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Today’s Headlines: Biden could reenergize voters by filling Supreme Court vacancy

President Biden speaks during a meeting
President Biden, meeting with chief executives about the economy Wednesday, deferred questions on Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s retirement to the justice.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
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By Elvia Limón, Amy Hubbard and Laura Blasey

Hello, it’s Thursday, Jan. 27, and before turning to today’s top stories, we’d like to take note of a sad anniversary. Yesterday marked two years since the helicopter crash that killed Lakers star Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others. The morning of the crash is something we won’t soon — if ever — forget. The shock that reverberated through Los Angeles and beyond also shook The Times’ newsroom. Tears in one’s eyes are inevitable when you work to deliver local, national and international news. This was among those moments when co-workers went silent with disbelief.

Among the touching stories we’ve written is this one by sports columnist Bill Plaschke on the first anniversary of the crash: Bryant is “still here. He still lives among us. He’s in our daily struggles. He’s in our personal triumphs. He’s in our last-second defensive stops or buzzer-beating shots or wherever we require that Mamba Mentality. Even amid a pandemic in which nobody is supposed to be anywhere, Kobe is everywhere.”

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A person views a blue and purple Kobe and Gianna Bryant mural
A mural, shown Tuesday, commemorates Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and others at El Toro Bravo Carniceria in Costa Mesa. On Jan. 26, 2020, a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed in Calabasas, killing Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Now here are the stories you shouldn’t miss today:

TOP STORIES

Supreme Court vacancy offers Biden and Democrats a chance to energize voters after setbacks

Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s retirement provides President Biden and Democrats a golden opportunity to move past recent setbacks and reenergize Black and progressive voters ahead of the midterms. That is, if everything goes smoothly.

Although the White House has been tight-lipped about its shortlist of Supreme Court candidates, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger are the consensus front-runners.

Appointing the nation’s first Black female Supreme Court justice, as Biden has pledged to do, could blunt the political headwinds Democrats are facing in the November election. But given the perilous nature of Democrats’ razor-thin Senate majority and an already crowded legislative calendar, the addition of a Supreme Court confirmation process has the potential to exacerbate existing intraparty tensions and further complicate the push to enact more of Biden’s legislative agenda.

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More politics

  • Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin said he would not seek reelection to a third term.
  • After downplaying the threat of inflation through most of last year, the Federal Reserve has signaled readiness to raise interest rates in March and take other aggressive actions to combat high prices.
  • Five Democratic senators urged Biden on Wednesday to continue to fight hard to extend the child tax credit, which he suggested last week might have to be dropped from his sweeping climate and domestic spending package.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting and the latest action in Sacramento.

U.S. refuses to budge on Ukraine in response to Russian demands

With tensions rising over a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration on Wednesday rejected Moscow’s demands that NATO pledge to never admit the former Soviet republic into the transatlantic alliance and to halt troop deployments in Eastern Europe.

While most experts agree that Ukraine membership in the transatlantic alliance is not coming anytime soon, the State Department says that such a position will not be conveyed publicly to Russia.

Moscow had demanded a written response to two sets of position statements it made to Washington more than a month ago regarding Ukraine’s entry into NATO and U.S. troop exercises near the Russian border. Initially, U.S. officials demurred but finally agreed to supply it. The U.S. letter drew an angry response from Moscow.

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California exceeds 8 million coronavirus cases as new BA.2 subtype raises questions

California has now surpassed 8 million cumulative coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic. The milestone, equivalent to roughly 1 out of every 5 residents having been infected at some point, comes amid growing signs that Omicron has finally peaked — but not before tearing through California’s communities.

And if anything, the recent sky-high numbers are likely an undercount, experts say, as many who may be infected may not get tested because they have only mild symptoms or none at all, while others may use self-administered home tests.

But there might be another speed bump: the emergence of a subtype of Omicron. The World Health Organization has said the appearance of the subtype, called BA.2, is increasing in many countries. Two cases have also been found in Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous county.

More top coronavirus headlines

  • On Wednesday, an additional 91 COVID-19 deaths were reported in Los Angeles County, including a 15-month-old — the youngest child to die of COVID-19.
  • As the Omicron variant knocked out swaths of the labor force, people in a variety of jobs — fast-food workers, grocery clerks, teachers — say they have been under immense pressure from employers to report to work while sick.
  • Opponents of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students have extended the reach of their litigation to a Westside charter school after filing high-profile suits against Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified.

