"A Messy Day Of Legal Wrangling"

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

(CBS)
What a day. Federal jurors in Washington, D.C. are hearing closing arguments to determine whether Anna Nicole Smith is entitled to punitive damages resulting from her indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yes, I know that is not exactly right. But it sure would make tidy what has otherwise been a messy day of legal wrangling and resolution all over the country.

In Florida, Smith's friends and family fought bitterly again today over what to do with her body. In Oregon, the parties in a landmark tobacco case now will have to renew their fight over the amount of damages that Phillip Morris ought to pay for its tobacco sins. In the nation's capital, lawyers spoke and jurors listened for an entire day of closing arguments at the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury and obstruction of justice trial. And, also in Washington, a federal appeals court dealt another blow to the Guantanamo Bay terror detainees.

Tuesday's quartet of legal stories was related only by its timing. And, in the long run, the story that made the biggest splash of the day—the raucous, unseemly garbage pail of a hearing for Smith in Florida—will make the smallest splash in the ocean of history. Far more important is the Supreme Court's decision to limit punitive damage awards in the future (and in the present) by providing a more restricting test for judges and juries to apply when figuring out such awards.

As for the other two stories, the Gitmo ruling and the Libby trial, there just isn't any way yet to tell what the day means. Surely the losing side will appeal today's decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court, which ultimately will have to decide upon the constitutionality of the odious Military Commissions Act of 2006. That Congressional effort prompted the federal appeals court to declare that terror detainees have very limited rights when it comes to trying to have their cases heard by civilian judges. For Lewis Libby, meanwhile, the jury is (almost literally) out. He will go to sleep tonight wondering if it is the last night he will spend on Earth without being a convicted felon.

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