High Court To Rule In HMO Fight

In this undated photo released by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, researchers collect the skull of Albertaceratops nesmoi at a dig site in Alberta, Canada. The dinosaur was discovered by Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. (AP Photo/Cleveland Museum of Natural History) AP Photo

The Supreme Court on Tuesday retreated from a fight over the appropriate battleground for class action lawsuits, then separately said it would intervene in a suit between the managed care industry and doctors.

The HMO case puts the justices in the middle of a class action claim that health care insurers are cheating doctors. The court will consider whether doctors can sue under a federal racketeering law or whether some disputes must be settled in arbitration.

It's just one issue arising out of a case involving about 600,000 doctors who are jointly suing 15 HMOs in Miami. This case involves two of the HMOs, PacifiCare Health Systems Inc. and UnitedHealthcare Inc., which claim the doctors had signed contracts promising to work out disagreements in arbitration.

Arbitration is favored by many companies as cheaper, faster and more predictable than trials. An outside expert's decision is final.

In the other class-action matter, justices dismissed a case on which they had heard arguments last Monday, the first day of the court's nine-month term. The dismissal is a blow to businesses which wanted the court to use the Ford Motor Co. case to open federal courts to more class action lawsuits.

Ford had been sued by people who joined a credit card rebate program that allowed them to accumulate points to use for car purchases. Ford and Citibank canceled part of the rebate program.

The question for the court was whether the lawsuits belonged in federal or state court. Suits had been filed in state courts in Alabama, California, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington.

Ford and Citibank argued that federal court was the proper jurisdiction because of the amount of money involved in the conflicts. At issue was how the amount should be calculated.

In an unsigned opinion, justices said the case was improperly granted. Justices had questioned last week whether the case should be reviewed more by lower courts.

Also Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to consider a tax fight involving two states and a computer microprocessor inventor who moved before collecting millions of dollars in patent fees.

At issue is Nevada court rulings that allow Gilbert Hyatt to sue California officials in Nevada court. He claims the tax officials invaded his privacy and were guilty of fraud in checking his residence status.

Hyatt, who has a patent for a computer microprocessor chip, filed a tax return that said he moved to Nevada in 1991, just before receiving $40 million in patent licensing fees, California lawyers told the court. California's tax agency is trying to collect some taxes from Hyatt.

Justices will consider whether Nevada courts must follow California's law, which would prevent the lawsuit. Thirty-five states had asked the Supreme Court to intervene and hear California's case.

Hyatt claims an auditor discussed information, including some that was wrong, about his family, colon cancer, his girlfriend, and the murder of his son. He moved from California to Las Vegas.

And the Court declined to get involved in a dispute over flying the Confederate flag at a Maryland Civil War cemetery.

Two lower courts upheld a government policy that only allows the flag to be flown for two days a year at national cemeteries containing Confederate dead.

The descendant of a Confederate soldier had wanted to fly the flag daily at Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery. All of the approximately 33-hundred soldiers buried at Point Lookout served in the Confederate Army.

Patrick Griffin says the government was denying his right to freedom of speech by refusing to let him fly the flag. But the government argued that the Confederate flag as seen as a symbol of racial discrimination and the government could not be seen as endorsing the flag.

The Court also refused to clarify when military convictions can be thrown out, turning back an appeal from a soldier convicted of stabbing to death another soldier during sex.

The military has its own judicial system and uses a court-martial instead of a traditional civilian criminal trial.

At issue in Michael Todd Brosius' case was how appeals courts can go behind military courts to ensure a defendant's constitutional rights were not violated.

The Supreme Court delved into the issue nearly 50 years ago, but justices were sharply divided then and lower courts have struggled to interpret the court's ruling in a 1953 case involving two soldiers sentenced to death for a murder and rape.

"It is especially troubling that with a military that is as old as the Republic, and approximately a half century after Burns v. Wilson, the matter remains so unsettled," Brosius' attorney, Paul M. Pohl, told justices in court papers.

Brosius is serving a 75-year sentence in the 1990 death of Tammy Ivon on an Army base in Germany. Brosius, at the time 24, told officers that the two were having sex in a parking lot and he wanted to stop because he considered her like a sister.

He allegedly said in his confession that he stabbed her nine times in the chest and stomach, and when she kept staring at him he stabbed her twice more near each eye.

Pohl said there was no physical evidence and that the case was based on his statements to authorities. Pohl told justices that when Brosius requested an attorney, agents were guilty of a "truly unusual and outrageous" move - they instead brought the prosecutor in Ivon's death to question him.

The Bush administration contends he was not in custody when he requested a lawyer, so the military did not have to provide him one. Solicitor General Theodore Olson also disputed that Brosius was not told that the lawyer was the prosecutor.

Brosius had lost in the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said he had no right to appeal. The court said there was a long-running controversy over whether appeals courts may consider error claims in military trials.

Appeals courts have adopted various methods of reviewing military convictions.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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