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Weekend Circuit: Damages For Terror Victims, Extortive Porn Cartel

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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This is Weekend Circuit, a weekly review of the serious and the silly in federal appellate courts in the last week.

Lawyers build porn empire

Three lawyers associated with an anti-piracy law firm built what a district court judge characterized as a “porno‐trolling collective” by suing internet users who downloaded or hacked pornographic films on behalf of Lightspeed Media, a major distributor of salacious videos. The lawyers identified the IP addresses of internet users who, it claimed, illegally downloaded or hacked copyrighted material.

The attorneys sent notices to users accusing them of copyright infringement and threatened them with hundreds of thousands of dollars of statutory liability. They further warned that refusal to pay a settlement, usually in the amount of $4,000, would result in court action in which the user’s name and the titles of downloaded materials would appear in public court documents.

A federal court found their actions were “frivolous, baseless, and ‘smacked of bullying pretense,’” and assessed penalties against them totaling well over $200,000. During an extensive appeals process, the lawyers attempted to conceal assets to create the appearance they were insolvent, and could not pay the original sanction. When their shenanigans were discovered, a federal court assessed additional financial penalties against them. The lawyers appealed that finding, arguing it had been improperly reached.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals tepidly agreed with the lawyers, finding the lower court had assessed a criminal sanction for a civil violation, and ordered the case remanded to a lower court for further proceedings. But the three judge panel had little sympathy for the lawyers, and did not appear to doubt their guilt. “When last we considered John Steele and Paul Hansmeier’s challenges to contempt sanctions imposed on them, we gave them some friendly advice: stop digging,” the blockbuster ruling reads.

Recovering damages from state sponsors of terror is tough

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reiterated just how challenging it is for victims of terrorism to recover damages from foreign governments who finance or materially support the militant groups who victimize them. The New York-based appeals court overturned a summary judgement granting the U.S. Department of Justice and hundreds of aggrieved terror victims party to the suit the rights to a Fifth Avenue skyscraper. The three judge panel found the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that “the Iran-linked entities that own a majority interest in the building meet the definition of a state instrumentality,” according to Alison Frankel of Reuters.

Texas Voter ID law struck down in shock ruling

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier ruling which struck down Texas’s voter ID law for its discriminatory effect. Although the court vacated the lower court’s finding that the Texas legislature had acted with discriminatory intent in passing the law, it invalidated the law on the basis of its disparate impact on minority communities.

The ruling came as something of a surprise, as the Fifth Circuit is one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country. (RELATED: Court Strikes Down Texas Voter ID Law, Claims Its Racially Discriminatory) 

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