Stay up to date on variant developments, case counts and vaccine news with Coronavirus Today.

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Cannabis social equity programs leave many California entrepreneurs demoralized and depleted

Five years after California voters legalized recreational cannabis for adults, many cities and counties have yet to adopt programs to boost the chances of success for hopeful Black and Latino cannabis entrepreneurs.

In places that have, those programs have been plagued by a lack of funding, shifting requirements and severe delays in processing applications, often creating additional hardships and roadblocks instead of removing them.

A Times review of state data found that equity applicants represented only a small fraction — less than 8% — of all people granted cannabis licenses through the end of 2020 in several of the state’s largest jurisdictions. In addition, local officials around the state created different regulations for licensing cannabis businesses and meeting social equity qualifications.

Los Angeles moves to end oil drilling in the city

The Los Angeles City Council has voted to support a ban on any new oil wells and ordered a study to help city officials determine how to phase out existing wells in the next two decades. Under the motion approved Wednesday, the city will conduct an amortization study to understand whether oil companies have recouped the value of their investments at each oil site. If companies have recouped those costs, city officials say it will make it easier for the city to shut down the sites.

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Environmental justice activists heralded the vote as a long-fought win for the low-income communities of color near the wells and a turning point in city regulations that allow for the extraction of oil and gas in residential neighborhoods.

Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Assn., said in a statement that “shutting down domestic energy production not only puts Californians out of work and reduces taxes that pay for vital services, but it makes us more dependent on imported foreign oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq that is tankered into L.A.’s crowded port.”

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PHOTO OF THE DAY

Seen from beneath, workers reach toward red lanterns suspended across a street.
Sprucing up: Old lanterns are replaced with new, larger ones in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Jan. 14, ahead of Chinese New Year’s, coming up Feb. 1.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

CALIFORNIA

San Jose approves first law in the U.S. requiring gun owners to have insurance. The San Jose City Council overwhelmingly approved the measure despite opposition from some gun owners who said it would violate their 2nd Amendment rights.

A new bill would force courts to clear cannabis convictions faster. The move comes two weeks after a Times investigation found that tens of thousands of Californians are still stuck with felonies, misdemeanors and other cannabis convictions on their records. Despite a 2018 law that required the state to clear cannabis convictions, many courts have been slow to process cases, The Times found.

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CSU strongly indicates it will permanently scrap its SAT and ACT requirements for admission. The council of students, faculty and administrators found the assessments less effective than high school grades in predicting college success, while producing disparate results for underserved students and creating undue stress.

Martine Colette, Wildlife Waystation founder who rescued animals by the thousands, has died at 79. For years the 160-acre sanctuary stood as a model for rescuing exotic animals abandoned by impetuous owners, traveling roadside attractions and research labs, while Colette was its one-woman tour de force, leading rescue missions and charming Hollywood celebrities into supporting her cause.

NATION-WORLD

Journalists throughout Mexico say enough to killings and crimes against the media. Triggering the denunciations were the slayings of two journalists within a week this month in the northern border city of Tijuana, long a bastion of organized crime, corruption and violence against the press. Protesters gathered in more than three dozen Mexican cities on Tuesday.

A foiled prison break brings a sense of deja vu — and fears of an Islamic State resurgence. Ghweiran prison, in northeast Syria, houses more than 3,000 suspected fighters from Islamic State, and hundreds of boys, some as young as 10. The attack on it was eerily reminiscent of one on the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad in 2013, when Islamic State set free more than 500 of its members in an assault that heralded the group’s rise.

German offer to send 5,000 helmets to Ukraine becomes a punchline. In response to the offer, the mayor of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv — a former world heavyweight boxing champion who lived for years in Germany and is well-known in the country — declared himself “speechless.”

HOLLYWOOD AND THE ARTS

Taylor Swift slapped back for all the women who have been told ‘you didn’t write that.’ For Damon Albarn to casually argue that someone with Swift’s stature doesn’t write her own songs isn’t just an insult to her; it’s an insult to all the women who fought in order that someone like Taylor Swift could even exist, writes columnist and culture critic Mary McNamara.

