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Fight goes on over $280b tobacco fine

Justice Dept. asks Supreme Court to reinstate it

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 Philip Morris USA promised to fight the move.

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.

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