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Court to rule on right to sue Cabinet officers

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to spell out when members of the President’s Cabinet and other high federal officials may be sued for constitutional violations by their subordinates. The case grows out of a lawsuit against former Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and current FBI director Robert Mueller, and others, based on official actions during the roundup of men of Arab descent or identified with the Muslim faith, following the terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Court will hear the case of Ashcroft, et al., v. Iqbal (07-1015), along with two other newly granted cases, in the next Term. The lawsuit does not challenge the actual roundup, but instead focuses on conditions in the federal prison facility in Brooklyn where many of the men were held. The Second Circuit allowed the lawsuit by a Pakistani Muslim who formerly lived on Long Island, Javaid Iqbal, to go forward, at least in pre-trial stages.  Iqbal has since pleaded guilty to charges of identity fraud, and has been deported to Pakistan.

In another case, the Court agreed to spell out the scope of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ duty to give a veteran full notice of the information that will be needed in order to weigh a benefits claim (Peake v. Sanders, 07-1209). The issue is the nature of the Department’s liability if it fails in that duty.

In the third granted case, Haywood v. Drown (07-10374), the Court will decide whether it is unconstitutional for a state to bar all private damages claims in state court against state prison employees, including claims under federal civil rights law.  At issue is a New York law that shunts all such damage claims into a state claims court, with the claim then allowed only against the state itself. The appeal contends this is a violation of the Supremacy Clause, because Congress intended private individuals to have a right to sue under Section 1983, in state as well as in federal courts.

The Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General for the federal government’s views on state authority to require railroad employees claiming damages from asbestos exposure to offer proof of medical condition before they may sue under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.  There is no deadline for the government response in Weldon v. Norfolk Southern Railway (07-1152). At issue is an Ohio law passed in 2004.

The Court issued two decisions on the merits Monday. In the first, it ruled 7-2 that financially failed companies cannot use a provision of federal bankruptcy law to avoid paying a Florida state stamp tax on transfers — such as on real estate or securities transactions (Florida Department of Revenue v. Piccadilly Cafeterias, 07-312).  In the second case, the Court, dividing 5-4, ruled that an alien who seeks voluntary departure instead of deportation must be given some added time to withdraw that request (Dada v. Mukasey, 06-1181).

The Court will have more decisions on the merits on Thursday.  Fifteen decisions remain.

Among the cases denied review on Monday, the Justices turned aside the first Guantanamo Bay detainee’s case since its ruling last Thursday providing a constitutional right by the captives to challenge their continuing confinement. The Justices, without comment, turned aside a plea by a Syrian national, Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak Al Ginco, to order lower courts to reach a decision on his challenges to detention. The Justice Department had not responded to the mandamus request. The case was In re Al Ginco (07-10553). 

Here are issues in some of the other cases that were turned aside Monday:

** A claim to a right to file an immediate appeal when a federal judge refuses a federal government request to dismiss a case against a foreign government. The case is Exxon Mobil v. Doe (07-81), involving a claim that Exxon used soldiers of the Indonesian military to guard its plant in that country, and those soldiers engaged in atrocities toward villagers.  The Justice Department, asked by the Court for its views, urged that review be denied.  Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who owns Exxon Mobil stock, did not take part in Monday’s denial order.

** Whether a Labor Department regulations bars workers from privately settling with their employes ther claims under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, unless the release gets government or court approval. This is another case in which the Solicitor General, asked for the government’s take on the case, urged a denial. Progress Energy v. Taylor (07-539).

** Whether it is unconstitutional for a state — here, Illinois — to ban the production of a food item, if all of the product is exported to other countries. The case of Cavel International v. Madigan (07-962), involving an Illinois law that makes it illegal to slaughter horses for human consumption.

** A plea, in another Illinois case, to spell out the kind of evidence of child abuse or neglect that must be produced by state officials before they threaten to separate parents and children while an investigation goes forward. (Dupuy v. Madigan, 07-1075).

** Whether parents of a disabled child, who has a right to a public education suited to the handicap, have a right to sue for money damages. (Burke v. Brookline School District, 07-1175).