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Court grants six new cases

Final update 4:40 p.m.

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to rule on claims by two U.S. citizens being held by the U.S. military in Iraq that they have a right to challenge their detention there and future transfer to Iraqi authorities — one of them to be tried, the other to be executed for a prior Iraqi conviction. The cases, drawing the Court more deeply into defining the rights of detainees, will be heard together, probably in March. The cases are Munaf v. Geren (06-1666) and Geren v. Omar (07-394). The D.C. Circuit reached different results on the two; both, however, involve interpretation of the scope of the Court’s 1948 decision in Hirota v. MacArthur. That decision barred U.S. courts from ruling on overseas detention of Japanese nationals by U.S. military forces serving as part of a multi-national force.

The Court also agreed to hear cases on the rights of disabled workers to be assigned to open jobs ahead of other workers (Huber v. Wal-Mart, 07-480), on enhanced federal sentences based on prior state conviction for possession of cocaine (Burgess v. U.S., 06-11429), on the power of states — or lack of it — to require proof of greater mental capacity for an accused individual to act as his own lawyer than is required to stand trial (Indiana v. Edwards, 07-208), on the scope of the bankruptcy law’s exemption from “stamp taxes” and other transfer taxes imposed by states and cities (Florida Department of Revenue v. Piccadilly Cafeterias (07-312), and on the proof the federal government must offer in order to gain added prison time for someone accused of carrying an explosive during commission of a felony — a celebrated case involving the so-called “Millenium Bomber” (U.S. v. Ressam, 07-455).

All of these other cases, like Munaf and Geren, are likely to come up for hearings in March. It now appears that the usual allotment of hearing time for a month has been filled for the sitting that begins on March 17.

The case of Mohammad Munaf, who has dual U.S. and Iraqi citizenship, tests whether a citizen being held by U.S. military forces serving as part of the coalition forces in Iraq may file a habeas challenge in U.S. courts. Munaf has been convicted in an Iraqi court and sengtenced to death in a kidnap-for-hire case. The Circuit Court ruled that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction in such a case. The other case, that of Shawqi Ahmad Omar, a citizen of the U.S. and of Jordan was declared an enemy combatant by the U.S. after his arrest in Baghdad, but has not been charged with a crime. In August 2004, U.S. military officials decided to transfer him to a criminal court in Iraq for trial; that Iraqi tribunal has authority to try terrorism crimes. The D.C. Circuit ruled that U.S. courts could hear Omar’s habeas challenge.

Here are some details of each of the other cases:

In the Huber case, the Court limited its grant of review to the first question raised, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer recused. The issue to be decided is whether an individual who is disabled and cannot perform her present job must be reassigned to a vacant, equivalent position without having to compete with other workers for that slot. The case involves Pat Huber, a Wal-Mart employee in Clarksville, Ark. After she became disabled by an injury, she sought an open job, but a non-disabled worker gained the position. Wal-Mart said the other worker was better qualified, and that it followed a policy of basing such assignments on qualifications. The appeal says that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued regulations providing that a disabled worker need not be the best qualified for an open position to obtain it in a reassignment. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for their disabled employees.  The Circuit Courts are split on the issue at stake.

The Court agreed to hear the sentencing case of Keith Lavon Burgess of South Carolina even though the Justice Department had urged it to bypass the case.  The issue is whether the federal law requiring a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence for a drug offender with a prior conviction for a “felony drug offense” applies when the prior crime of cocacine possession under state law is treated as a misdemeanor but is punishable by more than a year in prison.  Burgess’ appeal argues that a prior conviction should count for sentence-enhancement purposes only if the crime is treated under state law both as a felony and as punishable by more than a year in prison. He contends there is a Circuit conflict.

In the mental competency case, the state of Indiana argues that the states should be allowed to impose a higher standard for measuring competency to represent oneself at trial than the Supreme Court has specified for measuring competency to stand trial.  The Court had ruled in Dusky v. U.S. in 1960 that the standard for competency to stand trial is whether the accused “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.”  In the case of Ahmad Edwards of Indianapolis, tried for attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, criminal recklessness and theft following a shooting incident outside a store where he had shop-lifted a pair of shoes, he sought to represent himself but the trial judge found him not competent to do so.   He has been declared incompetent several times, but each times has been found to have his competency restored following a stay at a state mental hospital.  The Indiana Supreme Court ruled he had a right to act as his own defense counsel.

The tax case appealed by Florida authorities involves a provision of federal bankruptcy law that provides an exemption from state and local transfer taxes “under a plan [of reorganization] confirmed” by a bankruptcy court. The question the Justices will decide — an issue that has divided the Circuit Courts — is whether the exemption applies only if the transfer of assets occurs after the plan has been confirmed in court. Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc., said to be one of the nation;s largest chains of cafeterias, agreed to sell its assets to a newly organized firm.  The next day, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It worked out a plan that included the purchase of its assets for $80 million. That asset sale was completed several months before the reorganization plan won court approval.  The Eleventh Circuit Court ruled that, nevertheless, the tax exemption applied, because the asset sale was necessary to the fulfillment of the reorganization plan. Florida’s appeal is supported by 20 states, Puerto Rico’s government, and three cities. Those amici note that transfer taxes — for such things as mortgage or lease transfers, securities or other document transfers, and asset sales — exist in 37 states. While such taxes ordinarily are only a small amount of the total value of a transaction, the imposition of those taxes nationwide amounts to billions of dollars in revenue for state and local government.  The only part of that revenue affected by the case before the Court, however, is the amount that might be collected from bankrupt firms. In this case, the amount at stake is $32,200.

The federal government’s appeal in the explosives case involves an unusual feature: the Ninth Circuit Court ruling that is under challenge was based upon a Circuit precedent, U.S. v. Stewart, that was written by now-Justice Anthony M. Kennedy when he was a judge on the Circuit Court, three years before he joined the Supreme Court. The law at issue in the case — involving an alleged al Qaeda operative sometimes known as the “Millenium Bomber” — who was prosecuted for a plot to blow up explosives in the Los Angeles Airport terminal on New Year’s Eve at the end of 1999. He was caught before the plot could be carried out. The individual, Algerian national Ahmed Ressam, was convicted — among other counts — of carrying explosives during a felony.  He was sentenced to 22 years in prison on all of the counts. The Ninth Circuit, however, ordered a new sentencing, overturned the explosives carrying conviction. It said that the Circuit precedent required the government to show a relation between the explosives and the underlying felony — proof that it said federal prosecutors did not have.