Counsel’s focus firmly set on reproductive rights
Behind Susanna Birdsong’s mild voice stands a steely resolve. The counsel for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic speaks clearly and unequivocally about her job and what she sees as its importance to herself and others. “The issue of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy was deeply personal to me,” she said about what drew her to the position. “It felt like the right job and the right time for me.” But despite her title, Birdsong’s work as the affiliate’s lawyer is not what many people would expect. For one thing, she is not its courtroom presence. “I’ve never been a litigator,” she said. Instead, she works in policy-driven areas. At one time, she served as its registered lobbyist, but her official title now is general counsel and vice president of compliance. “My priority work over the last year has been to support our health care providers and support staff,” she said, helping them to understand changes in laws such as North Carolina’s Senate Bill 20. Passed this spring over the veto of Gov. Roy Cooper, the bill limits abortion to not later than the 12th week of pregnancy, requires patients to make an extra visit to a clinic before undergoing an abortion, and mandates the clinic’s use of a state-approved script to convey certain information to them. “The law prior to that had been 20 weeks,” she said, until the General Assembly “stripped eight weeks of access.” She also has been involved in a seesaw fight over abortion in South Carolina. https://youtu.be/PHEdt5z3vPU?si=BlHQQm8OLcFnV2qH After Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, was overturned in 2022, South Carolina legislators passed a law banning the procedure after the sixth week of pregnancy. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic sued that year in state court, and the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld an injunction that blocked the law. “The justices said that a six-week abortion ban was a violation of South Carolinians' right to privacy,” Birdsong said. But the fight continued when state legislators again passed a similar law. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic sued again, but there was a key difference. “The composition of the (Supreme Court) had changed in the meantime,” she said. Oral arguments were heard in June 2023; the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the law in a ruling issued Aug. 23. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic has no cases in Virginia open now. Political and policy roots Her ties to Planned Parenthood go back to her college years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Birdsong said, explaining, “It has been an organization I felt aligned with.” Retail politics helped cement the tie. A first-time mother living in Washington, D.C., she volunteered to help Planned Parenthood in the 2013 state election cycle in Virginia. Birdsong even took her daughter with her while canvassing door to door on behalf of legislative candidates. “I think becoming a parent made me more resolute in my support for reproductive freedom,” she said. By the time she moved back to North Carolina in 2015, she was working for the American Civil Liberties Union. The position had her working alongside Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, and she moved over to the affiliate in January 2020. Planned Parenthood’s focus was appealing. “I really wanted to deepen my work in a single issue,” Birdsong said. “The ACLU is a multi-issue organization.” Unrecognized efforts Planned Parenthood South Atlantic serves four states through 14 clinics — nine in North Carolina, two each in South Carolina and Virginia, and one in West Virginia. According to the Form 990 the agency filed with the Internal Revenue Service for 2021, it took in almost $47.6 million from all sources, had almost $29.17 million in expenses, and had a total of 418 workers over the year and another 187 total volunteers. Planned Parenthood as a whole is well-known — possibly best-known — as an abortion provider. But it offers more services than that, including preventative care, birth control, cancer screening, sexually transmitted infections testing and treatment, primary care, and gender-affirming hormone therapy. But many in the public focus on abortion to the exclusion of the rest. “There are some loud voices on the other side who have sort of permeated the narrative,” Birdsong said. “We’ll never back down from being an abortion provider. … There’s some segment of people who will never be able to see us as anything other than that.” Planned Parenthood and its South Atlantic affiliate don’t work in a vacuum. Laboring alongside them are groups such as the ACLU, Reproductive Freedom Project, Center for Reproductive Rights, Pro-Choice North Carolina, Sister Song, the North Carolina Obstetrical & Gynecological Society, the North Carolina Justice Center, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. And on the opposing side? “I don’t even know that I want to give them airtime,” Birdsong said with a laugh, then named the North Carolina Values Coalition and local pregnancy care centers. “There are myriad anti-abortion, specifically, groups and entities whose goal is to lobby legislators to ban abortion,” Birdsong said. “They have found willing partners in many state legislatures over the years, including this session in North Carolina and South Carolina.” She, however, is undeterred. “I have never been more resolved than I am about reproductive freedom,” Birdsong said.
