County clerk issuing same-sex marriage licenses after judge strikes down Utah ban

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A federal judge struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban Friday in a decision that brings a growing shift toward allowing gay marriage to a conservative state where the Mormon church has long been against it.

The Salt Lake County clerk’s office started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Deputy Clerk Dahnelle Burton-Lee said the district attorney authorized her office to begin issuing the licenses but she couldn’t immediately say how many have been issued so far.

Just hours earlier, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby issued a 53-page ruling saying Utah’s law passed by voters in 2004 violates gay and lesbian couples’ rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Shelby said the state failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.

"In the absence of such evidence, the State’s unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State’s refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens," Shelby wrote.

Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky leaves jail a free man, flies to Germany

MOSCOW (AP) -- In a few breathtaking hours, one-time oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being a prisoner locked away for a decade in the remote depths of northern Russia to being a free man in Berlin. As he sped between those extremes, questions trailed behind.

Most prominently: Why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to pardon the man who was once Russia’s richest and one of the few with both the boldness and resources to challenge him.

Putin said he decided to approve Khodorkovsky’s pardon application and let him walk free on Friday for humanitarian reasons -- his mother is seriously ill. The way he announced it, in a scrum of journalists after his annual marathon news conference less than 24 hours earlier, had an air of spur-of-the-moment.

But there appears to have been considerable calculation behind it, and analysts saw it as a show of power and arrogance by the man who has dominated Russian politics since the turn of the millennium.

In the first burst of surprise after the pardon was announced, many speculated that Putin wanted to soften Russia’s baleful image in the countdown to the Winter Olympics, his signature project, which starts Feb. 7 in Sochi.

Canadian court strikes down anti-prostitution laws, including
ban on brothels

TORONTO (AP) -- Canada’s highest court struck down the country’s anti-prostitution laws Friday, a victory for sex workers who had argued that a ban on brothels and other measures made their profession more dangerous. The ruling drew criticism from the conservative government and religious leaders.

The court, ruling in a case brought by three women in the sex trade, struck down all three of Canada’s prostitution-related laws: bans on keeping a brothel, making a living from prostitution, and street soliciting. The ruling won’t take effect immediately, however, because the court gave Parliament a year to respond with new legislation, and said the existing laws would remain in place until then.

The decision threw the door open for a wide and complex debate on how Canada should regulate prostitution, which isn’t in itself illegal in the country.

The court found that Canada’s prostitution laws violated the guarantee to life, liberty and security of the person. For instance, it said the law prohibiting people from making a living from prostitution is too broad.

It is intended "to target pimps and the parasitic, exploitative conduct in which they engage," the ruling said. "The law, however, punishes everyone who lives on the avails of prostitution without distinguishing between those who exploit prostitutes and those who could increase the safety and security of prostitutes, for example, legitimate drivers, managers, or bodyguards."

Judge grants Reagan shooter John Hinckley more time away from mental hospital

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan will get to spend more time outside a mental hospital where he has been confined for most of the past three decades, a judge ruled Friday.

John Hinckley will be allowed to visit his mother’s home in Williamsburg, Va., for up to 17 days at a time. Hinckley has been allowed to spend increasing amounts of time at his mother’s house in recent years, but previous visits were capped at 10 days. Hinckley must make at least eight successful 17-day visits away from the hospital before any requests to increase his time in Williamsburg beyond that will even be considered, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said in his ruling.

In court hearings before the ruling, Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry Levine, had asked for his visits to be expanded to 17 and 24 days, arguing that there is no evidence Hinckley is a danger to himself or others. Attorneys for the U.S.government, however, argued that Hinckley is "capable of great violence" and told the judge that granting expanded privileges was "premature and ill conceived."

Friedman wrote that Hinckley’s depression and psychotic disorder are in full remission and that he had not displayed violent behavior in more than 29 years.

"Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the court is confident that under appropriate conditions, Mr. Hinckley will not likely be a danger to himself or others if his visits to Williamsburg are expanded from ten days to seventeen days," Friedman wrote. "Mr. Hinckley has been making 10-day visits to Williamsburg for nearly four years, without in any way decompensating or doing anything that might suggest a risk of danger."

