Supreme Court Notebook

High court rejects La. inmate's death penalty challenge

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a Louisiana inmate's appeal that his death sentence was unconstitutional.

The appeal from death row inmate Lamondre Tucker was the latest to challenge capital punishment as unconstitutional after Justice Stephen Breyer issued a dissent last year calling for a re-evaluation of the death penalty.

Breyer had criticized the process as arbitrary, prone to mistakes and time-consuming. He dissented again Tuesday, noting that Tucker was sentenced to death in Caddo Parish, which imposes half the death sentences in the state even though it has only 5 percent of the state's population and just 5 percent of its homicides.

"One could reasonably believe that if Tucker had committed the same crime but been tried and sentenced just across the Red River in, say, Bossier Parish, he would not now be on death row," Breyer said.

He again urged the court to decide whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment banned by the Constitution. Breyer's dissent was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Tucker's conviction for killing his pregnant girlfriend after she told him she believed he was her baby's father.

Jurors sentenced then 18-year-old Tucker to death after convicting him of killing Tavia Sills in September 2009.

High court sides with property owners in ­wetlands case

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court is making it easier for landowners to bring a court challenge when federal regulators try to restrict property development due to concerns about water pollution.

The justices ruled unanimously Tuesday that a Minnesota company could file a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the agency's determination that its land is off limits to peat mining under the Clean Water Act.

The ruling is a win for property rights and business groups that said it was unfair for government agencies to decide what land is subject to complex environmental laws without a court ever deciding whether the agency is right.

It was the second time in four years that the high court sided with property owners against the government in a dispute over the right to challenge a designation of protected wetlands.

The Obama administration argued that the Hawkes Company could only contest the finding by seeking a permit, an expensive process that could take years to resolve. The company said it should be able to challenge the order immediately in federal court without having to spend more than $100,000 on a permit or risk hefty fines.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Corps' decision was the kind of final decision that carries a risk of major criminal and civil penalties if landowners don't go along. He said property owners shouldn't have to wait for the agency to "drop the hammer in order to have their day in court."

The case began when the East Grand Forks, Minnesota, company planned to expand its peat processing operations and asked the Corps for guidance. The agency issued a determination that the property was governed by the Clean Water Act because it affected the Red River of the North about 120 miles away.

The Obama administration said the Corps' determination was more like informal agency guidance that had no legal effect. Justice Department lawyers warned that allowing court challenges before trying to get a permit from the agency would open the floodgates to "piecemeal litigation" over thousands of similar decisions.

A federal appeals court said the company could take its challenge to court without having to seek a permit from the agency.

The high court's decision is similar to a 2012 case in which the Supreme Court unanimously sided with property orders in a dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency. The justices said landowners could bring an immediate court challenge to an EPA order that halted construction on property designated as protected wetlands.

High court will hear State Farm appeal in Katrina fraud case

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court will consider whether to overturn a jury verdict against State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. in a whistleblower case alleging fraud against the U.S. government after 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

The justices on Tuesday agreed to hear State Farm's appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld the verdict in favor of Cori and Kerry Rigsby.

The two sisters sued on behalf of the government after they said they witnessed the insurance giant shifting Mississippi claims to federal flood insurance that should have been paid by private wind insurance.

A federal appeals court said the Rigsbys could seek additional evidence of other possible fraud.

State Farm says the case should be dismissed because its existence was leaked while it was supposed to be secret.

Justices reject union appeal over Trump Taj Mahal bankruptcy

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a union challenge seeking to restore health and pension benefits for more than 1,000 workers at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.

The justices on Tuesday let stand lower court rulings in favor of the former Trump Entertainment Resorts, once run by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2014 and a federal bankruptcy judge imposed cost savings sought by the company. They included terminating health insurance and pension benefits for unionized workers.

The company gave workers cash stipends to purchase health insurance on their own through the Affordable Care Act, but many workers say it has been insufficient for them to purchase coverage.

Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union represents most casino workers and it appealed the judge's order. The union said labor law prohibits an employer from abandoning a collective bargaining agreement, even in a bankruptcy.

A union official said it would issue a statement reacting to the decision soon.

Local 54 has authorized a strike against the Taj Mahal, but thus far has not walked off the job.

Billionaire investor Carl Icahn stepped in to buy the casino out of bankruptcy court and is keeping it open. Icahn took control of the casino in March, but had been keeping it afloat during its bankruptcy.

He repeatedly said that if a higher court restored the benefits that were canceled by the bankruptcy court, he would withdraw financial support from the casino and shut it down. Icahn says the benefits Taj Mahal workers used to receive are unaffordable in Atlantic City's current, slimmed-down shape. Four of the city's 12 casinos went out of business in 2014, buffeted by competition from casinos in nearby states.

Icahn is investing $15 million on immediate upgrades at the casino, which is making an ambitious effort to win back business it lost during its bankruptcy.

Published: Wed, Jun 01, 2016

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