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United States

San FranciscoConflict of interest? Conservatives are demanding that federal judge Vaughn Walker recuse himself from the trial over the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which restricts marriage to men and women, after a newspaper column suggested he is gay. The article, in the San Francisco Chronicle, called the 65-year-old Walker’s homosexuality an “open secret.” In response, Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, said Walker could no longer be trusted to be impartial. But Kate Kendell, head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said Walker’s sexuality, which he has never publicly discussed, is irrelevant. Walker has angered conservatives with some of his rulings, including his order that Prop 8 sponsors disclose internal communications—a decision that was later overturned. 

Flagstaff, Ariz.Sweat-lodge charges: Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray was charged last week with manslaughter in the deaths of three people in a sweat-lodge “purification ceremony” he conducted in October. The victims were among 64 people who had crowded into the crudely built lodge to cap a five-day meditation program, for which they paid up to $9,000 apiece. After about an hour, some began vomiting and collapsing, but Ray urged them to persevere, reportedly chiding those who wanted to leave. “This was a terrible accident,” said Ray’s lawyer, Luis Li. “But it was an accident, not a criminal act.” If convicted, Ray faces a maximum prison sentence of more than 36 years.

Harrisburg, Pa.Special election: The death this week of longtime Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha (see “Obituaries”) has buoyed rising Republican hopes of retaking the House in the 2010 midterm elections. The so-called King of Pork comfortably held his seat for 35 years, but political analysts consider the race for his Johnstown-area district to be competitive; the region leans conservative and voted for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. A special election to fill the slot will likely be held on May 18. Nationally, Republicans must win 40 seats to recapture the House; the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report recently estimated that at least 28 Democratic House seats are now tilting toward the Republicans.

Washington, D.C.Snowbound: Two powerful blizzards blanketed the Middle Atlantic region and the Northeast, dumping more than 3 feet of snow in some places. Millions were immobilized, and the federal government closed for three days. At least two people were killed in snow-related accidents. The first storm left Baltimore buried under a record 30 inches of snow and gave Philadelphia its second-highest total—26.7 inches. Even before the second storm arrived midweek, New York City closed its schools; the courts and the United Nations also closed. Wind gusts as high as 50 mph knocked out power for hundreds of thousands, and travel became impossible as many airports and transit systems shut down.

Barrington, R.I.Amateur dog surgeon: Saying he was unable to afford a veterinarian to operate on his dog, a Rhode Island man did so himself—and was charged with cruelty to animals and unauthorized practice of veterinary medicine. Alan MacQuattie cut a benign cyst from the thigh of his 14-year-old Labrador mix, suturing the wound with string and wrapping it with duct tape. “In the economy as it is right now,” he said, “who the hell is going to give you a little extra helping hand?” But the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals called the surgery, which was the subject of a local TV report, a “heinous crime,” and authorities were notified. MacQuattie pleaded no contest and was ordered by a judge to pay $873 in restitution, which will be awarded to the state humane society.

Stuart, Fla.Shark killing: A 9-foot-long shark mauled a Florida surfer to death last week, the first time a swimmer had died in a shark attack in the state since 2005. Artist Stephen Howard Schafer, 38, was kiteboarding about a quarter of a mile offshore when the wind died and his sail dropped, leaving him surrounded by sharks. By the time a lifeguard reached him, he was bleeding profusely from a 10-inch gash in his right thigh. Paramedics performed CPR on shore, but Schafer later bled to death. “I don’t think there was any reason to doubt that it was anything but an unprovoked accident,” said medical examiner George Burgess, who determined that a single bull or tiger shark was responsible for the attack.

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