SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK

Secret Service agents protected

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that two Secret Service agents are shielded from a lawsuit filed by a man they arrested after a confrontation with then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

The 8-0 decision comes in a case that began with the arrest of Steven Howards following a chance encounter with Cheney at a shopping center in Colorado in 2006. Howards claimed he was arrested because he expressed his anti-war views.

The agents and the Obama administration asked the court for broad protection against claims of retaliatory arrests. The justices did not grant that wish.

But Justice Clarence Thomas said in his opinion for the court that the agents could not be sued in this instance because of uncertainty about the state of the law concerning such arrests.

The decision reversed a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to allow Howards' lawsuit to go forward.

Howards, of Golden, Colo., was detained by Cheney's security detail after he told Cheney of his opposition to the war in Iraq. Howards also touched Cheney on the shoulder, then denied doing so under questioning. The appeals court said the inconsistency gave the agents reason to arrest Howards.

Even so, the appeals court said Howards could sue the agents for violating his rights.

The main legal issue in the case was whether agents, and other law enforcement officers, should be shielded from rights lawsuits when they have a good reason, or probable cause, to make an arrest. The high court, in Hartman v. Moore, had previously ruled out damages claims for retaliatory prosecutions when there was probable cause to bring criminal charges in the first place. Unlike the Denver court, some appeals courts already have extended that rule to retaliatory arrests.

But the justices did not resolve that conflict Monday. "To be sure, we do not suggest that Hartman's rule in fact extends to arrests," Thomas said.

Instead, Thomas said the divergent rulings themselves are evidence that the law in this area is not settled. As a result, the agents cannot be held responsible for violating Howards' rights, even if the arrest had been made in retaliation for what he said.

David Lane, Howards' attorney, criticized the justices for failing to settle the issue. "It's shockingly unusual to see a case to carry absolutely not one shred of precedential value. This is that case. They broke absolutely no legal ground while managing to duck every significant issue in the case," Lane said.

Sean Gallagher, the lawyer for agents Virgil D. "Gus" Reichle Jr. and Dan Doyle, said it appears that officers might face liability only in the most egregious cases. "This ruling confirms that the federal courts will not subject law enforcement officials to personal liability except when it is absolutely clear that they have no basis to make the arrest," Gallagher said.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case.

The case is Reichle v. Howards, 10-262.

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Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda contributed to this report from Denver.

Ind. taxpayers lose legal battle over refunds

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court has turned down homeowners in Indianapolis who sought tax refunds when the city changed its plan for paying for a new sewer line.

In a 6-3 ruling Monday, the court upheld the city's decision to refuse to refund taxes that some homeowners paid up front while it forgave the remaining taxes for people who paid on an installment plan.

Those who paid in full complained that the disparate treatment violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

But Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion that Indianapolis acted properly in changing the payment system because it wanted to reduce the administrative headaches of debt collection.

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said the court was wrong to endorse such a gross disparity in tax treatment.

The sewer project connected about 180 homes to the city's sewage system. In 2004, 38 owners decided to pay the $9,278 assessment up front. Property owners also had the option of paying in monthly installments over 10, 20 or 30 years, with interest.

The very next year, the city changed its mind about how to pay for new sewage projects, reasoning that the old method discouraged people from abandoning septic systems for the healthier city sewage lines. By that point, some people had paid as little as $309, and more than a quarter of affected properties had paid less than $1,000.

Under the new financing scheme, the outstanding payments were forgiven, but the city denied refunds to those who paid in full.

Thirty-one homeowners sued for the refund and won in lower state courts. The Indiana Supreme Court, however, upheld the city's decision as rational.

Breyer's opinion likewise supported the city. "In our view, Indianapolis' classification has a rational basis," he said.

Roberts, though, said the court should not let stand a decision that ended up charging some homeowners 30 times more than others. "The equal protection violation is plain," he said, in an opinion joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.

The case is Armour v. Indianapolis, 11-161.

Court turns down Blackwater case

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court will not stop prosecutors from going after four Blackwater Worldwide guards involved in a 2007 shooting that killed 17 Iraqis.

The high court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from Evan Liberty, Donald Ball, Dustin Heard and Paul Slough.

A federal judge threw out the case, saying the Justice Department mishandled evidence and violated the guards' rights. But the U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the charges.

The high court refused to reconsider that decision without comment.

Blackwater security contractors are accused of opening fire in a crowded Baghdad intersection in 2007. Seventeen people were killed and 20 others wounded. Prosecutors said the shooting was unprovoked.

Blackwater renamed itself Xe Services after the shooting.

Justices won't hear Siegelman, Scrushy appeals

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court will not take another look at the bribery conviction of former Ala. Gov. Don Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.

The high court on Monday turned away the two men's appeals. Siegelman was convicted of selling a seat on a hospital regulatory board to Scrushy in exchange for $500,000 in donations to Siegelman's 1999 campaign to establish a state lottery.

Siegelman's lawyers wanted to argue that campaign donations can't be bribes unless there's a clear agreement between the donor and the politician, and that there was no such agreement in Siegelman's case. Siegelman has been free on bond while appealing his conviction, while the courts refused to free Scrushy.

The appeals were turned away without comment.

Published: Wed, Jun 6, 2012