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High court takes Shell oil, military medal cases

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said Monday it will use a dispute between Nigerian villagers and oil giant Royal Dutch Shell to decide whether corporations may be held liable in U.S. courts for alleged human rights abuses overseas.

In a second case it agreed to hear, the court will decide if telling a lie about yourself is a crime — if the lie claims military medals you didn't earn.

The justices said they will review a federal appeals court ruling in favor of Shell. The case centers on the 222-year-old Alien Tort Statute that has been increasingly used in recent years to sue corporations for alleged abuses abroad.

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Other cases pending in U.S. courts seek to hold accountable Chiquita Brands International for its relationship with paramilitary groups in Colombia; Exxon and Chevron for abuses in Indonesia and Nigeria, respectively, and several companies for their role in apartheid in South Africa.

The Nigerians argue Shell was complicit in torture and other crimes against humanity in the country's oil-rich Ogoni region in the Niger Delta.

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A divided panel of federal appeals court judges in New York said the 18th century law may not be used against corporations. More recently, appellate judges in Washington said it could.

In another case the court agreed to hear, the justices will weigh whether the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1992 can be invoked against organizations, or only individuals.

The sons and widow of Azzam Rahim have filed a civil lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Palestinian-born Rahim was a naturalized U.S. citizen who was beaten and died in the custody of Palestinian intelligence officers in Jericho in 1995. Three officers were jailed for their role in the case, according to a State Department report.

But when Rahim's relatives sought money damages for his death, the federal appeals court in Washington said they could not use the 1992 law to go after the Palestinian organizations. The law may be applied only to "natural persons," the appeals court said.

The Nigerians' lawsuit stems from alleged human rights violations between 1992 and 1995. The suit claims that Shell was eager to stop protests about continuing oil exploration in the area and was complicit in Nigerian government actions that included fatal shootings, rapes, beatings, arrests and property destruction.

Specifically, the villagers claim Shell gave soldiers money, food and transportation, and allowed its facilities to be used as staging grounds.

A divided panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York voted 2-1 to throw out the suit, saying corporations cannot be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute. The full appeals court split 5-5 on whether to rehear the case. The tie vote left the panel ruling in place.

The cases will be argued early next year.

The cases are Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, 10-1491, and Mohamad v. Rajoub, 11-88.

Arguments will also take place early next year for the case centering on the constitutionality of a law that makes it a federal crime for people to claim falsely, either in writing or aloud, that they have been awarded the Medal of Honor, a Silver Star, Purple Heart or any other military medal.

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The Stolen Valor Act, which passed Congress with overwhelming support in 2006, apparently has been used only a few dozen times, but the underlying issue of false claims of military heroism has struck a chord in an era in which American soldiers are fighting two wars.

At the same time, the justices have issued a series of rulings in recent terms in favor of free expression, striking down California's violent video restrictions and a federal law involving cruelty to animals. It also upheld the right of protesters to picket military funerals with provocative, even offensive, messages.

The federal appeals court in California struck down the military medals law on free speech grounds, and appeals courts in Colorado, Georgia and Missouri are considering similar cases.

The Obama administration is arguing that the law "serves a crucial purpose in safeguarding the military honors system." The administration also says the law is reasonable because it only applies to instances in which the speaker intends to portray himself as a medal recipient. Previous high court rulings also have limited First Amendment protection for false statements, the government said.

The court almost always reviews lower court rulings that hold federal laws unconstitutional.

The case concerns the government's prosecution of Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, Calif. A member of the local water district board, Alvarez said at a public meeting in 2007 that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. In fact, he had never served in the military.

He was indicted and pleaded guilty with the understanding that he would challenge the law's constitutionality in his appeal. He was sentenced under the Stolen Valor Act to more than 400 hours of community service at a veterans' hospital and fined $5,000.

A panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to strike down the law. The majority said there is no evidence that lies such as the one told by Alvarez harm anybody and no compelling reason to make a crime out of them.

In a dissent, Judge Jay Bybee said his colleagues should have followed previous Supreme Court rulings holding that false statements are not entitled to First Amendment protection.

The appeals court refused the government's request to have the case heard again by a larger group of its judges. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, agreeing with the majority, said people often tell lies about themselves in day-to-day social interactions. He said it would be "terrifying" if people could be prosecuted for merely telling lies.

But seven appellate judges said they would have heard the case, suggesting that they would have upheld Alvarez's conviction.

The law had been the latest congressional effort to try to keep people from wearing medals they did not earn. But it was the first time that lawmakers made it a crime for someone to claim falsely that he had been awarded a medal.

A proposal in the House of Representatives would amend the law to apply only when the deception is aimed at getting something of value in return.

Many of the cases to date involve men who were not accused of trying to profit from their claims. Almost everyone convicted under the law has been ordered to perform community service.

The case is U.S. v. Alvarez, 11-210.