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UPDATED: Court scuttles photos ruling, grants 3 cases

UPDATED with new material 2:35 p.m.


The Supreme Court on Monday wiped out a lower court ruling that would have forced the Pentagon to release scores of photos that are said to show abuse of detainees by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Justices, in a brief order, vacated the Second Circuit Court decision and told that court to reconsider in the wake of a new law Congress passed to keep those photos from public disclosure.  The Pentagon has now taken formal steps to accomplish that result. The case was Defense Department, et al.,. v. American Civil Liberties Union, et al. (09-160).  Justice Sonia Sotomayor took no part in the Court’s action Monday. She was a judge on the Second Circuit when it denied en banc review at an earlier stage of the case.

Among three newly granted cases, the Court indicated it will rule, for the first time, on when U.S. laws against securities fraud apply to trans-national securities dealings — an issue that has deeply divided lower federal courts.  The Justices granted review of Morrison, et al., v. National Australia Bank, et al. (08-1191), even though the U.S. Solicitor General had urged it to bypass the case.  Even while arguing that the case was not a proper one to address the issue, Sol. Gen. Elena Kagan filed a brief extensively outlining the government’s views on the question, suggesting that the key law against securities fraud should sometimes apply to international dealings.  (Justice Sotomayor took no part in the order granting review; it was not immediately apparent why she was recused. She did not vote on this case while on the Second Circuit.)

In a second new case, the Court will spell out how the federal prison system is to calculate the credits that inmates receive for good conduct while behind bars.  The issue in Barber, et al., v. Thomas (09-5201) is how to interpret the federal law that provides up to 54 days “at the end of each year of the prisoner’s term of imprisonment.” Bureau of Prisons officials interpret “term of imprisonment” to mean time served, not the sentence imposed — a policy that results in seven fewer days of available credit for each year of the actual sentence, the petition argued.  Lower courts are split on the question.

The third granted case, Renico v. Lett (09-338), tests whether it violates double jeopardy to stage a new trial after a state judge declared a mistrial after the jury foreman said the jurors were not going to be able to reach a verdict.  The Sixth Circuit Court found jeopardy in that circumstance, rejecting the conflicting view of the Michigan Supreme Court.

UPDATES as of 2:35 p.m.:

In a highly unusual order, the Court asked state officials in Alabama to respond to a rehearing request in a pauper’s criminal case — Melson v. Allen (09-5373).  The case involves Robert Bryant Melson, who in 1994 shot and skilled three employees and wounded a fourth while robbing a Popeye’s restaurant in Gadsden, Ala.  He was sentenced to death.  The case has had a lengthy journey through federal and state courts, and resulted, most recently, in the Supreme Court’s denial of review of his latest petition on Oct. 5.

In that petition, Melson sought to raise the issue of whether a habeas plea must offer evidence of attorney dishonesty or mental illness in order to excuse the failure to file the plea within the one-year filing deadline set by federal law.  Eight days after the Supreme Court had denied review of that question in Melson’s case, the Court agreed to hear nearly the same issue in Holland v. Florida (09-5327) — a case now scheduled for oral argument on March 1.  After that grant, Melson’s counsel sought rehearing, and review of his case or, in the alternative, a move to hold his case pending the outcome in Holland.   That is the request to which the state of Alabama has now been asked to file a reponse within 30 days.

As it has done in other cases, the Court on Monday once more refused to settle the question of whether it is unconstitutional to execute an individual who has a strong claiim of innocence to murder.  The Court simply denied review in the seventh appeal filed before the Justices by a California death-row inmate, Kevin Cooper.  He is the central figure in one of the most controversial murder cases in the state in recent years.  The two sides directly involved take diametrically opposing views of what the evidence used, or not used, at the trial means.  He was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of three members of a family and a neighbor boy in Chino Hills, Calif., and the attempted murder of that family’s eight-year-old son.  Cooper’s latest petition was 09-363 (Cooper v. Wong).

The Court refused to spell out, for the first time, constitutional limits on the kind of business conduct that is subject to punitive damages verdicts when injury or death results.  The claim in Ford Motor Co. v. Buell-Wilson (09-297) was that punitive damages are barred for a product design defect where federal regulators found the design to be safe, or where reasonable people could disagree on whether the design was safe. In this case, the alleged defect was in a poorly reinforced roof on a Ford Explorer SUV.

Once again, the Court refused to reopen the controversy over the constitutional protection for student-delivered speeches at public school graduation ceremonies.  The issue in Corder v. Lewis-Palmer School District (09-257) was whether such speech by students if private speech, or government-sponsored remarks. The case involved a 2006 ceremony at a high school in Mountain, Colo.

The Court also turned aside a Maryland funeral home industry case, testing whether it is unconstitutional for states to discriminate against the interstate movement of investment capital, business expertise and profits, or do states act unconstitutionally only when they discriminate against movement of physical goods.  The case was Brown, et al., v. Hovatter, et al. (09-231).