US Supreme Court back to work

October 5, 2008 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, October 5 – The US Supreme Court resumes work Monday, weighing a raft of social and environmental issues from light cigarettes to whales, amid uncertainty over the future of the oldest judge on its bench.

Forty-nine cases are before the nine seasoned jurists of the highest court in the United States who are to decide within days or weeks whether to delve into the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s "war on terror."

If they chose to do so, they would notably rule on whether the president has the power to detain someone indefinitely on mere suspicion of terrorism.

For four years, the court has been politically divided right down the middle, leaving Anthony Kennedy — appointed 20 years ago when Ronald Reagan was in the White House — to play the role of an often unpredictable tie-breaker.

Of the six justices who are more than 69 years old, however, John Paul Stevens — a native of Chicago appointed to the court in 1975 and who turned 88 in April — could soon stand down.

Who replaces him will depend on who wins the race for the White House.

Democratic hopeful Barack Obama would likely favor a liberal jurist to replace Stevens, while Republican rival John McCain would likely appoint a more conservative successor.

The court begins its work Monday hearing arguments from Altria Group — the makers of Marlboro cigarettes among other brands — with three smokers challenging the tobacco giant for branding some of its products as "light."

By doing so, the plaintiffs contend, Altria — formerly known as the Philip Morris Companies — misled smokers into thinking that light cigarettes, with less tar and nicotine, were less hazardous to health.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the three smokers, who enjoy the support of the US government and Federal Trade Commission, the result could be a tsunami of lawsuits that could cost the tobacco industry billions of dollars.

On Wednesday, the court will turn its attention to a plea from environmentalists for the US Marine Corps to cease using underwater sonar they say threatens the life and well-being of whales in the Pacific Ocean off California.

Three lowers courts have already ruled in favor of the whale-lovers, but the US Navy — with support from President George W. Bush — refuses to switch the sonar off, on grounds the judiciary cannot interfere with the executive in military matters.

In another environmental case, the Anglo-Dutch oil conglomerate Shell is to learn during the upcoming session whether it must pay for cleaning up pollution for which it was not directly responsible.

Cases related to freedom of expression coming up this autumn deal with limits of strong language on live television, and the right of a religious group to force local authorities to erect a monument promoting its beliefs.

More politically-charged cases involve one plaintiff challenging the US government over his arrest on suspicion of terrorism after the September 11 attacks in 2001, and another who wrongly spent 24 years in prison.

The nine justices — one of them a woman and one an African-American — have yet to say if they will consider demands for a new trial for death-row inmate and black activist Mumia Abu Jamal, a symbol for global opponents of capital punishment, and Troy Davis, another African-American on death row in Georgia who claims his innocence.


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