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High Court OKs Fast Track For Border Fence

The Supreme Court on Monday turned down a plea by environmental groups to rein in the Bush administration's power to waive laws and regulations to speed construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has used authority given to him by Congress in 2005 to ignore environmental and other laws and regulations to move forward with hundreds of miles of fencing in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.

The case rejected by the court involved a two-mile section of fence in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area near Naco, Ariz. The section has since been built.

As of June, 13, 331 miles of fencing have been constructed in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"I am extremely disappointed in the court's decision," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said. "This waiver will only prolong the department from addressing the real issue: their lack of a comprehensive border security plan."

Thompson chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. He and 13 other House democrats - including six other committee chairs - filed a brief in support of the environmentalists' appeal.

Defenders of Wildlife lawyer Brian Segee told CBS News correspondent Barry Bagnato that it's not just the environment that's threatened.

"It's one unelected Cabinet-level official that's allowed to pick and choose which laws apply," Segee said.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said, "The American people expect this department to enforce the rule of law at the border." He added that the department is happy with the court's decision.

"As fence construction proceeds," Knocke said, "the department will continue to be a good steward of the environment, and consult with appropriate state, local, and tribal officials."

The concept of a border fence took on new life after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which revived the heated immigration debate. Intelligence officials have said the holes along the southwest border could provide places for terrorists to enter the country.

Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform when it had the chance in 2007.

Thompson said, "Without a comprehensive plan, this fence is just another quick fix."

Earlier this year, Chertoff waived more than 30 laws and regulations in an effort to finish building 670 miles of fence along the southwest border. Administration officials have said that invoking the legal waivers - which Congress authorized in 1996 and 2005 laws - will cut through bureaucratic red tape and sidestep environmental laws that currently stand in the way of fence construction.

Environmentalists have said the fence puts already endangered species such as two types of wild cats - the ocelot and the jaguarundi - in even more danger. The fence would prevent them from swimming across the Rio Grande to mate.

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court:

  • agreed to decide whether decades-old maternity leaves should count in determining pensions. The issue has split federal appeals courts and could become increasingly important as women who took maternity leaves in the 1960's and 70's approach retirement. Their pregnancies occurred before the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, enacted in 1979, barred companies from treating pregnancy leaves differently from other disability leaves. Since then, maternity leave has been credited toward retirement. The case before the court involves four AT&T Corp. employees who each took at least one maternity leave between 1968 and 1976. They have 67-261 days of uncredited leave because their pregnancies occurred before the law changed.
  • said an indigent defendant's right to a lawyer begins when he is brought before a judge, informed why he has been arrested and jailed. The court ruled 8-1 in favor of Walter Rothgery, whose request for a lawyer was denied by local Texas authorities for six months. Rothgery was arrested in Texas for carrying a gun as a convicted felon, based on a background check that erroneously showed a felony drug conviction in California.
  • threw out a ruling in which a federal appeals court, without being asked to do so, added 15 years to a convicted man's prison sentence. The court ruled 7-2 in favor of Michael Greenlaw of Minneapolis, who was convicted of participating in a drug-selling operation. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that since the government didn't appeal the sentence, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis should not have increased Greenlaw's prison term. Under an unwritten but long-standing court rule, appeals judges are blocked from adding years to a defendant's sentence on their own initiative, Ginsburg said.
  • ruled that a collection agency with no financial stake in a case can sue on behalf of its customers. The 5-4 decision addresses a basic legal point, that courts can only hear cases when plaintiffs suffer actual injuries that are traceable to a defendant's conduct. In the case before the court, APCC Services Inc. is trying to collect from Sprint Communications Co. and AT&T Inc. for coinless long-distance calls over the networks of Sprint and AT&T.
  • turned down property owners and tenants facing eviction to make room for a new NBA Nets arena in Brooklyn. The justices rejected an appeal that was intended to stop development of the Atlantic Yards project. Eleven property owners and tenants said that using the government's power to take the property, called eminent domain, violates the Constitution because the project would primarily benefit the developer, not the public.
  • stepped into a dispute over the Navy's use of sonar off the Southern California coast and its potential harm to dolphins and whales. Acting at the Bush administration's urging, the court agreed to review a federal appeals court ruling that limits the use of sonar in naval training exercises.
  • intervened in a lawsuit by an Internet service provider accusing AT&T of anti-competitive practices. AT&T had asked the justices to step into the dispute over wholesale prices AT&T charges for high-speed service to Internet service providers who then compete with AT&T for retail Internet customers.
  • will review a ruling that allows the brother of an Iranian terrorism victim to collect $2.8 million. The justices said they will consider overturning a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in the case of Dariush Elahi, who is seeking the money as compensation for the killing of his brother, Cyrus, in Paris in 1990. French authorities blamed the Iranian government for the killing.
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