Court leaves state assault weapons bans in place

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has rejected challenges to assault weapons bans in Connecticut and New York, in the aftermath of the shooting attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 50 people dead.

The justices on Monday left in place a lower court ruling that upheld laws that were passed in response to another mass shooting involving a semi-automatic weapon, the elementary school attack in Newtown, Connecticut.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly turned away challenges to gun restrictions since two landmark decisions that spelled out the right to a handgun to defend one's own home.

In December, less than a month after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented when the court refused to hear an appeal to overturn a Chicago suburb's ban on assault weapons. Scalia died in February.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning assault weapons. The others are California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In addition, Minnesota and Virginia regulate assault weapons, the center said.

Connecticut and New York enacted bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines in response to the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The gunman, Adam Lanza, shot and killed his mother before driving to the school where he gunned down the victims with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. Lanza then killed himself.

In Orlando, gunman Omar Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and a pistol during the attack at Pulse nightclub. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police after killing 49 others.

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Apartheid victims' appeal rejected

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from victims of apartheid in South Africa who wanted to sue IBM Corp. and Ford Motor Co. in American courts.

The justices did not comment on their order Monday that left in place lower court rulings dismissing lawsuits filed 14 years ago against Armonk, New York-based IBM and Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford.

The high court had earlier limited circumstances in which foreigners could seek to hold companies accountable in U.S. courts for their participation in or complicity with human rights abuses abroad.

The federal appeals court in New York said IBM and Ford could not be held liable for the actions of their South African subsidiaries during the apartheid regime.

The case is Ntsebeza v. Ford Motor Co., 15-1020.

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Court says gov't can prosecute drug robbery

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court says the government can prosecute a robbery of drug dealers under federal law without having to show that the drugs were intended for interstate commerce.

The justices on Monday ruled 7-1 to uphold the conviction of David Taylor, a Virginia gang member who robbed two houses in an effort to steal marijuana from dealers.

He was prosecuted under the federal Hobbs Act, which prohibits attempted robbery that affects interstate commerce. Taylor said that the law did not apply because the marijuana was grown only in Virginia.

The Obama administration argued that Congress has authority over all domestic trade in marijuana, including production and distribution that takes places solely in one state.

Lower courts sided with prosecutors.

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Process for challenging patents upheld

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the process for challenging invalid patents, making it easier for companies to fight so-called patent trolls.

The justices were unanimous in backing the legal standard used to cancel patents by a new appeals board at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Congress created the board in 2011 over concerns federal officials were issuing too many patents and fueling the rise of patent trolls - companies that buy up patents and force businesses to pay license fees or face costly litigation.

The high court ruled against Cuozzo Speed Technologies LLC, a New Jersey company that had its patent for speedometer displays in cars declared invalid. Cuozzo had argued that the board was using an overly broad legal standard. The Supreme Court disagreed.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer said the patent office has the authority to construe patent claims "according to the broadest reasonable construction of its words."

Michelle Lee, director of the patent office, praised the ruling and said it would allow the appeals board "to maintain its vital mission of effectively and efficiently resolving patentability disputes while providing faster, less expensive alternatives to district court litigation."

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Justices rap Labor Dept. over change in overtime rules

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Labor Department must do a better job of explaining why it is changing a longstanding policy on whether certain workers deserve overtime pay.

The justices asked a lower court to take another look at whether federal law allows the agency to require overtime for people working as service advisers at auto dealerships.

The 6-2 ruling came in a case involving Encino Motorcars, a California auto dealership that claims its service advisers are similar to car salesmen or mechanics who are exempt from overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A federal district court sided with the dealer. But the federal appeals court in San Francisco deferred to a 2011 Labor Department rule stating that service advisers are not exempt from overtime.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the 2011 rule was a reversal of a longstanding Labor Department policy to exempt service advisers from overtime pay. He said the retail auto and truck dealership industry had relied on the old position since 1978, when the agency announced it in an opinion letter.

Kennedy said that while courts generally defer to a government agency's reasonable interpretation of law, no deference is warranted if a regulation is "procedurally defective." The Labor Department in this case changed existing policy with "barely any explanation," Kennedy said.

He instructed lower courts to decide the question by looking only at the law itself, without deferring to the agency's rule.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the majority that the Labor Department regulation is defective, but disagreed "with its ultimate decision to punt on the issue before it."

Thomas said he would have reversed the appeals court and ruled for the auto dealer. His dissent was joined by Justice Samuel Alito.

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Appeal from Illinois smokers turned down

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal from Illinois smokers who sought reinstatement of a $10.1 billion class-action judgment in a long-running lawsuit against Philip Morris.

The justices did not comment in leaving in place an Illinois Supreme Court ruling in favor of the cigarette maker. The smokers objected to the participation of state Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who they said benefited from tobacco money in his retention election.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Illinois smokers, was one of the nation's first to accuse a tobacco company of consumer fraud. Known as Price v. Phillip Morris, the lawsuit claimed that Philip Morris deceptively marketed "light" and "low-tar" Marlboro cigarettes as a healthier alternative. The federal government now bars cigarette makers from labeling their products with such terms.

