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Court orders judge out of case

The Supreme Court, dividing 5-4, ruled Monday that it was unconstitutional for a state supreme court justice to sit on a case involving the financial interests of a major donor to the judge’s election campaign.  The majority said disqualification was required taking into account “all of the circumstances of this case.”

The case involved Justice Brent D. Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.  Since the case arose, he has become chief justice of that Court.  The ruling, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing for the majority, came in the case of Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, et al. (08-22).

Kennedy rejected arguments that the ruling would bring a train of adverse consequences:  “The facts now before us are extreme by any measure. The parties point to no other instance involving judicial campaign contributions that presents a potential for bias comparable to the circumstances in this case.”

This was one of five rulings the Court issued Monday as it continued to move toward a summer recess starting near the end of the month (see the other decisions, below).  It has 16 decisions to go.  The next scheduled decision day is next Monday.  However, before the end of the day today, some action is likely to be taken on a challenge to the imminent sale of the automaker, Chrysler, to a new company in which the Italian auto manufacturer, Fiat, is the partner.

The Court also added two cases to its decision docket for the Term that starts Oct. 5, and asked for the federal government’s views on another case (see details, below).

Here, in summary, are results of the other decisions announced Monday:

** The Court ruled unanimously that Americans do not have a right to sue the present government of Iraq for torture and other abuse they suffered in the former regime of Saddam Hussein.  That right to sue was lost in May 2003 when President Bush created an exception to cover Iraq.  Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the Court in Republic of Iraq v. Beaty (07-1090) and a companion case.

** Ruling 7-2, the Court narrowed the scope of the federal anti-racketeering law (RICO) by defining what constitutes an “enterprise” when the challenged activity is not carried about by a formal organization.  While the law does not apply to a loose group of criminal suspects who simply engage in crime together, it does apply to individuals who work together in a “structure” — they have a purpose, they have a relationship with each other, and they operate together long enough to permit the pursuit of the group’s purpose.  It applied the ruling to a group of bank burglars. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote for the majority in Boyle v. U.S. (07-1309).

** Over the partial dissents of four Justices, the Court ruled that a military court conviction that has become final still can be challenged in an appeal within the military judicial system by a former member of the service. The ruling revives a challenge by a permanent resident alien who had pleaded guilty on the advice of a lawyer who said such a plea would not risk deportation.  He sought to revive his case after the fact, when he faced deportation. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in U.S. v. Denedo (08-267).

** In a unanimous decision, the Court declared that, after a federal judge rules on a private individual’s claim to recover misspent federal funds (with the U.S. government not taking part in the case), that individual has 30 days to start an appeal. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the ruling in U.S. ex rel. Eisenstein v. New York City (08-660).

The Court agreed to hear two new cases, with oral argument and decision at its next Term.

It consolidated two cases for a single ruling on  the constitutionality of a 2005 federal bankruptcy reform law that barred attorneys from advising debtors to take on more debt before filing for bankruptcy, with a second question of whether Congress intended to apply that law to licensed attorneys (Milavetz, Gallop v. U.S., 08-1119, and U.S. v. Milavetz, Gallop, 08-1225.

The second newly granted case, Hertz Corp. v. Friend (08-1107), asks the Court to spell out a single test for lower courts to use in deciding under federal law where a business firm’s “place of business” issue for purposes of defining in what state it has its citizenship for lawsuit purposes.

The Justices asked the U.S. Solicitor General to offer the government’s views on whether a 1986 federal law bars all damage lawsuits in state courts based on claims of injury or death of a child due to a vaccine injection, when the claiim is that a safer vaccine could have been designed.  The case is American Home Products (Wyeth), et al., v. Ferrari, et al. (08-1120).