Friday, December 20, 2013

Published:

Gay couples wed in Utah after judge strikes down same-sex marriage ban in conservative state

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A federal judge struck down Utah's same-sex marriage ban Friday in a decision that marks a drastic shift toward gay marriage in a conservative state where the Mormon church has long been against it.

The decision set off an immediate frenzy as the clerk in the state's most populous county began issuing marriage licenses to dozens of gay couples while state officials took steps to appeal the ruling and halt the process.

Cheers erupted as the mayor of Salt Lake City led one of the state's first gay wedding ceremonies in an office building about three miles from the headquarters of the Mormon church.

Deputy Salt Lake County Clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee said the district attorney authorized her office to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples but she couldn't immediately say how many had been issued.

Just hours earlier, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby issued a 53-page ruling saying the constitutional amendment Utah voters approved in 2004 violates gay and lesbian couples' rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Shelby said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.

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Obama hints at changing bulk collection of phone records to make the public more comfortable

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama suggested Friday that he may be ready to make some changes in the bulk collection of Americans' phone records to allay the public's concern about privacy.

Obama said he has not yet made any decisions about the National Security Agency's collection programs. But among the dozens of recommendations he's considering, he hinted that he may strip the NSA of its ability to store data in its own facilities and instead shift that storage to the private phone companies.

"There may be another way of skinning the cat," Obama said during a news conference.

His hint at concessions came the same week a federal judge declared the bulk collection program unconstitutional and a presidential advisory panel that included intelligence experts suggested reforms. Both the judge and the panel said there was little evidence any terror plot had been thwarted by the program, known as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

"There are ways we can do it, potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances -- that there's sufficient oversight and sufficient transparency," Obama said. Programs like the bulk collection of phone records "could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse."

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Obama puts a rosy spin on a difficult presidential year, sees better coming in 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Putting a rosy spin on a difficult year, President Barack Obama acknowledged frustrating "ups and downs" on Friday but exulted that the improving economy is creating new jobs and claimed crucial progress for his troubled health care overhaul. He predicted 2014 would be "a breakthrough year for America."

In his annual year-end news conference, Obama refused to dwell on his tumbling approval ratings, the disastrous rollout of his signature health care law or the pile of unfinished domestic priorities he leaves behind as he heads for a Christmas holiday in Hawaii. Asked whether this had been the worst year of his presidency so far, he laughed and said, "That's not how I think about it."

Yet not all was sunny. He did suggest that, given widespread criticism, he may alter the power of the National Security Agency to collect information on Americans.

And when it came to the start of his health care law, Obama conceded that "we screwed it up," and said, "I'm going to be making appropriate adjustments once we get through this year." It was unclear if he meant to signal high-level personnel changes.

Obama does have some reason to be optimistic. He spoke hours after the government announced the economy grew at a solid 4.1 percent annual rate from July through September, the fastest pace since late 2011 and significantly higher than previously believed. And he heralded a modest bipartisan budget deal that cleared Congress this week, saying that while it's too soon to declare a new era of bipartisanship, Washington is "not condemned to endless gridlock."

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Canada's top court strikes down anti-prostitution laws, including ban on brothels

TORONTO (AP) -- Canada's highest court struck down the country's anti-prostitution laws Friday, a victory for sex workers who had argued that a ban on brothels and other measures made their profession more dangerous. The ruling drew criticism from the conservative government and religious leaders.

The court, ruling in a case brought by three women in the sex trade, struck down all three of Canada's prostitution-related laws: bans on keeping a brothel, making a living from prostitution, and street soliciting. The ruling won't take effect immediately, however, because the court gave Parliament a year to respond with new legislation, and said the existing laws would remain in place until then.

The decision threw the door open for a wide and complex debate on how Canada should regulate prostitution, which isn't in itself illegal in the country.

Robert Leckey, a law professor at McGill University, said the court found that the law did nothing to increase safety, but suggested in its ruling that more finely tailored rules might pass constitutional scrutiny in the future.

"Some of the (current) provisions actually limit sex workers' ability to protect themselves," Leckey said.

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Ahead of enrollment deadline, a surge in health care signups, but problems persist

WASHINGTON (AP) -- His health care plan facing a dicey transition, President Barack Obama said Friday that insurance sign-ups are surging now that the government's website is working better for consumers. But it was too soon to say the rollout has turned the corner.

More than 1 million people have enrolled since Oct. 1, Obama said at his end-of-the-year press conference. That's more than two-and-a-half times the number on Nov. 30, when major fixes to the website were completed. At that point, only 365,000 had signed up through new federal and state markets offering subsidized private insurance.

"That is a big deal," Obama said of getting coverage for uninsured people. "That's why I ran for this office."

