The Weekly National News Roundup | Shlomo Rudman

SCOTUS Justice Breyer Announces Retirement – Justice Stephen Breyer plans to retire from the Supreme Court before the beginning of the next term. Breyer’s decision marks the first opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court justice for President Joe Biden, who campaigned on filling a potential slot with a Black female candidate.

Appointed by former President Bill Clinton in 1994, 83-year-old Breyer is one of the court’s three left-leaning justices. Breyer voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act, joined in the 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, and backed a number of pro-choice rulings.

The vacancy also marks the first time Senate Democrats will be able to confirm a nominee with a simple majority after Senate Republicans removed the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominations in 2017.

Breyer’s potential replacements include US Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, among others.

US Economy Grew 5.7% Over Past Year – The US economy grew last year at the fastest rate in more than three decades as it rebounded from pandemic-related restrictions, according to new data released Thursday. The country’s gross domestic product grew 5.7% over the year, the highest since 1984, which saw a 7.2% increase.

The data showed GDP grew even faster in the fourth quarter between October and December, expanding to 6.9% on an annualized rate. The GDP growth was driven by increased inventories in the retail and wholesale industry as well as consumer spending; the latter got a boost from stimulus payments and other pandemic-relief aid from the government.

Economists expect the GDP to slow this year with rising inflation and COVID-19 cases. The International Monetary Fund estimates the country’s GDP to grow 4.4% in 2022.

Biden Call with Ukraine Leader Goes Badly – A call between US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday “did not go well,” a senior Ukrainian official told CNN, amid disagreements over the “risk levels” of a Russian attack.

The White House, however, disputed the official’s account, warning that anonymous sources were “leaking falsehoods.” They did state that Biden warned Zelensky an imminent invasion is a “distinct possibility.”
On the call, which the Ukrainian official described as “long and frank,” Biden warned his Ukrainian counterpart that a Russian attack may be imminent, saying that an invasion was now virtually certain, once the ground had frozen later in February, according to the official.
Zelensky, however, restated his position that the threat from Russia remains “dangerous but ambiguous,” and it is not certain that an attack will take place, the official said.
Supreme Court to Hear Affirmative Action Case – The US Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments regarding the role of race in the college admission process, a case that may potentially upend affirmative action policies in higher education. The Students for Fair Admissions claims both Harvard, a private school, and the University of North Carolina, a public school, have been illegally targeting Asian American applicants.The SFFA argues Asian American prospective students are held to higher standards than their Black and Hispanic peers—a violation of the Civil Rights Act (Harvard, UNC) and 14th Amendment (UNC) guaranteeing racial neutrality. The universities argue their policies are lawful, and race is only one of many factors in determining admission.

At Harvard, Asian Americans make up roughly a quarter of the 2021 class. School officials estimate changes to the process may drop the Black student body from 14% to 6% and Hispanic student body from 14% to 9%. The 6-3 conservative majority court is expected to hear the case in the fall, with a decision in 2023.

Scientists Testing Vaccine for Omicron – Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and partner BioNTech have launched clinical trials of a version of its COVID-19 vaccine tailored to the omicron variant. The US-based study will include roughly 1,400 volunteers, with preliminary results expected in the spring.

Early studies suggest a two-dose regimen of the current formulation offers around 30%-35% protection against infection by the strain, and 70% protection against severe disease. Efficacy rises to around 70% and 90%, respectively, following a booster shot. It remains unclear whether a variant-specific shot would receive authorization for use.

The exercise may ultimately be a demonstration of the adaptability of mRNA-based vaccines—the current wave of omicron infections appears to have crested, with new cases down about 15% over the past week. Hospitalizations have dropped about 6% over the same timeframe. Average deaths continue to rise, currently near 2,250 per day.

SAT Test Goes Digital – The College Board announced that the SAT college admission exam will switch to an all-digital and shorter format in the US beginning spring 2024 and internationally in 2023. Among other changes, the exam will be shortened to two hours, and calculators will be allowed for all math sections.

The news comes as more than 1,800 colleges have dropped the SAT requirement or made it optional for fall 2022 admission, as critics said the exams provide an unfair advantage to affluent students. The change accelerated during the pandemic and resulted in significant loss of revenue for the board – decreasing from $1.05 billion in 2019 to $760 million in 2020.

Despite the online format, the test will take place at a proctored test center, albeit on students’ personal or school-issued devices. The board said in a trial run, over 80% of students found the online option less stressful.

 

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