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Court adds three new cases

The Supreme Court on Monday added three more cases for its decision docket in the next Term, including a new test of police authority to search a car or truck after arresting the individual and securing the scene. That issue arises in Arizona v. Gant (07-542).

The Court also agreed to sort out the relationship between jury instructions and federal habeas court relief (Chrones v. Pulido, 07-544), and to clarify the federal government’s power to take land for the benefit of Indian tribes that are not officially recognized (Carcieri v. Kempthorne, 07-526).

The Court expanded the time for the oral argument scheduled for March 18 on the scope of the Second Amendment and the right to have guns for private use, allowing the U.S. Solicitor General to join in the argument.  The Solicitor General asked for 15 minutes of time, apart from the time allotted to each side (30 minutes each); that is the arrangement the Court allowed. The Court, however, refused to allow the state of Texas and other states to share time with the D.C. resident, Dick Heller, who successfully challenged the D.C. handgun  ban in the D.C. Circuit Court. (The case is District of Columbia v. Heller, 07-290).

In the police search case (Gant), the Court said its review would be limited to the following issue: “Does the Fourth Amendment require law enforcement officers to demonstrate a threat to their safety or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest in order to justify a warrantless search incident to arrest conducted after the vehicle’s recent occupants have been arrested and secured?”  The state of Arizona contended in its appeal that the Arizona Supreme Court had undercut the Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in New York v. Belton, which the state said laid down a bright-line rule allowing police to search a vehicle without a warrant following an arrest of the occupant.

The Court, in granting the California attorney general’s appeal in the Chrones case, indicated it will decide whether an erroneous jury instruction can be treated, in a federal habeas case, as a structural error requiring reversal because the jury might have relied upon it in finding guilt.

In the Rhode Island land dispute case, the Court will be ruling on whether, after Congress extinguished a tribe’s title and interests to land, the Secretary of Interior may nevertheless create “Indian country” status and place disputed land in trust for the tribe’s benefit.  The Secretary in 1998 approved the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s application to have a 31-acre parcel of land owned by the tribe and located in Charlestown, R.I., to be taken into trust for the tribe.

The three cases are expected to go over for argument to the Term starting on Oct. 6.

Among the more significant cases denied review Monday:

** The Court refused to interfere with an order for West Virginia courts in handling tobacco-related personal injury lawsuits that requires a jury to decide, first, whether punitive damages are justified for wrongdoing before the jury finds whether anyone has committed that wrong or caused actual damages. The case was Philip Morris USA, et al., v. Accord, et al. (07-806).

** The Court declined to hear a claim that an individual convicted of murder has a constitutional right, in trying to avoid a death sentence, to show that a partner in the crime got only a life prison sentence as a result of a plea bargain.  Saldano v. Texas (07-7815).

** The Court turned down an appeal raising the issue of the liability of public school officials for violations of students’ rights when they have been told there is a risk of such violations by a teacher or staff member.  (Dale v. White County, GA, School District, 07-692).

** It denied review of a claim that parents be allowed to sue for damages under an 1867 civil rights law to enforce their right to a free public education for their disabled child. (Blanchard v. Morton School District, 07-825).

** It turned aside a claim that it is unconstitutional for federal regulators to limit how state laws on property seizures apply to electric transmission grids.  The appeal sought to test a 2003 order of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that regulated, to a degree, electric transmission utilities’ use of eminent domain power under state law.  (NARUC v. FERC (07-658).