Guns, Rum And The Cheers Guys

Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg welcomes new Congressman Gerald R. Ford Jr., to Washington D.C., in 1949.
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library
This is always a day of disappointment for hundreds of Americans who hope the High Court will take their cases, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato.

"We saw today how the Court can affect the lives of people even when it decides not to take a case," said CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen. "When the Justices say 'no, we don't want to hear that case' they leave intact lower court decisions which themselves then have the force of law."

Monday, the justices took no new cases, refusing to free Exxon Mobil Corp. from having to pay $5 billion in damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the nation's worst ever.

The nation's highest court, acting without comment, let stand the award stemming from the tanker spill that polluted more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, killed tens of thousands of birds and marine mammals and disrupted fishing.

The Exxon order was among dozens released by the court on the first day of its new term. Among the highlights:

  • The court refused to stop Bacardi & Co. from selling Bahamian-produced "Havana Club" rum in the United States, skirting a trademark dispute growing out of the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
  • It refused to hear an attempt to allow student prayers at a Florida school.
  • The court rejected without comment an appeal by two gunmakers who challenged Congress' authority to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of semiautomatic assault. The gunmakers contended that Congress exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce when it outlawed such weapons in 1994.
  • The court refused to block the marketing of a generic chewing gum to help smokers give up cigarettes, rejecting an appeal in which the manufacturer of Nicorette gum said the marketing violated its copyright.
  • It turned aside the argument of a Kansas youth suspended from school for three days after he drew a picture of a Confederate flag. Attorneys for seventh-grader T.J. West had maintained that the disciplinary action violated his constitutionally protected free-speech rights.
  • The court refused to throw out a lawsuit in which actors George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, who played endearing barflies in the Cheers television show, say two robots stole their old act as "Norm" and "Cliff," respectively.
  • It refused to allow some 30 members of Congress to sue President Clinton for ordering the military to join last year's NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The lawmakers had argued that Clinton violated the War Powers Act of 1973.
  • The high court refused to reinstate the California fraud convictions of financier Charles Keating, who became a symbol of the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s.
  • The court rejected the appeal of a married couple who say they were sexually harassed at work by the same supervisor, letting stand a ruling that said a key federal law does not apply to bisexuals who harass others.
The Exxon Mobil case still has a variety of ther appeals pending, and the high court ruling does not obligate the company to pay anything right away, said company spokesman Tom Cirigliano.

In this appeal, lawyers for Exxon Mobil had urged the justices to throw out the punitive-damages award on grounds of irregularities during jury deliberations.

"We're not even close," to the end of the case, Cirigliano said. "This doesn't have any effect whatsoever on us having to pay the $5 billion."

In one of several challenges to the $5 billion award imposed by a federal jury in 1994, Exxon Mobil attacked the behavior of Don Warrick, a court bailiff who escorted the jury and served food to its members during five months of trial and deliberations in Anchorage.

Warrick admitted that in a conversation with one of the Exxon Valdez trial jurors he pulled out his gun and removed one of its bullets before saying another juror holding out against making a punitive-damages award should be put "out of her misery."

Warrick, who said he was only joking, was fired. He died in 1996.

But U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland refused to order a new punitive-damages trial, ruling that the holdout juror had not known during the deliberations about Warrick's comment.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling last March, calling the bailiff's comment to a juror "a strikingly tasteless joke" that targeted a juror who had been conspicuously emotional. But it said the comment did not require "a rebuttable presumption of prejudice" because it was not aimed at the holdout juror.

In the appeal acted on Monday, Exxon Mobil's lawyers argued that such a presumption should exist.

The Exxon Valdez hit a charted reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of Alaska crude oil.

The case is Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Baker, 00-90.

"Even when the Court doesn't decide a case, it decides the outcome of the case because it essentially finalizes the appellate process," said Cohen. "Thousands of lower court decisions, then, really end up being the law of the land and the only way that is going to change is if the Court increases its workload tenfold — and that isn't going to happen."

The decisions on Monday focused additional attention on the presidential campaign, as both Al Gore and George W. Bush have zeroed in on the Supreme Court as an issue in the coming election. With three justices over the age of 70, the next president could appoint members who will dominate decisions for the next two decades, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.

Though both Gore and Bush have telegraphed their choices for the Court, opinion polls suggest that voters aren't paying attention to possible nominees as an issue.

"I don't think voters think very much about the Supreme Court when they vote," says Duke Law professor Walter Dellinger, who, as U.S. Solicitor General argued nine cases before the Court. " don't think they ever have."