In a historic ruling, Panama’s Supreme Court this week declared that legislation granting a Canadian copper mine a 20-year concession was unconstitutional, a decision celebrated by thousands of Panamanians activists who had argued the project would damage a forested coastal area and threaten water supplies.
The mine, which will now close, has been an important economic engine for the country. But it also triggered massive protests that paralyzed the Central American nation for over a month, mobilizing a broad swath of Panamanian society, including Indigenous communities, who said the mine was destroying key ecosystems they depend on.
In the unanimous decision Tuesday, the high court highlighted those environmental and human rights concerns, and ruled the contract violated 25 articles of Panama’s constitution. Those include the right to live in a pollution-free environment, the obligation of the state to protect the health of minors and its commitment to promote the economic and political engagement of Indigenous and rural communities.
The ruling would lead to the closure of Minera Panama, the local subsidiary of Canada’s First Quantum Minerals and the largest open-pit copper mine in Central America, according to jurists and environmental activists.
The court said the government should no longer recognize the existence of the mine’s concession and Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo said “the transition process for an orderly and safe closure of the mine will begin.”
Analysts say it appears highly unlikely that Panama’s government and the mining company will pursue a new agreement based on the resounding rejection by Panamanians.
“There are sectors in the country that would like a new contract, but the population itself does not want more open-pit mining, the message was clear,” said Rolando Gordón, dean of the economics faculty at the state-run University of Panama. “What remains now is to reach an agreement to close the mine.”
Analysts say the mining company is free to pursue international arbitration to seek compensation for the closure based on commercial treaties signed between Panama and Canada. Before the ruling, the company said it had the right to take steps to protect its investment.
With the ruling, the Panamanian government and the mining company are headed for arbitration at the World Bank’s international center for arbitration of investment disputes, in Washington, said Rodrigo Noriega, a Panamanian jurist.
Marta Cornejo, one of the plaintiffs, said “we are not afraid of any arbitration claim” and that they are “capable of proving that the corrupt tried to sell our nation and that a transnational company went ahead, knowing that it violated all constitutional norms.”
In a statement after the verdict, the mining company said it had “operated consistently with transparency and strict adherence to Panamanian legislation.” It emphasized that the contract was the result of “a long and transparent negotiation process, with the objective of promoting mutual economic benefits, guaranteeing the protection of the environment.”
Cortizo, who had defended the contract arguing it would keep 9,387 direct jobs, more than what the mine reports, said that the closing of the mine must take place in a “responsible and participative” manner due to the impact it would have.
The company has said the mine generates 40,000 jobs, including 7,000 direct jobs, and that it contributes the equivalent of 5% of Panama’s GDP.
The court verdict and the eventual closure of the mine prompted more protests, this time by mine workers.
The Biden administration on Tuesday urged an appeals court to allow sweeping new asylum restrictions to stay in place, warning that halting them would be “highly disruptive” at the border.
The government is urging a panel of judges in Pasadena, California — two appointed by President Bill Clinton and one by President Donald Trump — to overturn a July ruling that sought to block the new asylum restrictions. The new restrictions made it far more difficult to qualify for asylum if a migrant didn’t first apply online or traveled through another country, such as Mexico, and didn’t seek protection there. They have remained in place during the appeal.
Although the judges didn’t rule immediately and gave no indication how they were leaning, the arguments occurred against a backdrop of Senate Republicans seeking to legislate far-reaching changes to asylum eligibility as part of President Joe Biden’s request for military aid to Ukraine and Israel.
Courts blocked similar measures under Trump but the Biden administration says its approach differs because it is coupled with new legal pathways to enter the country and creates exceptions. However, advocates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and National Immigrant Justice Center argue that they are recycled Trump-era policies that violate U.S. law allowing people to seek asylum no matter how and where they arrive.
A mobile app introduced in January allows asylum-seekers to make 1,450 appointments per day at official border crossings with Mexico, while the Biden administration has allowed up to 30,000 a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to pursue asylum if they apply online with a financial sponsor and arrive at an airport.
Those new pathways represent “a very significant difference” from Trump policies, said Brian Boynton, a Justice Department attorney. Boynton also noted that 12% of the 57,700 asylum-seekers who were subject to the new rule through September avoided it by proving “exceptionally compelling circumstances,” including “acute medical emergency,” “imminent and extreme threat to life or safety” or being a victim of human trafficking.
A federal judge who previously overturned California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons did it again on Thursday, ruling that the state’s attempts to prohibit sales of semiautomatic guns violates the constitutional right to bear arms.
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego conceded that powerful weapons like AR-15 rifles are commonly used by criminals, but said the guns are importantly also owned by people who obey the law and feel they need firearms to protect themselves.
“The State of California posits that its ‘assault weapon’ ban, the law challenged here, promotes an important public interest of disarming some mass shooters even though it makes criminals of law-abiding residents who insist on acquiring these firearms for self-defense,” Benitez wrote. “Nevertheless, more than that is required to uphold a ban.”
The judge’s ruling is nearly identical to a 2021 decision in which he called California’s ban on assault weapons a “failed experiment.” Benitez has has repeatedly struck down multiple California firearms laws. Just last month, he ruled the state cannot ban gun owners from having detachable magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Benitez’s latest decision would overturn multiple state statutes related to assault weapons. The judge gave the state 10 days to seek a stay on the ruling as part of an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said his office had already filed a notice of appeal.
“Weapons of war have no place on California’s streets,” Bonta said in a statement Thursday. “This has been state law in California for decades, and we will continue to fight for our authority to keep our citizens safe from firearms that cause mass casualties. In the meantime, assault weapons remain unlawful for purchase, transfer, or possession in California.”
John Dillon, an attorney for the plaintiffs who sued to overturn the law, cheered the judge’s ruling.
The Supreme Court on Monday ordered two internet sellers of gun parts to comply with a Biden administration regulation aimed at ghost guns, firearms that are difficult to trace because they lack serial numbers.
The court had intervened once before, by a 5-4 vote in August, to keep the regulation in effect after it had been invalidated by a lower court. No justice dissented publicly from Monday’s order, which followed a ruling from a federal judge in Texas that exempted the two companies, Blackhawk Manufacturing Group and Defense Distributed, from having to abide by the regulation of ghost gun kits.
Other makers of gun parts also had been seeking similar court orders, the administration told the Supreme Court in a filing.
“Absent relief from this Court, therefore, untraceable ghost guns will remain widely available to anyone with a computer and a credit card — no background check required,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, wrote.
The regulation changed the definition of a firearm under federal law to include unfinished parts, like the frame of a handgun or the receiver of a long gun, so they can be tracked more easily. Those parts must be licensed and include serial numbers. Manufacturers must also run background checks before a sale - as they do with other commercially made firearms.
The requirement applies regardless of how the firearm was made, meaning it includes ghost guns made from individual parts or kits or by 3D printers.
The regulation will be in effect while the administration appeals the judge’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans — and potentially the Supreme Court.