Sunday, October 5, 2008

SUPREME COURT PREVIEW by The Associated Press

Highlights of some high-profile cases that the Supreme Court will take up in its term that begins Monday:

Curse words on the airwaves: In the court's first major broadcast indecency case in 30 years, can the Federal Communications Commission fine broadcast television stations for the one-time use of profanity on live programming? Cher, Nicole Richie and Bono are the celebrities who uttered familiar, but profane words on awards shows. The FCC changed its long-standing policy that exempted such "fleeting expletives" from being labeled indecent.

Cigarette advertising: The court will decide whether cigarette makers can be sued under state law for allegedly deceptive advertising of "light" cigarettes. The tobacco industry is trying to head off a wave of state-based challenges regarding the light cigarettes. At the same time, it is appealing a federal judge's order to stop marketing cigarettes as "low tar," "light," "ultra light" or "mild" because they mislead consumers. Like the prescription drug case, this dispute centers on whether federal regulation bars state fraud claims.

Religious monuments: Pleasant Grove City, Utah, wants the court to back its decision to bar a religious group known as Summum from placing a display in a public park that already has a Ten Commandments monument. A federal appeals court found that the city violated the group's free speech rights. The Summum believe that when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, he received a second set of tablets called the Seven Aphorisms.

Navy sonar: At the administration's urging, the justices are reviewing a federal appeals court ruling that limits the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises off the Southern California coast because of its potential harm to dolphins and whales. The government says national security interests, particularly in wartime, trump those of marine mammals.

Detainee lawsuit: A Pakistani Muslim sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and others over mistreatment he suffered in federal custody after being rounded up in a post-Sept. 11 sweep. The court will decide if high-ranking officials such as Ashcroft and Mueller can be sued when lower-level government workers allegedly violate people's civil rights.

Punitive damages: Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris is back at the court for a third time trying to reduce the nearly $80 million in punitive damages awarded by Oregon courts to Mayola Williams, widow of a longtime smoker. Oregon's Supreme Court has upheld the award three times and the U.S. high court twice has thrown it out. The most recent ruling by the state court relied on Oregon law to sustain the award. The justices will decide whether they agree or rather believe their Oregon colleagues are, in essence, ignoring them.

Retaliation: A longtime local government worker is fired after she cooperates with an investigation of sexual harassment allegations against a high-ranking official. The court will decide whether federal civil rights law protects employees from such retaliation in a case involving Vicky Crawford, who was fired in 2003 after more than 30 years as an employee of the school system for Nashville, Tenn., and Davidson County. The administration has sided with Crawford against the school system.

The justices also could decide to add these important cases to their docket:

Voting Rights Act challenge: A local governing authority in Texas argues it should no longer have to comply with the landmark Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law that Congress extended in 2006 for 25 more years. States and towns with histories of racial discrimination must get Justice Department or court approval before making any changes to the way elections are conducted. The law was intended to keep state and local governments from passing laws making it harder for minorities to vote. The Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1, a government board formed to provide local services to about 3,500 people, says Congress had no constitutional right to pass a bill that tried to remedy past discrimination.

Enemy combatant: The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the court to review whether the administration has the authority to capture and detain suspected enemy combatants in this country indefinitely without charges. The ACLU is acting on behalf of Ali al-Marri, a Qatar native and the only enemy combatant being held on U.S. soil. A federal appeals court ruled that the government has the authority to seize and detain anyone suspected of being an al-Qaida member. It also found, however, that such suspects must be able to challenge their military detention. Al-Marri is being held in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.

Judicial ethics: The case concerns West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin's decision to remain involved in a $76.3 million case involving a key booster of his 2004 election campaign. Benjamin was in the majority of a 3-2 decision overturning the judgment against Massey Energy Co. Don Blankenship, Massey's president, chairman and chief executive officer, spent more than $3 million to help Benjamin win his seat.

The Associated Press

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