, we had something like 16 new businesses,” he said. “Some of those have closed, some changed. ... There’s so much in the world influencing these things that’s just out of our control. I think it’s just constantly changing.”

However, the report did identify specific areas where local retail demand was going unmet, including one major one – outdoor recreation. The plan also sees opportunities in the arts, tourism and food-related businesses.

“Given the major draw of the Paramount, concentration of art galleries, successful events, and nearby Killington with a strong second home and recreation base, Rutland has the opportunity to build off current trends around food tourism, connecting outdoor recreation with brewery tours, and otherwise playing off the ‘Made in Vermont’ brand,” the plan reads.

The report also suggests capitalizing on food manufacturers in the read with retail outlets downtown.

“This could start as a downtown festival dedicated to Vermont products and spin off as a downtown venue dedicated to those products,” the plan reads.

The plan also includes a number of suggestions for Center Street Marketplace Park – the space formerly known as the Center Street Alley – including an outdoor climbing wall, a “natural” children’s playground and a senior-friendly fitness trail.

Allaire said he was skeptical about those ideas, saying that for the time being the space seemed better-used as outside dining for the surrounding restaurants, but that he was open to the discussion.

“What I keep thinking is, we haven’t had one of these in the past few years,” Peters said of the plan. “The one in 2009 ran its course. ... I’m excited to have something to guide us. We probably won’t do everything exactly as suggested, but it’s exciting to have a focus.”

View the report at https://downtownrutland.com/news/2020/strategic-plan