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Unpaid dancers say they worked side by side with paid dancers in the 2021 Super Bowl halftime show. Watching the show, viewers were probably unaware that two different groups were at work — and were treated unequally. Only certain performers received compensation for this union gig, which operated according to SAG-AFTRA rules.

‘Euphoria’ star Sydney Sweeney pushed back on nude scenes with the director’s support. The gritty teen drama stars Sweeney as Cassie Howard, a sensitive former figure skater navigating toxic relationships who is often perceived as promiscuous. Throughout the show, Sweeney’s Cassie has appeared partially naked in multiple sexual scenes.

BUSINESS

Jimmy Fallon hyped his Bored Ape NFTs on ‘The Tonight Show.’ Is that a conflict of interest? Hyping it up on his show may well boost its asking price even higher if he ever tries to resell it — which is where things get tricky.

Spotify picked Joe Rogan over Neil Young in its misinformation fight. The Swedish music and podcast streaming giant has previously told news outlets that it bans “false or dangerous deceptive content about COVID-19.” But unlike its peers, no such policy is listed in the company’s user guidelines or its summaries of prohibited content, which is notable given the controversies surrounding Spotify’s top podcast show, “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

SPORTS

UCLA gymnastics stood united against racial injustice, then was ripped apart by it. The conflict began early in the fall when several gymnasts heard a teammate who is not Black sing lyrics that included the N-word. As the university mounted a response that some found insufficient, team members described cracks within the famously joyful facade of one of the nation’s most visible and successful programs.

The return of Anthony Davis has the Lakers feeling as if the worst might be behind them. Davis’ return to the lineup comes at a critical time. The star big man needs to prove that his presence can lift the Lakers out of the rut they’ve been stuck in.

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OPINION

Justice Breyer’s retirement preserves Supreme Court status quo, for good and bad. His retirement won’t reverse either the destructive partisanship that has undermined the court or the court’s increasingly conservative political orientation. But least for now, the partisanship is unlikely to get much worse, The Times’ editorial board writes.

The term Latinx wasn’t made by ‘woke’ whites. Stop erasing its creators. In the early 2000s, queer Latinxs began using the term on message boards and blogs. Campaigns to ban it understandably alienate many of the LGBTQ, Indigenous and Black Latinxs whom the word was meant to represent.

ONLY IN L.A.

A woman stands in the door of a flower shop, smiling. Near her a man holds a dog on a leash.
Susan and Juan Sanchez in front of their flower shop, Frida Pickles, in San Gabriel.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Their motto is ‘Thriving through flowers’ — and they mean it. Juan and Susan Sanchez made it their mission to use Frida Pickles, their San Gabriel business, as a way to employ residents who have special needs. Their 13-year-old daughter, Sofia, is autistic. “Just like people, all flowers and plants are different,” Susan said. “And we all deserve a chance to thrive.”

Opened in May 2019, the lush storefront features a variety of plants, flowers, lawn ornaments — and pickles. The couple work with community and school organizations to staff their shop: “We not only feel those partnerships are important to strengthen how and where we can help support but also they provide us with ... onboarding and management. And I should say, all employees are paid,” Susan said. “They’re actually paid above the minimum wage. So that’s really important for us. But really, we didn’t have a playbook or a template to follow.” More here.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

A newspaper front page has the headline "Vietnam Foes Sign a 'Fragile Peace.'"
The Jan. 28, 1973, Los Angeles Times. Top half of the front page.
(Los Angeles Times)

Forty-nine years ago today, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War effectively came to an end. North Vietnam began freeing American prisoners of war, and by the end of March ’73, the last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam. In its Jan. 28, 1973, edition, The Times wrote of the “fragile peace” gained by the pact. The fighting, of course, continued.

“To revisit Vietnam decades after the war is to confirm the tragedy and the futility of it all,” Alvin Shuster, a former Foreign editor for The Times who was a war correspondent in South Vietnam, wrote in the paper in 2000. “Footprints of American involvement are rarely visible. And, few, if any, will argue now with the conclusion that it was for naught.”

We appreciate that you took the time to read Today’s Headlines! Comments or ideas? Feel free to drop us a note at headlines@latimes.com.

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