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- Bill ties NC casinos, Medicaid expansion
- Power politics plays out in state
- NC man sentenced after bomb threat at Library of Congress
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- Former NC justice enters gubernatorial race
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- Administrative – Medicaid – ‘Department’ – Subject Matter Jurisdiction
- Domestic Relations – Equitable Distribution – Not Pleaded – Affidavits – Divorce
- Civil Practice – Involuntary Dismissal – Voluntary Dismissal Proffer – Lesser Sanctions
- Domestic Relations – Separation Agreement – Military Pension – Specific Performance
- Civil Practice – Relation Back – Voluntary Dismissal – Unrelated Plaintiff
Details coming soon!
Details coming soon!
Murdaugh pleads guilty to financial crimes
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh did something Thursday he hasn't done in the two years since his life of privilege and power started to unravel — plead guilty to a crime. Murdaugh admitted in federal court to 22 counts of financial fraud and money laundering. Murdaugh, 55, is serving life without parole in a South Carolina prison for shooting his wife, Maggie, and younger son Paul. He has denied any role in the killings since their deaths in June 2021 and insisted he was innocent in two days of testimony earlier this year before he was convicted of two counts of murder. "There's two things Alex will tell you. One, he stole the money. Two, he did not kill Maggie and Paul," defense attorney Dick Harpootlian said after the hearing. The federal guilty plea likely locks in years if not decades in prison for the disbarred lawyer, even if his murder conviction and sentence in state court are overturned on appeal. Murdaugh told the judge he wanted to be held accountable for stealing from his clients and do right by his surviving son. "I want to take responsibility. I want my son to see me take responsibility. It's my hope that by taking responsibility that the people I've hurt can begin to heal," said Murdaugh, standing in his orange South Carolina prison jumpsuit. He will be sentenced at a later date. Federal prosecutor Emily Limehouse suggested at a news conference after the hearing that prosecutors will ask for a lengthy term. "Our goal in holding him accountable for the financial crimes in federal court is to ensure that he's never a free man again," Limehouse said. Investigators think Murdaugh started stealing from his family law firm by keeping fees meant to be shared by everyone and inflating his expenses as early as 2005, Limehouse said. The deal for pleading guilty in federal court is straightforward. Prosecutors will ask that the federal sentence Murdaugh gets run at the same time as any prison term he serves from a state court. They won't give him credit defendants typically receive for pleading guilty. In exchange, authorities get a requirement placed in almost every plea deal, which is especially significant in this case: "The Defendant agrees to be fully truthful and forthright with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies by providing full, complete and truthful information about all criminal activities about which he/she has knowledge," reads the standard language included in Murdaugh's deal. That could be a broad range of wrongdoing. The federal charges against the disgraced attorney, whose family were both prosecutors and founders of a heavy-hitting law firm that no longer carries the Murdaugh name in tiny Hampton County, deal with stealing money from at least five clients and creating fraudulent bank accounts. Murdaugh admitted Thursday to stealing from money meant to provide care for a man paralyzed from the neck down in a wreck, from two sisters who were children when they lost their mother and brother in a crash, the estate of his longtime maid who died in a fall at the family home and from others. Murdaugh still faces about 100 different charges in state court. Authorities said he committed insurance fraud by trying to have someone kill him so his surviving son could get $10 million in life insurance, but the shot only grazed Murdaugh's head. Investigators said Murdaugh also failed to pay taxes on the money he stole, took settlement money from several clients and his family's law firm, and ran a drug and money laundering ring. He is scheduled to face trial on at least some of those charges at the end of November. State prosecutors have insisted they want him to face justice for each one. Murdaugh's lawyers suggested Thursday there are serious questions if that trial will happen, but didn't specify why. As Limehouse gave the judge details in federal court about each scheme to steal money, Murdaugh rocked back and forth. Judge Richard Gergel asked Murdaugh if he disagreed with any of the prosecution's description and the former attorney, whose law license is now revoked, referred to his lawyer Jim Griffin. When Murdaugh represented a woman who died in a wreck, he didn't steal from her estate — just her surviving husband's money, Griffin said. "Doesn't make it any better, but that's just one fine point of clarification," he added. Murdaugh's previous job was also mentioned a few times during the hearing. As it started, Gergel said he knew Murdaugh was familiar with the standard questions that defendants get asked as they plead guilty and mostly struck to the script. But when Gergel asked if Murdaugh was sober, the former lawyer — who blames decades of painkiller and other drug abuse for his crimes — said he has been "proudly clean" for 744 days. That would be Sept. 7, 2021, three days after police said he asked a friend to kill him on the side of that lonely Lowcountry two-lane road. Griffin said Murdaugh's drug use will likely play a big part in the sentencing report that will be written before his next hearing. Neither side would commit to a specific amount of time they hope Murdaugh spends behind bars until that report is completed. Murdaugh pleaded guilty to 14 counts of money laundering, five counts of wire fraud, one count of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The click of his pen as he signed the documents reverberated around the quiet courtroom. Each charge carries a maximum of at least 20 years in prison. Some have a maximum 30-year sentence. Other requirements of the plea deal include Murdaugh taking a lie detector test if asked and that he pay back the $9 million he is accused of stealing. That money must be turned over to federal authorities immediately, which could create friction because what assets Murdaugh still has are currently controlled by the state.
