Busy Monday For Highest Court

supreme court graphic scotus
In a barrage of actions Monday, the Supreme Court shot down an effort by District of Columbia voters to get Congressional representation, agreed to decide whether federal judges were wrongly taxed, and decided to stay out of a tussle over Tony the Tiger.

By a vote of 8-1, the justices affirmed a lower court ruling that said 500,000 residents of the District of Columbia are not entitled to voting membership in the House of Representatives.

District residents pay federal taxes and are entitled to vote for president, but their congressional delegate is not allowed to vote on the House floor.

About 75 district residents filed two lawsuits in 1998. Justice John Paul Stevens was the lone dissenter, voting to hear one of the two appeals.

"Most people around the country have no awareness that district citizens are disenfranchised," Charles A. Miller, lawyer for 54 district residents who filed one of the lawsuits. "When you put it to them, the reaction is, 'That can't be right.'"

Justice Department lawyers said the Constitution establishes that "residents of the District of Columbia have no right to representation" in the House because the district has not been admitted as a state.

A three-judge federal court said last March, "We are not blind to the inequity of the situation," but ruled 2-1 that the Constitution and previous court rulings do not provide voting representation for the district.

In a case affecting their own colleagues' paychecks, the Supreme Court said it would decide whether Congress acted unconstitutionally in the early 1980s when it required federal judges to begin paying Medicare and Social Security taxes. The Clinton administration is appealing an appeals court decision that adding the taxes to judges in office at the time was unconstitutional.

The court, without comment, let stand a lower court ruling that food giant Kellogg did not wait too long before trying to stop Exxon Mobil Corp. from using its own cartoon Tony the Tiger for Exxon's "Put a Tiger in Your Tank" ad campaign.

That means Kellogg's trademark lawsuit, which had been thrown out by a district court but resurrected on appeal, can go to trial in Tennessee. Exxon argued Kellogg had waited more than 30 years to file the suit, but Kellogg said Exxon discontinued the ads during the 1980s but then brought the tiger back in the 1990s.

The Court said it would decide whether the Cleveland Indians' award of back wages to players counted in the year the money was paid—as the Clinton administration contends—or the year the events occurred that gave rise to the award.

What's Next?
Other cases to be heard by the court this term include:

  • Whether the federal Department of Interior must release copies of documents it received from several Indian tribes to non-Indians who compete with the tribes for irrigation water
  • Whether disabled golfer Casey Martin, who suffers from a painful circulatory disorder in his right leg, must be allowed to ride in a golf cart on the PGA Tour.
  • If a prisoner has a constitutional right to help another inmate with a pending case even when the state provided other forms of legal assistance.
  • Whether thermal imaging to record the amount of heat emanating from a house, a police practice to help detect illegal drugs, represents a search covered by constitutional privacy protections.
  • Click here to read all about the high court's hectic agenda.

    In 1994, as part of a league-wide settlement of grievances over contract violations in 1980s, the Indians paid $2.7 million to 23 players who were no longer with the team in 1994.

    Federal payroll taxes were higher in 1994 that when the violations occurred, so the team sued, saying the taxes should have been paid at the lower, earlier rates. U.S. appeals courts have split on the issue.

    The Supreme Court appointed a law professor to help referee a dispute between Alaska and the federal government over who controls an archipelago of more that 1,000 islands within the Tongass National Forest and the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Southeast Alaska.

    Alaska asked the Supreme Court to decide the jurisdiction issue after the National Park Service decided to phase out commercial fishing in the waters of Glacier Bay. Clinton administration lawyers disagree with the state's claims but said did not oppose Alaska's request to air it before the Supreme Court.

    The Supreme Court also asked Justice Department lawyers to file a brief commenting on whether a regional compact should be allowed to sue North Carolina in the nation's highest court for backing out of a deal to build a dump, and asked the federal government for its views of a ruling that oil companies owe Unocal Corp. millions of dollars in royalties for using Unocal's patents on cleaner burning gasoline.

    In a lower court ruling, Unocal was awarded roughly $90 million in patent fees for violations over a five-month period. It then set out to get more fees for services elsewhere over a broader time period. Exxon Mobil Corp., Texaco Inc., Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch/Shell Group and ARCO joined in an appeal asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.