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Court to hear anti-dumping, sentencing cases

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to rule on the government’s power to impose “anti-dumping” import fees on foreign goods that are re-manufactured from raw materials sent by U.S. firms and then and returned to the U.S. at a low price.  Two cases were consolidated for review: U.S. v. Eurodif (07-1059) and USEC v. Eurodif (07-1078).  The case grows out of a ruling by the Commerce Department that companies in France were re-processing natural uranium sent over from the U.S.  into a low-enriched uranium, then sending it back to U.S. purchasers at below-value prices, for use in creating fuel rods for nuclear power plants.  The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that this re-processing was a service, not the manufacture of a new product, so U.S. anti-dumping law did not apply.

The Court also granted a second case, testing whether a failure to report to prison that leads to a conviction for escape can be the basis for enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Under that Act, a mandatory minimum prison term of 15 years is imposed for a person convicted of illegal possession of a gun who has three previous convictions for violent felonies. The appeal in Chambers v. U.S. (06-11206) notes that lower courts are split on whether a prior conviction for escape, when it is based upon a failure to report for confinement, is a violent felony.  “There is a 10-2 split of authority on whether all escapes should be treated as violent crimes for purposes of career offender status,- the appeal says.

The cases granted on Monday will be heard and decided in the next Term, starting Oct. 6.

In a series of orders following up its ruling last week allowing states to use the lethal injection method of capital punishment, the Court simply denied review of 11 appeals by death-row inmates.  Justice John Paul Stevens noted in two of the cases that denial of review was not the same as a rejection of the inmates’ legal challenges on the merits.  Although some inmates have claimed that the procedure in their states differs in some ways from the Kentucky procedure upheld by the Court in Baze v. Rees, the Court did not order lower courts in any of the 11 cases to reconsider and take Baze into account.  In three of the 11 cases, the Court had previously postponed the executions; those orders were wiped out automatically with denial of review of the inmaters’ appeals, thus clearing the way for those executions in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.  Monday’s orders denied review of three cases each from Georgia and Ohio and one each from Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

The Court invited the U.S. Solicitor General to offer the government’s views on two new cases: one is a test of when a state agency surrenders its legal immunity under the Eleventh Amendment by filing lawsuits to enforce state-owned patents (Biomedical Patent Management v. California Department of Health Services, 07-956); the other asks the Court to clarify whether a debt is to be excused (“discharged”) in bankruptcy when the debt is owed to the company by an officer of the firm over mishandling of its funds. The issue in Denton v. Hyman, 07-952, is whether proof of intentional misconduct is required in order to prevent the discharge of the debt.

Among the cases denied review Monday was a high-visibility tax case, seeking to raise a Sixteenth Amendment challenge to a federal tax on damage payments that an individual receives for a personal injury.  The case, decided both ways by the D.C. Circuit Court in sequential rulings, was Murphy v. IRS (07-802).

The Court also chose to bypass a new appeal by Exxon Mobil Corp. challenging a punitive damages award in a case that the Court last year had ordered reconsidered by a state court in Louisiana.  After taking a new look, an appeals court in Louisiana again upheld a punitive award of $112 million on top of a compensatory damages award of $56 million.  Exxon contended that the award was based, not on injury done to the property owners who won the award, but to a claim that harm was done to others who had not sued — an alleged violation of the Court’s 2007 ruling barring punitive damages for someone who was a “stranger” to the lawsuit.  The award went to a family owning a plot of industrial property, where radioactive wastes had built up; the punitive award was based in part upon Exxon Mobil’s failure to warn early enough of the health hazard to workers on the site.  The case was Exxon Mobil v.  Grefer (07-1055); Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who owns Exxon stock, did not take part in Monday’s order.

The Court also turned aside a plea that a telecom company that wins an auction for a wireless spectrium license, but cannot pay the fees due and thus loses the licsense, is entitled to a share of the proceeds if the government re-auctions the license to others at a higher price.  The case was Thacker v. Federal Communciations Commission (07-803).

The Justices declined to spell out when a group can qualify as a religious organization, and thus gain an exemption from federal laws against workplace discrimination based on workers’ faith.  The case was LeBoon v. Lancaster (Pa.) Jewish Community Center, 97-943).