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High court faces controversies

The U.S. Supreme Court, its summer vacation period over, has returned to the bench. Its justices are getting ready to tackle a busy and important load of cases that will have consequences for a great many Americans. A majority of Americans are unaware of the court's vital role in affirming or denying the validity of lower court decisions on issues of vital importance.

The court, a deliberative body, must first decide which cases it will consider. Then it hears oral arguments before meeting to decide what ruling to make in a particular case. As the final judicial arbiter of cases, it is cognizant of the ramifications of each of its many decisions. Some of the cases have far-reaching consequences and rulings are not rushed before the court makes them public.

This particular session of the court will be considering cases that are controversial and its decisions most certainly will evoke a great deal of emotion and contention.

One in particular has considerable ramifications because of its political ties. It involves a decision on whether former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft can be held liable for the arrest and alleged mistreatment of Muslim immigrants after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The lawyers for the administration say Ashcroft did not know of or approve the treatment of the prisoners and he should not be held liable for it. This case involves the Bush administration, because Ashcroft allegedly acted on behalf of the president. The administration says that Ashcroft and the director of the FBI are shielded from being sued by the Muslims.

On Oct. 6, the court began hearing oral arguments on whether the makers of light and low-tar cigarettes can be sued for allegedly attempting to fool smokers into thinking those cigarettes are safer than others. The court's decision in this case could result in thousands of liability cases.

Many believe that the most far-reaching case tests a patient's right to sue if a federally approved drug hurts him or her. Lawyers for the administration have said that if a product is regulated by a federal agency, its regulations can block lawsuits that set stricter standards.

In the first decision of this court session, the court let stand a June decision that struck down the death penalty for rapers of children. The court had held in its initial decision that imposing the death penalty in these cases was unconstitutional.

The court in its initial session also agreed to hear 10 of the approximately 2,000 appeals that had accumulated during its summer recess. Three of the cases it agreed to hear involve litigation over what could prove to be large sums of money. The others are criminal cases concerning issues such as speedy-trial rules, plea bargains and allegedly biased jurors.

In another decision, the court agreed to hear a Hawaii case that would determine if the state is free to sell or transfer any of some 1.2 million acres, which amounts to about a third of all the land in the state. The Hawaii Supreme Court had previously ruled that the state could not proceed until it reached a settlement with native Hawaiians who claim to own the land.

And in still another case involving the rights of indigenous people, the government is challenging a 2003 Supreme Court decision that it owes the Navajo Indian nation as much as $600 million in a dispute over coal leases.

And so it goes, seemingly forever. There is no doubt that the Supreme Court justices always will have more than enough business to keep them busy until the next summer recess.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News

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