High Court Refuses Automakers, Sirhan

From left, "Grey Gardens" director Michael Sucsy, holding his award for best made for television movie, Jessica Lange, holding her award for best lead actress in a miniseries or a movie, producer Lucy Barzun Donnelly, producer Rachael Horovitz and filmmaker Albert Maysles backstage at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009, in Los Angeles.
AP Photo
The Supreme Court on Monday turned down a number of cases, including an attempt by automakers to minimize damage claims and an appeal by the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy.

The justices refused to hear an appeal by the Big Three automakers seeking to limit their exposure to lawsuits filed by people who say asbestos in car brakes made them ill.

Ford Motor Co., General Motors and DaimlerChrysler wanted the justices to make it easier to transfer lawsuits out of state courts and into federal bankruptcy court.

When businesses face a flood of similar lawsuits in various states, a common tactic is to try to force them all into federal court to limit their legal costs and damages, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato.

State juries are thought to be more sympathetic to personal injury lawsuits.

The high court also refused to consider freeing Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of gunning down Kennedy in 1968. Sirhan's latest challenge was based on a claim that his defense lawyer was engaged in a hush-hush arrangement with the government to gain his conviction. He also argued that a judge tainted the appeals process. Kennedy was assassinated at a Los Angeles hotel, moments after claiming a primary victory that put him a giant step closer to claiming the Democratic presidential nomination.

The case is Sirhan v. U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, 02-7246.

The Supreme Court also turned away a Texas lawyer who wants to advise terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, rejecting a request to file a Supreme Court appeal without the usual filing fees and printing costs.

Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States for conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, is acting as his own lawyer in a federal conspiracy case scheduled for trial this summer.

Moussaoui wants the Supreme Court to allow a Muslim lawyer, Charles Freeman of Houston, to advise him without formally entering the case. The federal trial judge in Moussaoui's case had rejected that request last year and an appeals court upheld her decision.

"The state courts have now been buried under an avalanche of individual asbestos claims, many of which name hundreds of defendants," lawyers for the carmakers told the Supreme Court in filings.

The lawyers said the case "presents an opportunity for this court actually to do something about the crisis ... rather than simply observing the grotesque distortion of American law under the hydraulic pressure of current asbestos litigation."

The industry has been sued by auto mechanics and factory workers who worked around brake parts that had asbestos fibers. Their lawyers argued against consolidating the cases, saying each suit is different and should be considered by itself.

At the heart of the latest case is auto parts manufacturer Federal-Mogul Global Inc., which filed for bankruptcy because of asbestos lawsuits. Carmakers wanted to be named "related parties" in the company's bankruptcy.

The asbestos cases are Hitt v. Kansas, 01-10864, and Smalley v. United States, 02-6693.

Also Monday the Supreme Court:

  • Refused to consider reinstating a $100 million lawsuit against two former Salvadoran generals in the 1980 rape and murder of four American church women by soldiers. Families of the slain women claimed the former generals, who now live in Florida, were responsible for the deaths. A jury disagreed. The case is Ford v. Garcia, 02-405.
  • Rejected an appeal from more than 200 people who owned or leased Ford Explorers and who wanted to consolidate their consumer complaints over the vehicles' Bridgestone/Firestone tires. The cases dealt only with people who claimed they paid too much for faulty tires, and not people who claimed the tires caused injury or death. The case is Gustafson v. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., 02-530.
  • Turned down a free-speech appeal over commemorative tiles at Columbine High School after the deadly 1999 shootings there. The school banned tiles with religious themes. The case is Fleming v. Jefferson County School District, 01-732.
  • Rejected a copyright appeal by the maker of Beanie Babies. Ty Inc. wanted the court to clarify the standard for determining copyright infringement. The appeal came from a lawsuit Ty filed against the publisher of books illustrating the plush toys, including "For the Love of Beanie Babies." The case is Ty Inc. v. Publications International, 02-727.
  • Passed up a chance to answer questions lingering from a 2000 ruling that three out many sentencing systems that allowed judges to add jail time based on facts not presented to a jury. The court turned down two cases that asked whether the same reasoning applied to defendants whose prior convictions are used to lengthen a sentence, and whether convictions as a juvenile should be treated differently. The cases are Hitt v. Kansas, 01-10864, and Smalley v. United States, 02-6693.