Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Published:

Supreme Court, split by ideology, wrestles over striking down key parts of Obama health law

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Concluding three days of fervent, public disagreement, a Supreme Court seemingly split over ideology will now wrestle in private about whether to strike down key parts or even all of President Barack Obama's historic health care law. The justices' decision, due this June, will affect the way virtually every American receives and pays for care.

The court wrapped up public arguments Wednesday on the overhaul, which is designed to extend health insurance to most of the 50 million Americans now without it. The first and biggest issue the justices must decide is whether the centerpiece of the law, the requirement that nearly all Americans carry insurance or pay a penalty, is constitutional.

Wednesday's argument time was unusual in that it assumed a negative answer to that central question. What should happen to other provisions, the justices and lawyers debated, if the court strikes down the requirement? If the justices are following their normal practice, they had not even met to take a preliminary vote in the case before all argument concluded.

Questions at the court this week days showed a strong ideological division between the liberal justices who seem inclined to uphold the law in its entirety and the conservative justices whose skepticism about Congress' power to force people to buy insurance suggests deep trouble for the insurance requirement, and possibly the entire law.

The divide on the court reflects a similar split in public opinion about the law, which Congress approved two years ago when Democrats controlled both houses. The justices' decision is sure to become a significant part of this year's presidential and congressional election campaigns, in which Republicans have relentlessly attacked the law.

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Pope ends Cuba trip urging greater openings for church on communist-led island

HAVANA (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI demanded more freedom for the Catholic Church in communist-run Cuba and preached against "fanaticism" in an unusually political sermon Wednesday before hundreds of thousands at Revolution Plaza, with President Raul Castro in the front row.

Before the pope's departure, he met with the president's brother, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Castro grilled the pontiff on changes in church liturgy and his role as spiritual leader of the world's Catholics, a Vatican spokesman said.

Benedict's homily was a not-so-subtle jab at the island's leadership before a vast crowd of Cubans, both in the sprawling plaza and watching on television. But he also clearly urged an end to Cuba's isolation, a reference to the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11 American presidents and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro to forge peace.

"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity," Benedict said. The remark built upon the famed call of his predecessor, John Paul II, who said in his groundbreaking 1998 visit that Cuba should "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."

With the country's leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict referred to the biblical account of how youths persecuted by the Babylonian king "preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith."

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After long struggle, Romney edges into mop-up operations in GOP campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) -- After a three-month struggle, Mitt Romney edged into the mop-up phase of the race for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday, buoyed by Newt Gingrich's decision to scale back his campaign to the vanishing point and Rick Santorum's statement that he would take the No. 2 spot on the party ticket in the fall.

Romney campaigned by phone for support in next week's Wisconsin primary while he shuttled from California to Texas on a fundraising trip, praising Gov. Scott Walker, for "trying to rein in the excesses that have permeated the public services union." The governor faces a recall election in June after winning passage of state legislation vehemently opposed by organized labor.

Romney aides eagerly spread the word that former President George H.W. Bush would bestow a formal endorsement on Thursday, although they declined to say whether former President George W. Bush has been asked for a public show of support. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a tea party favorite who had been neutral in the race, endorsed Romney Wednesday night, saying it was clear that he would be the nominee and that the primary fight should end.

Seven months before Election Day, there was ample evidence of a preparation gap with the Democrats.

A spokesman at the Republican National Committee said the party had recently opened campaign offices in three states expected to be battlegrounds this fall and would soon do the same in seven more.

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APNewsBreak: US general says new security protects US troops from Afghan 'insider' killings

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have assigned "guardian angels" -- troops that watch over their comrades even as they sleep -- and have ordered a series of other increased security measures to protect troops against possible attacks by rogue Afghans.

The added protections are part of a directive issued in recent weeks by Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to guard against insider threats, according to a senior military official. And they come in the wake of a spike in attacks on U.S. and coalition forces by Afghans, including the point-blank shooting deaths of two U.S. advisers in Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior.

Some of the changes have been subtle, others not so much.

In several Afghan ministries, Americans are now allowed to carry weapons. And they have been instructed to rearrange their office desks there to face the door, so they can see who is coming in, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the internal directive.

While Allen did not detail the new measures in a briefing earlier this week, he acknowledged that changes had been made.

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Documents: JetBlue captain grew increasingly erratic, told co-pilot to 'take a leap of faith'

RICHMOND HILL, Ga. (AP) -- JetBlue Airways captain Clayton Osbon showed up unusually late to fly Flight 191 to Las Vegas. The plane was in midair when he eerily told his co-pilot they wouldn't make it there.

Osbon started rambling about religion. He scolded air traffic controllers to quiet down, then turned off the radios altogether, and dimmed the monitors in the cockpit. He said aloud that "things just don't matter" and encouraged his co-pilot that they take a leap of faith.

"We're not going to Vegas," Osbon said.

What unfolded next, according to court documents released Wednesday, was a dramatic chase and struggle in the cabin that ended with passengers tackling Osbon, 49, and holding him down until the co-pilot could make an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas. He was charged Wednesday with interfering with a flight crew.

A pilot with JetBlue since 2000, Osbon's odd behavior on Tuesday became increasingly erratic after the flight departed New York, worrying his fellow crew members so much that they locked him out after he abruptly left the cockpit, according to an affidavit. Osbon then started yelling about Jesus, al-Qaida and a possible bomb on board, forcing passengers to tie him up with seat belt extenders and zip tie handcuffs for about 20 minutes until the plane landed.

