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High court weighs in on citizenship rules, copyrights

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • In the citizenship case, a Mexican-born man lost his appeal based on gender discrimination
  • The rare 4-4 decision lets the lower court ruling stand and does not set a precedent
  • In the copyright case, the heirs of novelist John Steinbeck failed to win back control of his works

Washington (CNN) -- A Mexican-born man who contested a federal law on citizenship that treats men and women differently, has lost his appeal at the Supreme Court.

The justices split 4-4 on Monday to uphold the criminal conviction of Ruben Flores-Villar. When these rare ties occur, the lower court ruling is automatically upheld, but no national precedent is set.

At issue is whether his equal protection rights were violated by what he claimed was gender discrimination.

Flores-Villar was born in Mexico to an American father and Mexican mother. The couple never married and the child was brought to the San Diego, California area at age two and raised by his father and grandmother, both U.S. citizens.

As an adult he was convicted of smuggling marijuana and illegal entry, and after a prison term he was deported to Tijuana.

The man tried to avoid deportation by claiming he was a U.S. citizen. The case turned on a federal five-year residence requirement, after the age of 14, on U.S. male citizen fathers -- but not on U.S. citizen mothers -- before they may transmit citizenship to a child born out of wedlock abroad to a non-citizen.

The 1940 law states if the child's mother is a U.S. citizen, the child will automatically be a U.S. citizen at birth, so long as the mother previously had lived in the United States for one year, at any age. But if only the child's father is a U.S. citizen, the law mandates that the father have resided in the United States for 10 years prior to the child's birth, at least five of which must be after the father was 14 years old.

Because the man's father was only 16 when his son was born, he did not meet the five-year time frame before Flores-Villar was born.

So if the nationalities of Flores-Villar's parents were reversed, he would be a citizen. His lawyers called that an unfair double-standard.

The law has since been revised to make it easier for biological fathers to transmit citizenship in such cases. A federal appeals court in San Francisco last year had ruled against Flores-Villar, who remains in Mexico.

Justice Elena Kagan sat out the high court appeal, since she had suprvised the case while working as solicitor general in the Obama administration last year, before joining the bench. That created the split decision on Monday. Because of that, the justices were unable to establish binding precedent that would guide other federal courts confronted with similar circumstances.

The high court a decade ago ruled in a similar case, allowing the government to impose so-called sex-based classifications if they serve an important governmental goal, and if those guidelines are substantially relating to achieving those goals.

In a separate appeal, the Supreme Court refused once again to interfere in a years long dispute over the publishing rights to American author John Steinbeck, who wrote the acclaimed "The Grapes of Wrath."

His sole surviving child, along with a granddaughter, had sought to regain family control of the rights to publish the writer's works, after copyrights were signed away in the late 1930s.

The justices in an unsigned order Monday decided not to hear the appeal of Thomas Steinbeck and granddaughter Blake Smyle. They had lost a similar appeal two years ago. As the author's surviving heirs, they have been receiving some of the earnings from sales of the writer's works, including "East of Eden," "Of Mice and Men," and "Travels with Charley." But they had sought exclusive control over the publishing rights.

In a lawsuit, the pair wanted to nullify a 1994 agreement between Penguin Books and Elaine Steinbeck, the author's widow, who died eight years ago. A federal appeals court had rejected the various claims by John Steinbeck's surviving biological heirs. A key issue was whether Elaine Steinbeck -- the author's third wife who was represented by the literary agency McIntosh & Otis -- had the power to renew the copyrights without the consent of the other heirs.

Congress in recent years has made it easier for artists and their estates to take back control of copyrighted works, often decades later. The rapidly growing popularity of digital books, software, and video entertainment has created new copyright challenges over how artists and their heirs will be compensated. The high court for now is staying out of the larger disputes.

Steinbeck was a native of the Monterey, California area, born in 1902 and died in 1968. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.