High court term begins quietly in campaign season

Associated Press / October 6, 2008
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WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court is doing its best to stay out of the spotlight in the final days of the presidential campaign. It opens its new term today with no cases on race, abortion, or other social issues that might split the court and the nation.

The most entertaining case of the term - involving celebrities' use of profanity on live television - will be argued on Election Day, Nov. 4.

Among the biggest cases so far:

  • Efforts by drug makers and tobacco companies to limit consumer lawsuits under state law.

  • A battle between the Navy and environmentalists over the use of sonar in training exercises, potentially harming marine mammals.

  • A suit against former attorney general John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller by a Pakistani man who says he was badly treated after being rounded up following Sept. 11.

  • Whether federal antidiscrimination laws cover people who allege they faced retaliation after cooperating with their employer's internal investigation.

  • A third try at resolving a punitive damages award to a smoker's widow.

    Later in the term, the court could rule on the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the president's authority to seize and detain people in the United States as enemy combatants, indefinitely and without facing criminal charges.

    The court also will decide an array of criminal cases. Several explore the limits of police power to search and arrest people without warrants.

    There is intense interest among business groups, state governments, and consumer advocates in the cases involving consumer lawsuits over false advertising of cigarettes and the liability of the manufacturer of a drug that was improperly injected in a patient, with disastrous results.

    Diana Levine, a musician from Vermont, won a $6.8 million judgment against drug maker Wyeth in state court after the injection of an antinausea drug led to the amputation of her arm. There is no dispute that the drug, which has been around for 50 years, is safe when administered properly or that there is a risk of gangrene if it is not.

    The issue for the court is whether Wyeth could have issued stronger warnings about the risks without the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. The company says it would have needed FDA approval and that federal regulation leaves no role for the states. But Levine, backed by 47 states, says that state laws complement federal regulation.

    In the tobacco case, Altria Group Inc. is fighting state suits over allegedly deceptive advertising of "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes.

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