WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court yesterday to reinstate a potential $280 billion penalty in the government's racketeering case against cigarette makers.
Lawyers for the department filed a petition with the high court asking it to review an appeals court decision that barred the government from seeking past profits as a legal remedy for decades of alleged fraud by the industry.
''The government cannot protect the public interest if it cannot 'divest [a racketeering enterprise] of the fruits of its ill-gotten gains,' " the petition argues.
The department said the Feb. 4 appeals court ruling contradicted a previous Supreme Court ruling that granted judges the ''full scope" of remedies when deciding racketeering cases.
Antismoking groups welcomed the petition, while industry leader
The Standard & Poor's index of tobacco stocks closed down 1 percent.
A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had concluded that civil racketeering law allows for only forward-looking remedies designed to prevent future violations.
It reversed a decision by the presiding judge in the case, US District Judge Gladys Kessler.
The government says tobacco companies waged a decades-long campaign to deceive the public about the hazards of smoking.
The companies deny they illegally conspired to push smoking.
A nearly nine-month trial in the case ended in June. It is expected to be months before Kessler rules on whether cigarette makers broke the law.