(NOTE:  In the wake of Justice John Paul Stevens’ retirement, the Court on Tuesday issued new assignments for the Justices in their roles as Circuit Justices to handle emergency matters from the federal court regions.  Justice Clarence Thomas succeeds Stevens for the Sixth Circuit, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer does so for the Seventh Circuit.  The new allotment order, taking effect today, is here.  (A new order will be issued when a ninth Justice joins the Court.)   The full Orders list, discussed below, is here.

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The Supreme Court on Tuesday, over three Justices’ dissents, summarily upheld a federal law banning “soft money” donations to, and spending by, the political parties.  In one of the final group of orders for the Term, the Court issued a one-line ruling affirming a three-judge U.S. District Court decision that had turned aside a Republican Party challenge to the ban.  Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have accepted the case for review, and set it for oral argument.   To rule in favor of the GOP challenge, the Court would have had to overturn a major part of a 2003 ruling upholding a sweeping congressional ban on so-called “soft money” — that is, campaign cash raised outside the contribution and spending limits of federal law.  (A post discussing the GOP appeal is here; a post discussing the government’s defense of the “soft money” ban is here.)

In another order, the Court agreed to decide whether the federal law that bars retaliation against a worker for complaining about bias in the workplace also protects a relative or close associate of the worker who had made the challenge.  The Court granted review of Thompson v. North American Stainless (09-291), a case in which the U.S. Solicitor General had advised the Court, when asked for advice, to deny review.  The case will be heard and decided in the Term that starts Oct. 4.

The Court sent back to lower courts for another look the convictions of the former Alabama governor and a top health industry executive on charges of arranging large campaign contributions in return for official favors on state health policy.  The lower courts are to reexamine those cases under the Court’s decision last week in Skilling v. United States — a ruling that significantly narrowed the federal fraud law as it applies to corruption schemes.   The returned cases are Scrushy v. U.S. (09-167), involving Richard M. Scrushy, founder and CEO of HealthSouth Corp., and Siegelman v. U.S. (09-182), involving former Gov. Don Eugene Siegelman.

The Court returned two cases to lower courts to apply Monday’s decision extending the Second Amendment to limit state and local gun control laws.   One was a National Rifle Association case — companion to the decided case, McDonald v. City of Chicago (08-1521) — protesting a Seventh Circuit Court ruling that the Amendment applied only to federal laws or those in the federal enclave of Washington, D.C.  The companion case was NRA v. City of Chicago, et al. (08-1497).  It involved a challenge to handgun bans on both Chicago and in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill.    Also sent back to a lower court was Maloney v. Rice (08-1592), a case in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor, when she was a member of the Second Circuit, had also ruled that the Second Amendment does not apply to state and local government levels.  The Maloney case did not involve guns, but rather tested a New York state law that bans personal possession of a martial arts device — a nunchaku — that also can be used as a weapon.   Justice Sotomayor did not take part in the Maloney order Tuesday.

Over the objection of four Justices, the Court issued a summary decision in a highly unusual death penalty case, in which the defense attorney had sought to win favor with the jury by portraying the individual’s childhood as stable, loving, and “essentially without incident” as a way to show that a death sentence would devastate the individual’s family, who wee shocked and dismayed by the crime.  But, the Court concluded Tuesday, that strategy backfired, and prosecutors used that background evidence. suggesting that the individual had led a “privileged” life,  in their closing argument and obtained a death sentence.  The majority said that the defense lawyer’s choice of that theory led to a completely inadequate investigation of a childhood that was immersed in parental abuse, and the youth had suffered head injuries that doctors deemed significant enough to impair his capacity. The case involved Demarcus Ali Sears, convicted of murder in Georgia — a woman was kidnapped in Georgia, and killed in Kentucky.  Sears was sentenced to death.  The Court’s ruling came in an unsigned (“Per Curiam”) decision, apparently on a 5-4 vote.  Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., noted that they would have denied review.  Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.  The case was Sears v. Upton (09-8854).

The Court also sent back to the Federal Circuit Court a case testing whether a patent may be obtained on the process a doctor uses for diagnosing the right amount of a medicine for a given patient, based on conclusions the doctor drew from medical test results.  The Federal Circuit had upheld such a patent, relying that Court’s machine-or-transformation test for patentability.  In Bilski v. Kappos, the Court on Monday had concluded that that was not the sole test for patent eligibility.  The Circuit Court was told Tuesday to reconsider in the wake of Bilski.

In one other order, the Court accepted the advice of the U.S. Solicitor General, and denied review of Pfizer, Inc., v. Abdullahi, et al. (09-34).  This was a petition by the nation’s largest drug manufacturer, seeking to head off two damage lawsuits against it in federal court in New York, claiming that the company harmed scores of children in Nigeria when it gave them an antibiotic drug that had not been approved for children.   The Chief Justice and Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not take part in the order, without explanation.

Posted in Cases in the Pipeline