"Today's action by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ends this case once and for all," Murray Garnick, an attorney and spokesman for Philip Morris' parent company, Altria Group Inc., said in a statement.

"Losing any case after 17 years of intense litigation is obviously disappointing," Stephen Tillery, a St. Louis-based lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "But all of us who represented the plaintiffs in 'Price' feel that the case was socially significant and brought into public view facts that needed to be revealed."

The Illinois Supreme Court first overturned the 2003 judgment in 2005. The plaintiffs eventually revived their lawsuit, and in 2014, a state appeals court reinstated the original verdict. But the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling last November in a 4-2 vote.

The case led to aggressive efforts by the plaintiffs' attorneys to oust Karmeier, whom they accused of being biased in ruling to overturn the judgment against Philip Morris and another $1.2 billion judgment against State Farm Insurance due to donations his 2004 campaign received from big business.

Karmeier, who declined to step aside and has denied receiving direct contributions from Philip Morris, won a November 2014 retention election. Plaintiffs' attorneys and law firms spent more than $1 million fighting Karmeier's re-election through a political action committee.

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European suit against R.J. Reynolds denied

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the European Union can't pursue a federal racketeering lawsuit accusing tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds of taking part in a global money-laundering scheme that sponsored cigarette-smuggling in Europe.

In a 4-3 ruling, the justices said the EU has no right to sue in U.S. courts because racketeering laws don't allow recovery for injuries occurring outside the United States.

The decision is a major win for the tobacco company, which has been fighting the allegations for more than a decade. The case was closely watched by multinational corporations concerned about the threat of increased exposure to U.S. litigation based on their actions abroad.

The high court sent the case back to lower courts, where RJR still faces other state law claims.

The EU and 26 of its member states alleged that RJR coordinated the scheme with the help of Colombian and Russian criminal groups and laundered money through New York-based financial institutions.

The EU claims the company's actions hurt the economies of EU member nations by depriving governments of tax revenues.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said nothing in the civil racketeering laws indicates that Congress intended to create a private right of action for foreign injuries.

Alito said applying U.S. remedies to the case would "unjustifiably" allow European citizens to bypass the legal system in their own countries where damage awards are less generous. Plaintiffs who bring civil racketeering lawsuits in U.S. courts are eligible for triple damages.

"Allowing foreign investors to pursue private suits in the United States, we are told, would upset that delicate balance and offend the sovereign interests of foreign nations," Alito said. "There is a potential for international controversy that militates against recognizing foreign injury claims without clear direction from Congress."

Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

A federal judge threw out the claims but a federal appeals court ruled racketeering laws can apply to crimes committed in foreign countries.

Prosecutors alleged that RJR directed and controlled the scheme that involved laundering money through New York-based financial institutions.

A federal judge dismissed the claims, but the case was revived last year after a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that racketeering laws can apply to crimes committed in foreign countries.

Spokesman David Howard said the company is pleased with the ruling and "has long believed that the EU's claims are legally and factually baseless."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying the text of the law places no limitation on where the injury must occur. She was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor took no part in considering the case. She had previously served on the appeals court and had written a 2004 opinion in the case at an earlier stage of the litigation.

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Court rules for police in search case

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A divided Supreme Court bolstered police powers on Monday, ruling that evidence of a crime in some cases may be used against a defendant even if the police did something wrong or illegal in obtaining it.

The 5-3 decision drew heated dissents from liberal justices who warned that the outcome would encourage police to violate people's rights.

The ruling comes in a case in which a police detective illegally stopped defendant Joseph Edward Strieff on the streets of South Salt Lake City, Utah. A name check revealed an outstanding warrant for him.

Police Detective Doug Fackrell arrested Strieff and routinely searched him, finding that he was carrying methamphetamine.

The case raised the question of whether the valid warrant outweighs the stop, which was illegal because Fackrell lacked any reasonable suspicion that Strieff had been violating the law. It was the court's latest case that questions whether evidence should be thrown out of court because the police did something wrong or illegal that led to the discovery of the evidence.

Justice Clarence Thomas said for the court that the officer's actions were not a flagrant violation of the law. "While Officer Fackrell's decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful," Thomas wrote.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in dissent that the decision is a blow to constitutional rights.

"The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer's violation of your Fourth Amendment rights," Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In a portion of her opinion that expressed only her own views, Sotomayor also described the "humiliations" of unjustified police searches and said that "people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny."

Justice Elena Kagan filed a separate dissent in which she said the ruling "creates unfortunate incentives for the police - indeed practically invites them to do what Fackrell did here."

The fourth member of the court's liberal wing, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined the four conservatives to form a majority on the eight-justice court.

The issue is especially significant, Sotomayor said, because "outstanding warrants are increasingly common."

In one prominent example, the Justice Department's 2015 report that faulted police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, found that 16,000 of Ferguson's 21,000 residents had outstanding warrants.

Many of those outstanding warrants, like Strieff's, are for unpaid traffic fines - penalties that would not result in jail time.

The argument made by Strieff's supporters is that in places with so many outstanding warrants, officers have a good chance of randomly stopping someone who has not paid a fine for a minor infraction.

But Thomas, in his majority opinion, said that Fackrell's "discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest."

Published: Wed, Jun 22, 2016