Judge temporarily blocks executions

A group of death row inmates won a court judgment Friday that temporarily blocks executions in Arkansas and says the state Legislature gave too much authority to the Department of Correction when it designated the agency director as the person who picks the drug for lethal injections.

A law passed last year specified that the state kill inmates by using a barbiturate but did not specify which one.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen ruled from the bench after an hour-long hearing, granting the request by nine death row inmates and ensuring the state can’t conduct an execution as the matter continues to wind through the courts.

Arkansas has no scheduled executions and has not executed an inmate since 2005.

— Associated Press

Uniform policy may be unconstitutional

Requiring public school students to wear polo shirts emblazoned with such messages as “Tomorrow’s Leaders” potentially infringes on their rights to free speech, a unanimous federal appeals court decided Friday.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit by parents of two elementary school students whose uniforms contained the leadership message.

The court said the uniform policy must be justified under a stringent legal test that is difficult to meet. The school’s “policy compels speech because it mandates the written motto ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders’ on the uniform shirts,” Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen wrote.

The panel further ruled that a uniform exemption for students who wore the attire of national youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts on meeting days also had to be closely scrutinized because such uniforms could potentially violate the First Amendment.

The case involved a uniform required by the Roy Gomm Elementary School in Reno, Nev., but the ruling would affect required public school attire in California and other Western states.

— Los Angeles Times

Heat wave affects
much of Southwest

With much of the Northeast gripped by snow and ice storms, the Southwest is riding a record heat wave that sent people to beaches and golf courses in droves Friday.

People in Phoenix and Southern California were sunning themselves in 80-degree weather, with forecasters predicting more of the same through the weekend.

Both areas are known for warm weather, but the National Weather Service said the temperatures are uncharacteristically hot for this time of year. The heat is the result of a high-pressure system off the coast of Southern California.

Frigid weather has paralyzed the East Coast and left more than 1 million homes in the South without power. At least 21 deaths have been blamed on the treacherous weather, including that of pregnant woman struck by a mini-snowplow in a New York City parking lot.

In the Southwest, the weather service said several cities in Arizona might break February records during the President’s Day weekend. Phoenix is expected to reach 87 on Saturday and 85 on Sunday. Both would be record highs for those dates. In Tucson, the temperature is expected to hit 89. In southwest Arizona, Yuma is expected to reach 91 on Saturday.

— Associated Press

Cuba suspends consular services

Cuba has suspended consular services for the second time in less than three months after it was unable to find a new bank in the United States for its diplomatic accounts, officials said Friday.

M&T Bank decided to sever its relationship with Cuba last year but agreed to continue processing its banking through March 1 and accepting deposits through Feb.­ 17.

Cuban Interests Section officials in Washington said that “in spite of huge efforts made,” they were unable to find a replacement bank and that as a result it was forced to suspend consular services, effective Friday.

The Cuban diplomats blamed Washington’s embargo against the Communist-run island for the inability to get a new bank, though it has been in place for more than five decades. It’s unclear why no bank is agreeing to service the financial accounts now. The State Department had been working with Cuban officials since July to identify a new bank for the Cuban Interests Section and Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, spokesman Noel Clay said.

— Associated Press

Mexican convicted in death of U.S. consulate employee: A federal jury in El Paso convicted a high-level Mexican gang member on Friday of participating in the 2010 slaying of a U.S. consulate employee in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 35, was found guilty of three counts of murder for ordering the killing of U.S. consulate worker Leslie Ann Enriquez Catton; her husband, Arthur Redfels; and Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, the husband of another consulate employee in Ciudad Juarez in March 2010.

Fire leaves five dead: A pre-dawn blaze at a north Minneapolis duplex left five people dead, including at least three children, officials said Friday.

— From news services