Separately, officials said 3.9 million people have qualified for government health care through the law's Medicaid expansion. Even so, things aren't exactly humming along.

HealthCare.gov was down for part of the day Friday, as technicians attempted to fix an error that occurred Thursday night when the site was undergoing routine maintenance, officials explained.

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Judge orders California hospital to keep girl declared brain dead on life support

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- A judge on Friday ordered a California hospital to keep a girl declared brain dead on life support following what was supposed to be a routine tonsillectomy.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo came as both sides in the case agreed to get together and chose a neurologist to further examine 13-year-old Jahi McMath and determine her condition. The judge scheduled a hearing Monday to appoint a physician.

The girl's family sought the court order to keep Jahi on a ventilator while another opinion is sought. They left the courtroom without commenting.

The family says doctors at Children's Hospital Oakland wanted to disconnect life support after Jahi was declared brain dead on Dec. 12.

After her daughter underwent a supposedly routine tonsillectomy and was moved to a recovery room, Nailah Winkfield began to fear something was going horribly wrong.

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Judge grants Reagan shooter John Hinckley more time away from mental hospital

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan will get to spend more time outside a mental hospital where he has been confined for most of the past three decades, a judge ruled Friday.

John Hinckley will be allowed to visit his mother's home in Williamsburg, Va., for up to 17 days at a time. Hinckley has been allowed to spend increasing amounts of time at his mother's house in recent years, but previous visits were capped at 10 days. Hinckley must make at least eight successful 17-day visits away from the hospital before any requests to increase his time in Williamsburg beyond that will even be considered, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said in his ruling.

In court hearings before the ruling, Hinckley's lawyer, Barry Levine, had asked for his visits to be expanded to 17 and 24 days, arguing that there is no evidence Hinckley is a danger to himself or others. Attorneys for the U.S. government, however, argued that Hinckley is "capable of great violence" and told the judge that granting expanded privileges was "premature and ill conceived."

Friedman wrote that Hinckley's depression and psychotic disorder are in full remission and that he had not displayed violent behavior in more than 29 years.

"Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the court is confident that under appropriate conditions, Mr. Hinckley will not likely be a danger to himself or others if his visits to Williamsburg are expanded from ten days to seventeen days," Friedman wrote. "Mr. Hinckley has been making 10-day visits to Williamsburg for nearly four years, without in any way decompensating or doing anything that might suggest a risk of danger."

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Stores hope to pull in last minute shoppers with marathon hours in a bid to recoup lost sales

NEW YORK (AP) -- Some stores are ending the holiday shopping season the same way they began it -- with round-the-clock, marathon shopping hours.

Kohl's for the first time is staying open for essentially five days straight, from 6 a.m. on Friday through 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Macy's and Kmart are opening some of their stores for more than 100 hours in a row from Friday through Christmas Eve. And Toys R Us is staying open for 87 hours straight starting on Saturday, which is typically the second biggest shopping day of the year.

The expanded hours in the final days before Christmas are reminiscent of how some retailers typically begin the season on the day after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday. The strategy comes as stores try to recoup lost sales during a season that's been hobbled by a number of factors.

Despite a recovering economy, many Americans have been struggling with stagnant wages and other issues. On top of that, the time period between the official holiday shopping kickoff on Black Friday and the end of the season is six days shorter than a year ago. That has given Americans less time to shop.

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Tom Cruise, tabloids settle lawsuit over stories claiming actor abandoned his daughter

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The publisher of two tabloid magazines said it never intended to imply that Tom Cruise had cut all ties to his daughter after his divorce and announced Friday that it had reached a settlement with the actor over two stories it published.

Bauer Publishing and Cruise's lawyer wrote in a joint statement that the terms of the settlement were confidential.

"Bauer Publishing, as well as In Touch and Life & Style magazines, never intended to communicate that Tom Cruise had cut off all ties and abandoned his daughter, Suri, and regret if anyone drew that inference from anything they published," the statement read.

Cruise sued the company over stories published in its Life & Style and In Touch magazines in 2012 that claimed the actor hadn't been in contact with his daughter for several weeks after his divorce from actress Katie Holmes. The actor sued Bauer in October 2012 seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages.

His lawyer, Bert Fields, called the stories outrageous and said that Cruise spoke to his daughter frequently while working on a pair of movie shoots that kept him overseas.

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Top 10 photos of 2013, selected by AP's Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

How to sum up an entire year of news in just 10 photos? The very notion is daunting when we consider that the AP's award-winning team of hundreds of staff photographers, freelancers and photo editors sends out some 3,000 photos every 24 hours - over 1 million photos a year - to our subscribers around the globe.

Photo editing is, of course, a subjective process of comparison and selection. It involves aesthetics, journalism, impact and memory.

In the end, I chose 10 representative photos from some of the biggest stories of 2013.