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New Supreme Court term starts with rejections

By Bill Mears

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Religion and Belief

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday officially began its fall term, rejecting without comment many of the pending appeals before the court.

The brief session was largely ceremonial, with a third of the justices missing from the bench. Court arguments were canceled because of the Yom Kippur holiday. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who are Jewish, were not present, and court officials said Justice Anthony Kennedy was traveling.

The justices issued orders on hundreds of pending appeals, essentially deciding whether to hear the case in open court and issue a ruling. Among the cases were a punitive damage award against a tobacco company, and a lawsuit by American POWs against their Japanese captors.

Outside the court, several hundred protesters gathered to demonstrate against past rulings on abortion and school prayer.

Many of the religious demonstrators offered support for the chief justice of Alabama's supreme court, Roy Moore, who had erected a granite monument of the Ten Commandments inside the state courthouse in Montgomery. Moore had defied an order from his fellow justices and a federal court to remove the monument. It was eventually removed from public view in August, and Moore and his supporters are appealing the ruling.

Some of the estimated 200 marchers carried signs such as "Keep the Ten Commandments" and "Without God's Laws -- We Have a Lawless America."

The rally included a large cross and mock caskets marked with recent cases, including Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, and Lawrence v. Texas, a decision from June overturning state anti-sodomy laws.

Case details

Among the cases looked at by the court was a multimillion dollar verdict awarded a tobacco user's family.

Jesse Williams was a three-pack a day smoker who died of lung cancer in 1997. His family sued tobacco company Philip Morris, and a jury awarded them nearly $80 million in punitive damages. Various lower courts disagreed as to whether that verdict was excessive.

The justices Monday vacated that award and ordered the lower courts to again review the damage amount. It follows the Supreme Court's ruling last term that a jury damage verdict against an insurance company was excessive. (Full story)

Since then, the business community has filed a number of appeals protesting similar verdicts, and the justices have generally been sympathetic to their appeals.

The case is Philip Morris v. Williams (02-1553).

In another case, the justices rejected an appeal by the family of Charles Clark, who died in a 1993 car accident involving a police officer. The jury's $3 million punitive award to the family was 13 times the compensatory damages. The case is Chrysler Corp. v. Clark (02-1748).

Several appeals by American World War II prisoners forced to serve as slave labor by the Japanese were tossed out by the Supreme Court. (Full story)

The veterans had filed a variety of lawsuits in state courts against private Japanese companies, claiming they contracted with the then-imperial government in Tokyo to use captured U.S. soldiers. The men say they were ordered to build roads and buildings, and dig mines, under threat of death, and under extreme hardship and torture.

The companies included automaker Mitsubishi and Japan Steel. A federal appeals court had dismissed the soldiers' claims, ruling a post-war treaty between the two countries prevented former POWs from seeking damages.

The cases include Tenney v. Mitsui Co. Ltd (02-1776) and Oh v. Nippon Steel Co Ltd. (02-1773).

Additional appeals

In other appeals, the justices:

• Rejected an effort by timber companies and others to overturn federal protection of about 2 million acres of public land in the West. President Clinton issued several orders restricting use of the federal land by private industry. The appeal by local government, and the recreation and wood products industries claimed the actions created financial hardship and an increased risk of forest fires from the uncut timber. The cases are Mountain States Legal Foundation v. Bush (02-1590) and Tulare County (California) v. Bush (02-1623).

• Allowed a massive lawsuit involving alleged discrimination to proceed. Hundreds of black employees who worked for the Sodexho Marriott company claimed they hit a "glass ceiling" when it came to advancement and promotion into upper management positions. Big businesses have been asking the courts and Congress for relief from what they call excessive class-action lawsuits. The case is Sodexho Marriott Services v. McReynolds (02-1731). (Full story)

• Dismissed a pending lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service by a legal watchdog group. Judicial Watch claims the IRS used unwarranted audits as retaliatory payback for the group's criticism of various federal polices and officials. Among the lawsuits filed by Judicial Watch was one against President Clinton for his actions during the Monica Lewinsky matter. The federal government claimed the IRS was immune from such lawsuits. The case is Judicial Watch v. Rossitti (02-02-1849).

• Refused to hear the appeal of Beach Boy singer Al Jardine, who was involved in a trademark dispute with his former bandmates. Jardine had split from the group and had been touring on his own under the "Beach Boys" banner. He was sued and was ordered not to use the name. The case is Jardine v. Brother Records (02-1833).

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