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Court agrees to hear assisted suicide, worker pay cases

The Supreme Court, returning from a four-week recess, stepped into another angry cultural controversy, agreeing on Tuesday to hear the Bush Administration’s challenge to Oregon’s doctor-assisted suicide law – the Death With Dignity Act. At issue in the case is whether the federal government has the authority to bar doctors from prescribing the drugs that patients may use to end their lives. The case is Gonzales v. Oregon (docket 04-623). The cases granted review Monday will be heard in the new Term starting in October.

On a day when the Court, once more, failed to take any action on the constitutionality of presidential appointments during brief recesses of the Senate, and refused to reopen Roe v. Wade by turning aside a new appeal by the original “Jane Roe,” the Justices granted review in two other disputes in addition to the Oregon case.

The Court consolidated two cases, both testing the definition, for wage purposes under federal law, of when a worker’s day on the job actually begins. The questions to be reviewed test whether workers are entitled to be paid for activities at a plant before or after their work at their actual station. One issue is whether they are to be paid for time walking to places in the plant where they obtain special gear or clothing used in their jobs, and the other question is whether they are to be paid for time waiting in line to receive those items. Federal courts are split on the walking and waiting time issues, both of which arise with great frequency under federal wage-and-hour law.

The Court will face those issues in IBP Inc. v. Alvarez (03-1238) and Tum v. Barber Foods (04-66).

In the third case granted Tuesday, Schaffer v. Weast (04-698), the Court will be deciding whether parents of a disabled child or the school board have the burden of proof when the two sides have reached an impasse over the child’s educational plan, and the dispute goes to a hearing officer for resolution. The Fourth Circuit, ruling in a case from Montgomery County, Maryland, ruled that the parents must show that the plan proposed by the school district is inadequate, under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Court returned to its public session without Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the bench. He is continuing treatment for thyroid cancer. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor presided at the opening and at the Tuesday hearings into two important “takings” case because, she said, the senior Justice, John Paul Stevens, was delayed by air travel. Stevens did not reach the Court in time to hear the cases, but both he and the Chief Justice plan to take part in the decisions in the two cases — one involving city takeover of private land for private economic redevelopment, the other involving state rent controls.

Before beginning the oral arguments, the Court issued two decisions:

In Smith v. Massachusetts (03-8661), the Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that it is unconstitutional double jeopardy for a judge, in mid-trial, to grant a not guilty verdict on one of the criminal charges, then reinstate the charge later in the trial. The issue has divided lower courts. The Chief Justice participated in the case, joining in the dissent. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the dissent.
In a second decision, without the Chief Justice participating, the Court ruled 8-0 that a dredge or other special purpose watercraft is a “vessel” within the meaning of the federal law that allows seamen to sue for damages for job-related injuries. The ruling came in a case involving a Pennsylvania man injured while working on a scow attached to a dredge that was working on the Big Dig harbor project in Boston. The Supreme Court had not sought to define the word “vessel” since 1903.

The Court’s refusal to hear a new challenge to Roe v. Wade by a Texas woman, Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”)was no surprise. McCorvey had asked the Court to grant a Rule 60-b motion to reconsider Roe, on the theory that medical science developments since that ruling in 1973 have undercut the decision. The Court rarely grants such motions. In McCorvey’s case, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the attempt to reopen Roe v. Wade was moot, because the Texas anti-abortion laws at issue have been repealed by implication.

Another case turned aside Tuesday showed again the Court’s reluctance to hear sequels to its controversial ruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, establishing constitutional protection for the private sexual acts of homosexuals. The Court denied review of a claim that it is unconstitutional for a state to make it a crime to sell sexual devices. The theory of the challenge was that such a ban places a burden on adults’ private sexual conduct. The Eleventh Circuit, in rejecting that claim, gave a very narrow interpretation of Lawrence v. Texas. The case in the Supreme Court was Williams v. Attorney General of Alabama (04-849).

The Court has now twice refused to examine significant cases testing the scope of the Lawrence decision. On January 10, it refused to hear a Lawrence-based challenge to Florida’s ban on adoptions by any gay person or couple.