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Questions and answers about a neighborhood watchman's fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen

SANFORD, Fla. (AP) -- The fatal shooting of a black teenager by a neighborhood watch captain who then went free has led to nationwide protests calling for the shooter's arrest. Trayvon Martin's parents, civil rights leaders and social media users alike are portraying the case as racially motivated, saying the shooter would have been arrested had he been black and the victim white.

The shooter, George Zimmerman, told police he acted in self-defense after Martin pursued and attacked him.

The case has raised a multitude of questions, some of which remain unanswered. Here are some of the facts of the case that have been established.

Q: What happened?

A: Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 during a confrontation with George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated community of townhomes in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman was patrolling the neighborhood when he spotted Martin, who was unarmed and walking to the home of his father's fiancee. He was returning from a trip to the convenience store with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles. It was raining, and Martin was walking with the hood of his sweat shirt pulled over his head. He talked to his girlfriend on a cellphone moments before the shooting.

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The little dog that could: Beyonce the puppy, born in shelter, fit into spoon at birth

NEW YORK (AP) -- A very tiny puppy is sitting inside a coffee mug, trying without success to escape by scratching its little paws against the slippery surface. In recent days, this famous dog has been placed alongside a variety of small objects -- an iPhone, a business card and a tape measure, among other things -- to demonstrate just how tiny she really is.

This is Beyonce, a female dachshund mix who was born March 8 to a rescue dog that was found abandoned, wandering the streets of San Bernardino, Calif. At birth, she weighed just 1 ounce and could fit into a teaspoon. Her caretakers say she's one of the smallest puppies ever born full-term -- and her story of unlikely survival has captured the attention of people all over the world.

"We had an ultrasound done, and they actually saw that there were five puppies, but one was probably going to be stillborn," says Beth Decaprio, executive director of the Grace Foundation of Northern California, which rehabilitates abused and neglected animals. "It didn't look like a viable baby."

Beyonce wasn't breathing when she was born at the foundation's farm in El Dorado Hills, Calif. A veterinarian tried to revive her by performing chest compressions. Then he passed her over to Decaprio.

"I blew a couple little breaths in her mouth," Decaprio says. "And she started to breathe on her own."

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Under the sea: Amazon founder Bezos wants to recover Apollo 11 engines from Atlantic

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- For more than four decades, the powerful engines that helped boost the Apollo 11 mission to the moon have rested in the Atlantic. Now Internet billionaire and space enthusiast Jeff Bezos wants to raise at least one of them to the surface.

An undersea expedition spearheaded by Bezos used sonar to find what he said were the F-1 engines located 14,000 feet deep. In an online announcement Wednesday, the Amazon.com CEO and founder said he is drawing up plans to recover the sunken engines, part of the mighty Saturn V rocket that launched Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on their moon mission.

The five engines, which produced nearly 7.7 million pounds of thrust, dropped into the sea as planned minutes after liftoff in 1969. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.

"We don't know yet what condition these engines might be in," he wrote. "They hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years. On the other hand, they're made of tough stuff, so we'll see."

Bezos acknowledged the engines were the property of NASA, but said he hoped they will be displayed in museums.

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True American music pioneer, bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs dies in Nashville at the age of 88

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- It is impossible to overstate the importance of Earl Scruggs to American music. A pioneering banjo player who helped create modern country music, his sound is instantly recognizable and as intrinsically wrapped in the tapestry of the genre as Johnny Cash's baritone or Hank Williams' heartbreak.

Scruggs passed away Wednesday morning at 88 of natural causes. The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys was evident all around Nashville, where he died in an area hospital. His string-bending, mind-blowing way of picking helped transform a regional sound into a national passion.

"It's not just bluegrass, it's American music," bluegrass fan turned country star Dierks Bentley said. "There's 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today's country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them and they don't realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere."

Country music has transcended its regional roots, become a billion-dollar music and tourist enterprise, and evolved far beyond the classic sound Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys blasted out over the radio on The Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 8, 1945. Though he would eventually influence American culture in wide-ranging ways, Scruggs had no way of knowing this as he nervously prepared for his first show with Monroe. The 21-year-old wasn't sure how his new picking style would go over.

"I'd heard The Grand Ole Opry and there was tremendous excitement for me just to be on The Grand Ole Opry," Scruggs recalled during a 2010 interview at Ryman Auditorium, where that "big bang" moment occurred. "I just didn't know if or how well I'd be accepted because there'd never been anybody to play banjo like me here. There was Stringbean and Grandpa Jones. Most of them were comedians."

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Magic Johnson making fans smile as highest-profile member of Dodgers' new ownership

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Magic Johnson is about to learn $2 billion only buys you so much. Now he'll need to bring the Los Angeles Dodgers the same success he brought the Lakers.

News that Johnson and his partners agreed to purchase the team sparked a groundswell of excited chatter and optimism Wednesday that the man who ran "Showtime" could restore luster to the once-proud franchise.

The amount Johnson and his partners are paying would be mind-blowing if it was just for the team itself. But it also gives Johnson's group the right to reel in future riches from TV and real estate associated with the Dodgers.

"A big part of the purchase price is all those other things," said David Carter, executive director of USC Sports Business Institute. "You've got a great piece of property you can develop and make a game-day experience around Chavez Ravine. A likely billion-dollar cable (television) rights deal that will come out of it makes it a very unique sale."

Current owner Frank McCourt hand-picked Johnson's group to buy the Dodgers on Tuesday, just five hours after Major League Baseball approved three finalists in a bankruptcy auction. The deal is one of several steps toward a sale of the team by the end of April. It is subject to approval by a federal bankruptcy judge.