Alabama redistricting case before Supreme Court
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on Alabama's request to let it keep new GOP-drawn congressional lines in place as it fights a three-judge panel's plan to create a second majority-Black district, or something close to it. The state attorney general and lawyers representing Black voters who challenged the map gave different interpretations in court fillings this week of whether Alabama blatantly defied justices' June decision in the case. The outcome could determine what map the state uses in the 2024 elections and whether the high court will revisit arguments over the role of race in redistricting. A three-judge panel is drawing new congressional lines in Alabama after lawmakers refused their directive to create a second district where Black voters would at least come close to comprising a majority. The Alabama secretary of state last week asked justices to put the redrawing process on hold as the state appeals. Lawyers representing plaintiffs in the case said Alabama "knowingly and intentionally" defied court orders and passed a map that continued to dilute the influence of Black voters in congressional elections. Plaintiffs have likened the state's action to how Alabama leaders fought court-ordered integration in the 1960s. A decision to review the case — even if Alabama ultimately loses — could keep GOP-drawn lines in place for another election cycle. "There is too much at stake. The government is supposed to represent the people. Yet we are being robbed of representation at the highest level," Evan Milligan, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Thursday. The issue is back before the Supreme Court just three months after justices ruled against the state in a 5-4 decision and upheld the three-judge panel's finding that the state's 2021 map — which had one majority-Black district out of seven in a state where more than one in four residents is Black — likely violated the Voting Rights Act. The three-judge panel said any new map should include a second majority-Black district or "something quite close to it" so that Black voters "have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice." The Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature in July adopted a plan that maintained a single Black district, but boosted the percentage of Black voters in another to about 39%. The three-judge panel wrote that they were "deeply troubled" by the state's defiance, blocked use of the new map and directed a special master to submit proposed new maps by Monday. Alabama maintains that the June Supreme Court ruling in the case did not necessarily require a remedy of a second minority district. Alabama contends that its new map fixes the problems identified by the court such as how the state's Black Belt region was split into multiple districts. "The 2023 map cures those defects, but because it doesn't guarantee a second safe seat for Democrats, Plaintiffs now demand racial discrimination. ... The VRA does not require this sort of racial sorting of voters, and the Constitution does not allow it," the Alabama attorney general's office said in a statement. Alabama, in seeking a reversal of fortune, cited the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down affirmative action in college admissions, writing "just as this Court held that race-based affirmative action in education at some point had to end, the same principle applies to affirmative action in districting." Kareem Crayton, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Institute for Justice, which earlier filed a brief supporting plaintiffs in the case, said Alabama appears to be attempting to get the court to revisit what is required of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. "They have made the argument — and it really is nonsensical — that we don't want to think about race (in) the matter of drawing districts. That's not even consistent with their own practice," Crayton said. The three-judge panel said Alabama should have a second district that provides Black voters with a reasonable "opportunity" to elect their preferred candidates. Alabama's plan boosts the percentage of Black voters in the 2nd District, an area with deep ties to agriculture and home to a military base, from about 30% to almost 40%. But Crayton said an analysis of recent elections shows that a candidate preferred by Black voters would still lose almost every election in that district. "It's an opportunity for Republicans to keep control," Crayton said.
