Tribune News Service

US judge rejects lawsuit seeking Texas voting changes during pandemic

AUSTIN, Texas - A federal judge in San Antonio dismissed a lawsuit seeking greater accommodations for voter safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed by civil rights groups and two voters, sought a court order requiring face masks at polls and other changes to alleviate crowding, including more polling locations, additional voting machines and an extra week of early voting on top of the six additional days already ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The lawsuit also sought approval for temporary early voting locations with flexible hours, which a new state law bans.

Although the requests "do not appear unreasonable and can easily be implemented" to improve safety, U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam said the courts lack authority to order the changes.

The power to administer elections and set voting procedures belongs to the Legislature and state agencies, Pulliam wrote in an order signed Monday and released Tuesday.

"Any directive would also require an initial policy determination outside of judicial discretion and require an undertaking that would inherently demonstrate a lack of respect due the legislative branch," Pulliam wrote.

"In doing so, this Court would override any policy decisions to micromanage Texas's election process," he added.

Pulliam was nominated by President Donald Trump last year and took the bench in August.

The lawsuit by the Texas chapter of the NAACP and Mi Familia Vota argued that unsafe conditions at polling sites threatened to disenfranchise voters, particularly Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans who are disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.

Unless the increased health risks are addressed, voters will be forced out of the political process, the lawsuit argued.

Pulliam noted that the lawsuit did not challenge the constitutionality of a state law or election policy. Instead, it raised a general challenge to procedures that is not within the court's power to address, he said. - Austin American-Statesman

US sanctions 2 former Lebanese ministers over Hezbollah ties

WASHINGTON - The U.S. sanctioned two former Lebanese government ministers for providing material support to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group, and engaging in corruption, the first such move against high-level individuals in the country.

Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil directed political and economic favors to Hezbollah, including ensuring companies it owned won government contracts worth millions of dollars and moving money from government ministries to Hezbollah-associated institutions, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

Finyanus and Khalil are allied with Hezbollah and their respective political parties, along with others, represent the majority in parliament. Khalil has held several ministerial posts throughout the years including the Finance Ministry and he's also the top aide to the house speaker, Hezbollah's main Shiite ally in the country. He is also a member of parliament.

Finyanus was a former public works minister and the head of his political party, Sleiman Franjieh, is a close friend of embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Lebanon is facing its worst financial crisis in decades following years of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. Almost a year ago, thousands took to the streets and demanded the fall of a political class they blame for deteriorating living conditions.

Outgoing Premier Hassan Diab, who was named by Hezbollah and its allies including the president, resigned last month, days after a massive blast leveled the capital's port and killed more than 180 people. Diab's cabinet failed to enact reforms to unlock billions of dollars in aid and advance talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $10 billion bailout.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Beirut last week, didn't rule out sanctions against political leaders if reforms aren't enacted and gave them two weeks to form a new government of independent experts. Lebanon's President Michel Aoun, whose political party is Hezbollah's main Christian ally, assigned a diplomat to form a new cabinet. - Bloomberg News

Seven people shot to death at marijuana grow house in California's Inland Empire, authorities say

LOS ANGELES - Seven people were shot to death at the site of an apparent illegal marijuana grow in the Inland Empire over Labor Day weekend, authorities said.

Riverside County sheriff's deputies responded at 12:33 a.m. Monday to a reported assault with a deadly weapon in the 45000 block of Highway 371 in Aguanga, an unincorporated community roughly 18 miles east of Temecula.

At the residence, deputies found seven people with gunshot wounds, according to the Sheriff's Department. Six died from their injuries at the scene, and one woman died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said.

Names and descriptions of the victims were not immediately available Tuesday morning.

Officials said that the residence was apparently housing an illicit marijuana operation. Several hundred plants and more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana were found at the scene, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Authorities have not yet publicly identified any suspects, and the investigation is ongoing. - Los Angeles Times