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U.S. Briefs: Montana drag queens get legal green light

Federal judge temporarily blocks state ban on “sexually oriented shows” in schools and libraries


Thom Bridge/Independent Record/AP

U.S. Briefs: Montana drag queens get legal green light
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Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and World Atlas

Montana

A federal judge late last month issued an order temporarily blocking a new state law that barred “sexually oriented shows” in state-funded schools and libraries. House Bill 359, effective May 22, targets “drag story hours” where performers adopt exaggerated, often sexually suggestive personas and costumes. U.S. Chief District Judge Brian Morris’ July 28 order ruled that the law likely violated the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee. He criticized its breadth and vagueness, concluding it would “disproportionately harm not only drag performers, but any person who falls outside traditional gender and identity norms, including trans and Two-Spirit people.” He set an Aug. 28 hearing on extending the order. States have grappled with how to protect minors from performances not legally obscene but still inappropriate. Judges blocked similar laws in Florida and Tennessee this year. Both states have appealed. An Aug. 4 lawsuit challenges a new Texas law meant to regulate drag performances and set to take effect Sept. 1. —Steve West


Maryland

On Aug. 4, a Baltimore jury made 49-year-old Ron Elfenbein the first doctor convicted at trial for healthcare fraud related to COVID-19 tests. Elfenbein operated multiple COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites. For a brief time, his urgent care chain also ran testing facilities at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. While billing for COVID-19 tests, Elfenbein charged for high-level evaluation and management ­visits that never happened. Many patients were asymptomatic and testing only for travel or job requirements. Elfenbein’s urgent care centers submitted claims totaling more than $15 million to Medicare and other insurers. Elfenbein, a three-time candidate for statewide office, faces up to 50 years in federal prison. —Kim Henderson


Texas

On Aug. 7, the Travis County district judge dismissed a 2003 murder charge against babysitter Rosa Jimenez, who already served 15 years in prison for the death of a toddler who choked on paper towels. Four top pediatric airway specialists independently concluded the child accidentally choked. Jimenez always maintained her innocence, but her original attorney never provided expert medical testimony. The Innocence Project worked with the district attorney’s team to procure the new scientific ­evidence. Jimenez, now 41, has end-stage kidney disease and needs a transplant. The National Registry of Exonerations reports nearly 3,000 people have been exonerated in the last three decades—9 percent are women. —Sharon Dierberger


Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

California

State lawmakers are debating bills that would strengthen the power of school boards to quash dissent. Legislators on July 11 advanced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to cause “substantial disorder at any meeting of the governing board of a school district.” It amends the definition of harassment from “unlawful violence, a credible threat of violence,” to “torments, or terrorizes” or causing a school employee to “suffer substantial ­emotional distress,” including levying credible threats against them off campus. Critics argue the bill aims to silence parents from passionately opposing school board decisions, especially on gender ideology. The bill cleared the Senate and must pass the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee before it reaches the Assembly floor for a vote. Another bill, AB 1352, would allow two-thirds of a school board to vote to remove a board member who “adopts a policy that contradicts any existing law requiring a school district to have inclusive policies, practices, and curriculum.” —Mary Jackson


Kevin Stitt

Kevin Stitt Sue Ogrocki/AP

Oklahoma

On July 31, Gov. Kevin Stitt filed a lawsuit against two fellow Republicans, the Senate president and the speaker of the House. The legal spat erupted after legislators overrode Stitt’s veto of renewals for tobacco and vehicle compacts with Indian nations. Stitt says the Legislature overstepped its authority by overriding his vetoes. Although a member of the Cherokee Nation, Stitt has challenged ­several existing compacts since becoming governor in 2019. He also tried to negotiate new ones that the state Supreme Court later ruled invalid. In the last fiscal year, Oklahoma collected almost $200 million in tribal gaming fees from state-tribal compacts. Multiple compacts have already expired, resulting in the loss of millions in revenue. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled much of Eastern Oklahoma is part of an Indian reservation and upheld the legal sovereignty of the Chocktaw reservation. —Johanna Huebscher


Minnesota

A sweeping new law that legalized recreational marijuana on Aug. 1 contained a largely overlooked reparations provision, the nation’s first of its kind. The CanRenew grant program will give $15 million annually to communities with high concentrations of people convicted for cannabis-related crimes. Grants will go to organizations including schools, businesses, and local governments to spur development. Communities of color are expected to receive the most money. Black residents were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana crimes in 2022. “Direct harm has been done to communities by prohibition … it is our responsibility to undo that harm,” said state Sen. Lindsey Port, a Democrat and the bill’s Senate sponsor. The law also allows the state to automatically expunge misdemeanor marijuana cases from residents’ records and sets up a board to review felony cases. Minnesotans who meet certain “social equity” criteria will get preference for marijuana business licenses. —Sharon Dierberger

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