Senate confirms Lew as treasury secretary
WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate Wednesday voted handily to confirm Jack Lew as treasury secretary despite reservations by some Republicans.
The vote was 71-26, Washington publication Roll Call reported.
"I am pleased that the Senate took bipartisan action today to confirm Jack Lew as our nation's next treasury secretary," President Obama said in a statement released by the Treasury Department.
"At this critical time for our economy and our country, there is no one more qualified for this position than Jack. As my chief of staff, Jack was by my side as we confronted our nation's toughest challenges. His reputation as a master of fiscal issues who can work with leaders on both sides of the aisle has already helped him succeed in some of the toughest jobs in Washington.
"And I will continue to rely on his advice and sound judgment as we work to create good, middle-class jobs, provide more people with the skills those jobs require, and ensure every hardworking American can earn a decent living," Obama said.
Lew, who succeeds Tim Geithner, had come under criticism from some GOP senators for his personal finances and connections with Wall Street. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was among those who voted against confirming Lew, as did Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont, Roll Call noted.
Californians favor legalizing marijuana
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- The results of a California poll released Wednesday indicated a majority of registered voters favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
The poll conducted by San Francisco's Field organization showed 54 percent of voters who responded to its survey supported legalizing marijuana and subjecting it to similar restrictions as alcohol, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Fifty-four percent of registered voters who responded to the Field survey supported legalizing the drug and subjecting it to the same sort of restrictions that exist for alcohol, the Chronicle reported.
"This reflects a gradual evolution of California voters on a number of issues. They seem to be becoming more liberal in their views. A lot of that has to do with the changing demographics," said the Field poll's director, Mark DiCamillo. "Baby Boomers are replacing their parents, and they have been exposed to marijuana all their lives, so they may not all support marijuana legalization, but they are more comfortable with the issue."
"We need the money -- that's why I'd legalize marijuana for everyone," said John Ortega, 82, of San Rafael. "They did it for alcohol, so now let's do it for marijuana."
The survey of 834 registered voters was conducted over 13 days in early February. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points, a number that was elevated for demographic subcategories.
Navy divers die at Army test pond facility
ABERDEEN, Md., Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Two Navy divers have died in a 150-foot-deep manmade pond at an Army weapons testing facility in Maryland, officials say.
The deaths at the "Super Pond" occurred less than a month after another diver died in the same water at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday.
The two deaths occurred about 2:30 p.m. at the Unexploded Ordnance Range pond, also known as the Super Pond.
Rescue workers from the base found one of the divers dead when they arrived. The other diver was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The divers were in cardiac arrest when they surfaced at the pond, a Harford County emergency response worker said.
The divers had been tethered together while working in the pond and were using air hoses, not SCUBA tanks, the emergency worker said.
The identities of the divers were not released pending notification of relatives.
On Jan. 30, an engineer at the Aberdeen Test Center, George H. Lazzaro, Jr., died while doing routine maintenance at the pond.
Base officials said Lazzaro's death was not related to that of the two divers.
The 1,070-foot-long Super Pond is used to conduct shock tests for ships, boats and submarines.
Court may strike part of Voting Rights Act
WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- A narrow U.S. Supreme Court majority may be poised to gut a core provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, observers said Wednesday.
The nine justices heard argument on a challenge from an Alabama county to Section 5 of the act, which says all or parts of 16 states, mainly in the South, have to get permission -- or "preclearance" -- from the U.S. Justice Department or a three-judge federal panel in Washington to make any changes in how people vote in their jurisdictions.
At issue is whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority by re-enacting Section 5 in 2006 -- a "prophylactic" measure that restricts what may be constitutional activity on the chance that it may be unconstitutional activity, and only in venues with a history of suppressing the voting rights of minorities.
SCOTUSBLOG.com reported the five-member conservative bloc on the court appeared to be skeptical of Section 5, and may require Congress to revisit the provision.
Chief Justice John Roberts rhetorically asked, "Is it the government's submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?" Roberts cited present circumstances instead of history, saying Massachusetts has the worst black turnout in elections and Mississippi the best, USA Today reported.
Justice Antonin Scalia called the 2006 reauthorization a "perpetuation of racial entitlement," AL.com reported.
Hundreds of civil rights advocates demonstrated outside the court during the argument.
Companies ask court to outlaw DOMA
WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Facebook, Apple and Microsoft joined hundreds of other companies Wednesday to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.
The 278 employers signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief in advance of argument in the high court, United States vs. Windsor, March 27.
The brief says, "DOMA forces [the businesses] to administer dual systems of benefits and payroll, and imposes on them the cost of the workarounds necessary to protect married colleagues," the Los Angeles Times reported.
The report said in those states that allow gay marriage, companies must treat employees with same-sex spouses as single for federal tax withholding and benefits, and many employers keep two sets of books -- one for state and one for federal purposes.
In the DOMA case, only section 3 of the act is challenged. Section 3 says, "In determining the meaning of any act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."
The challenge was brought by Edith Windsor, now 83, who had married her same-sex partner of 40 years in Canada in 2007. When her partner died in 2009 of multiple sclerosis, she left her estate to Windsor.
As executor of the estate, Windsor paid approximately $363,000 in federal estate taxes, but filed a refund claim under a federal statute that says "property that passes from a decedent to a surviving spouse may generally pass free of federal estate taxes." The Internal Revenue Service denied the claim because Windsor is not a "spouse" under DOMA's Section 3 and thus not a "surviving spouse" within the meaning of the federal estate tax statute.
The Obama administration has gone from refusing to defend DOMA to actively challenging it as unconstitutional.
Mexico: unionist charged with embezzlement
MEXICO CITY, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- The head of Mexico's powerful teachers union has been arrested for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars in union funds, the country's attorney general says.
Prosecutor Jesus Murillo Karam said Elba Esther Gordillo's arrest involved the suspicious transfer of $200 million from the accounts of the 1.5-million member National Union of Education Workers into the personal accounts of three individuals, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Gordillo is alleged to have used the money to pay for personal expenses, including credit cards, two houses in California, art and plastic surgery.
Karam said the offenses occurred between 2008 and 2012 and that as many as 80 union accounts were being investigated for irregularities.
Gordillo's arrest came a day after President Enrique Pena Nieto signed a law that makes major reforms in education law that are designed to disrupt the union's control of hiring and school administration.