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Court allows taxing bond interest, attack on child porn

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a state has the constitutional authority to impose a tax on the interest on municipal bonds sold by other states, while not taxing in-state bonds. The state, Justice David H. Souter wrote in a widely splintered decision, is entitled to treat its own bonds more favorably because, in issuing them, it is acting in a public manner to finance its own civic responsibilities.  This is not a simple form of economic protectionism, Souter said. The final vote was 7-2 in Kentucky Department of Revenue v. Davis (06-666), although the ruling produced seven opinions.

In a second major ruling, the Court — after years of repeatedly nullifying Congress’ efforts to stamp out child pornography on the Internet — finally upheld such a law, a 2003 statute that Congress shaped in a way that it hopes would spare it from the same fate as earlier attempts. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court found that the 2003 law did not reach too far and that it was not vague in its scope.  The decision came on a 7-2 vote in United States v. Williams (06-694).

The Court, ruling in the prominent terrorism case of the “Millenium Bomber,” decided that an individual who was carrying explosives during commission of another crime is eligible to be sentenced to a mandatory 10-year sentence on top of any other sentence, even if the explosives were not to be used in the crime actually committed.  Justice John Paul Stevens’ opinion for the Court interpreted a law that adds the extra sentence for “carrying an explosive during the commission” of a felony. It was sufficient to violate that law, Stevens wrote, that explosives were found in a car the accused was driving when he committed the crime of making a false statement to a customs official. It was not necessary, the opinion said, that the explosives be directly linked to the specific felony committed.  The case involved Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian  national identified by the government as an Al-Qaeda operative, who was foiled in an attempt to detonate explosives in the Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millenium in 2000 — Dec. 31, 1999.  The vote was 8-1 in the case of U.S. v. Ressam (07-455).

The Court also decided a second federal sentencing case, concluding that an individual who possessed a gun illegally after three prior convictions for serious crimes carrying a penalty of ten years or more in prison is eligible for a minimum 15-year sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, even if one of the prior crimes was punished with a ten-year sentence only because he was found to be a repeat offender. The vote was 6-3 in U.S. v. Rodriguez (06-1646).

In a series of orders in pending cases, the Court granted no new cases for review at its next Term.

In a summary order, the Court cleared the way for Virginia to set a new date for executing Christopher Scott Emmett by lethal injection, but three dissenting Justices noted that Emmett’s lawyers could ask the Fourth Circuit Court for a stay. The Circuit Court now has under advisement a challenge to Virginia’s method of execution. Virginia had asked the Supreme Court to lift the stay it had issued on Oct. 17, while the Justices were preparting to consider the legality of the use of lethal drugs for execution in Kentucky. The Court, by an apparent vote of 6-3, lifted the stay in application 07A304, Emmett v. Johnson. Justice Stevens dissented, joined by Justices Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In another execution case, the Court denied review of an appeal by a Florida death-row inmate, Mark Dean Schwab seeking to challenge that state’s lethal drug protocol. With the denial of review, the Court’s action automatically lifted a stay of execution the Justices had issued on Nov. 15, thus setting the stage for the state to seek a new execution date.

The Court declined to hear a Texas school superintendent’s appeal seeking clarification of the constitutional test to be applied when a parents’ rights have been violated by government action. The superintendent denied a promotion for a teacher to an administrative post – as an assistant principal – because she sent her children to a private religious school. The lower courts are widely split on the level of scrutiny courts should apply in judging violations of parental rights. The denied case was Smith v. Barrow (07-1089).

In another order, the Justices declined to hear an appeal by Walter E. Forbes, former board chairman of Cendant Corp., challenging his conviction for criminal conspiracy and making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission. He was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $3.275 billion for his crimes, an alleged “massive accounting fraud,” according to prosecutors. His appeal was Forbes v. U.S. (07-1029)