Verdicts & Settlements
Family, day care settle after bleach sprayed on child; $250,000 settlement
Action: Child abuse Injuries alleged: Pediatric post-traumatic stress disorder, adverse childhood experience, minor skin irritation Case name: Withheld Court/case no.: Withheld Mediator: Asa Bell Amount: $250,000 settlement Special damages: $579.63 for recoverable medical expenses Date: July 25, 2023 Most helpful expert: Katrina Kuzyszyn-Jones of Durham, forensic psychologist Attorneys: Justin Osborn and Matthew Gambale of Osborn, Gamble, Beckley & Budd, Raleigh (for the plaintiff) By Rasmus S. Jorgensen [email protected] A girl who was sprayed with bleach by a day care teacher in a caught-on-camera incident will receive $250,000 following a settlement, the child’s attorney said. When being picked up one day, the then-4-year-old girl had what appeared to be bleach stains on her clothes. An employee suggested cleaning product residue in a bathroom might have caused the stains, but video obtained from the day care showed a teacher picking up the spray bottle of bleach from her desk, walking to the child and spraying toward her for several seconds, said Justin Osborn of Osborn Gambale Beckley & Budd of Raleigh, who represents the girl and her mother. The teacher initially denied that the spraying occurred, but after being confronted with the video evidence, the teacher involved claimed the incident was accidental, Osborn said. Footage showed the teacher had used the bleach to clean a few minutes earlier and then placed the bottle on her desk, which also had a water spray bottle in a different color, according to the attorney. “And we argued, there is a moment after she sprayed the kids where she appears to look at the bottle on her desk, kind of get confused and then pick up the right bottle to spray another kid with water later on,” Osborn said. “And we think that was evidence of her realizing her mistake but not owning up to it.” Osborn also argued that the day care failed to keep the children safe, in part because the teacher had not received mandatory training and in part because a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services investigation found that at least six teachers at the day care had regularly been spraying children with water, against state child care laws. According to Osborn, the day care had previously been warned and received citations for failing to train its staff. “This type of behavior, I don't think, can go on for years without either an administration turning a blind eye to it or an administration tolerating it,” Osborn said. “That was the way we positioned the case: Either you put your head in the sand, or you knew it was happening and you didn't intervene.” After the incident, the girl was diagnosed with pediatric post-traumatic stress disorder. A pediatric forensic psychologist confirmed the diagnosis and opined that the incident amounted to an adverse childhood experience, known as ACE, which plays an important role in childhood development. The child’s mother claimed negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress. This was the second time one of her children was injured at a child care facility, and she had reservations about enrolling her child but received reassurances from the day care director, including how the teachers are regularly monitored through surveillance cameras.
Agreement reached after minors gravely injured: $7.5 million settlement
Action: Personal injury Injuries alleged: Case name: Withheld Court/case no.: Withheld Mediator name: Withheld Amount: $7.5 million Date: April 1, 2023 Attorneys: Fred W. DeVore and William D. Acton Jr. of DeVore, Acton & Stafford, Charlotte (for the plaintiff) A $7.5 million personal-injury settlement was reached with the city of Durham for critical injuries suffered by two minors in April 2018. One child was rendered a quadriplegic, while the other required a back fusion. The claim was based on the statutory obligation of Durham to maintain its streets in a safe condition and free from unnecessary obstructions. The settlement is in addition to an earlier $12.5 million confidential settlement obtained against other defendants. The identity of the minors, the defendants in the previous settlement and the counsel for the municipality are confidential.
Tractor-trailer crash leaves trucker blind: $2.42 million settlement
Action: Worker’s compensation Injuries alleged: Head injury resulting in blindness Case name: Withheld Court/case no.: N.C. Industrial Commission Jury and/or judge: Henry Byrum Jr. Amount: $2.42 million High-low agreement: No Date: June 2, 2023 Attorneys: Richard L. Anderson, Sumwalt Anderson law firm of Charlotte (for the plaintiff) The plaintiff suffered multiple injuries, including a head injury that resulted in blindness, after the tractor-trailer he was operating was involved in a crash. The plaintiff's employer did not have worker's compensation insurance. After the plaintiff’s counsel determined that the load the plaintiff was hauling was brokered through a national freight broker, he filed and pursued a claim against the freight broker and their carrier. The majority of the settlement was paid by the carrier for the broker; the uninsured employer contributed a small amount toward resolution of the case.