Ahead of enrollment deadline, a surge in health care signups, but problems persist

WASHINGTON (AP) -- His health care plan facing a dicey transition, President Barack Obama said Friday that insurance sign-ups are surging now that the government’s website is working better for consumers. But it was too soon to say the rollout has turned the corner.

More than 1 million people have enrolled since Oct. 1, Obama said at his end-of-the-year press conference. That’s more than two-and-a-half times the number on Nov. 30, when major fixes to the website were completed. At that point, only 365,000 had signed up through new federal and state markets offering subsidized private insurance.

"That is a big deal," Obama said of getting coverage for uninsured people. "That’s why I ran for this office."

Separately, officials said 3.9 million people have qualified for government health care through the law’s Medicaid expansion. Even so, things aren’t exactly humming along.

HealthCare.gov was down for part of the day Friday, as technicians attempted to fix an error that occurred Thursday night when the site was undergoing routine maintenance, officials explained.

Stores hope to pull in last minute shoppers with marathon hours in bid to recoup sales

NEW YORK (AP) -- Some stores are ending the holiday shopping season the same way they began it -- with round-the-clock, marathon shopping hours.

Kohl’s for the first time is staying open for essentially five days straight, from 6 a.m. on Friday through 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Macy’s and Kmart are opening some of their stores for more than 100 hours in a row from Friday through Christmas Eve. And Toys R Us is staying open for 87 hours straight starting on Saturday, which is typically the second biggest shopping day of the year.

The expanded hours in the final days before Christmas are reminiscent of how some retailers typically begin the season on the day after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday. The strategy comes as stores try to recoup lost sales during a season that’s been hobbled by a number of factors.

Despite a recovery economy, many Americans have been struggling with stagnant wages and other issues. On top of that, the time period between the official holiday shopping kickoff on Black Friday and the end of the season is six days shorter than a year ago. That has given Americans less time to shop.

Treatment of arrested diplomat was typical of U.S. justice system

NEW YORK (AP) -- It has sparked protests outside the American embassy in New Delhi. Burnings of President Barack Obama’s photo. And angry speeches by Indian officials.

But the arrest -- and, yes, even the strip search -- of an Indian diplomat accused of visa fraud also revealed a simple and longstanding reality of the U.S. justice system: Everyone charged with a crime here is supposed to be treated the same, whether wealthy or destitute, prominent or ordinary, citizen or foreigner.

"There is a remarkable and almost charming egalitarianism in it," said New York City defense attorney Ron Kuby. "Everybody is treated in exactly the same disrespectful, casually brutal and arrogant fashion."

The United States is the only place where "the rich as well as the poor get to sleep on cold floors and urinate in overflowing toilets -- together."

Indian officials have been fuming over the way federal marshals handled Devyani Khobragade, the country’s deputy consul general in New York, calling the treatment degrading and inhumane. Yet most Americans would find the procedures fairly typical for a criminal case -- though certainly not pleasant.

Greek farmers clash with police over property tax

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Farmers from the Greek island of Crete clashed with police Friday outside Greece’s parliament in Athens as lawmakers debated a bill that will expand an unpopular property tax to farms and previously untaxed properties.

Hundreds of farmers took an overnight ferry to protest in the capital and were joined by farmers from the southern mainland. They hurled oranges at riot police and battered their shields with traditional shepherds’ walking sticks.

The new tax, due to be voted upon Saturday, is part of measures required by international creditors under Greece’s bailout agreements. The debt-ridden nation has been kept afloat since 2010 by the bailout funds.

"We only have one demand: Not to tax our farms, because this is what we need to operate our business, the same way factories have machinery," said protest organizer Panagiotis Peveretos, who met lawmakers to discuss the protesters’ grievances.

Greece’s conservative-led coalition government, which holds 154 seats in the 300-member parliament, struggled with dissent from lawmakers, mostly representing rural constituencies before submitting the bill.

One prominent conservative indicated he would vote against it.