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High Court to Hear Protest, Vaccine Cases

The Supreme Court is getting involved in the legal fight over the anti-gay protesters who show up at military funerals with inflammatory messages like "Thank God for dead soldiers."

The court agreed Monday to consider whether the protesters' message, no matter how provocative and upsetting, is protected by the First Amendment.

The protesters case is perhaps the most inflammatory of several accepted Monday to be heard during the court's fall term. The court will also decide on whether parents can sue drug companies whose vaccines they believe made their children sick, and hear a case involving intrusive background checks for NASA contractors.

Members of a Kansas-based church have picketed military funerals to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

The justices will hear an appeal from the father of a Marine killed in Iraq to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the protesters, after they picketed outside his son's funeral in Maryland.

A jury in Baltimore awarded Albert Snyder damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy, but a federal appeals court threw out the verdict. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the signs contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric" protected by the First Amendment.

The funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., was among many that have been picketed by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Westboro pastor Fred Phelps and other members have used the funeral protests to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. One of the signs at Snyder's funeral combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto with a slur against gay men.

Other signs carried by members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church said, "America is Doomed," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Priests Rape Boys" and "Thank God for IEDs," a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The case is Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751.

The justices on Monday also agreed to hear an appeal from parents in Pittsburgh who want to sue the drugmaker Wyeth over the serious side effects their daughter, six months old at the time, allegedly suffered as a result of the company's diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled against Robalee and Russell Bruesewitz, saying a 1986 federal law bars their claims.

That law set up a special vaccine court to handle disputes as part of its aim of insuring a stable vaccine supply by shielding companies from most lawsuits.

Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer, Inc., prevailed at the appeals court but also joined in asking the court to hear the case, saying it presents an important and recurring legal issue that should be resolved.

The Obama administration joined the parties in calling for high court review, although the government takes the side of the manufacturers.

Only one state appeals court, the Georgia Supreme Court, has ruled that families can sue in a vaccine case. The vaccine industry has fiercely opposed the Georgia ruling in the case of Marcelo and Carolyn Ferrari. They claim their son suffered neurological damage after receiving vaccine booster shots made by pharmaceutical companies Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline that contained the preservative thimerosal.

The family has since withdrawn its lawsuit, possibly in an effort to avoid an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling, although the Georgia court's opinion allowing similar lawsuits remains in force.

The court did not act on the companies' appeal Monday, but the decision in the other case almost certainly will apply to the Georgia case.

According to the lawsuit, Hannah Bruesewitz was a healthy infant until she received the vaccine in April 1992. Within hours of getting the DPT shot, the third in a series of five, the baby suffered a series of debilitating seizures. Now a teenager, Hannah suffers from residual seizure disorder, the suit says.

The vaccine court earlier rejected the family's claims.

Wyeth lost another high court fight last year over whether federal law barred lawsuits against drug makers. That case, involving a botched injection, asked whether federal law included an implicit prohibition on the lawsuits. The court said it did not.

In this appeal, however, Congress clearly laid out how claims over vaccines were to be made, and the court has repeatedly ruled against plaintiffs when Congress has explicitly sought to bar lawsuits.

Other than the Georgia court, state and federal courts have uniformly invoked a provision of the 1986 federal law, which seems to bar most lawsuits against vaccine makers.

The idea behind the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act was to ensure a stable supply of childhood vaccines by shielding drug makers from most lawsuits, and setting up a federal vaccine court to handle disputes. The law would serve to block state laws that otherwise would give families the ability to sue the manufacturers.

In recent years, the legal fight has frequently come from families of autistic children claiming that mercury-based thimerosal is linked to autism. Numerous studies have addressed vaccines and autism and found no link, including with the preservative.

Thimerosal has been removed in recent years from standard childhood vaccines, except flu vaccines that are not packaged in single doses.

Last year, special masters appointed by the vaccine court concluded that vaccines aren't to blame for autism, disappointing thousands of families hoping to win compensation and others who remain convinced of a connection.

But the vaccine court still must rule on additional cases that argue that vaccines with thimerosal are to blame, if the mercury reached and damaged brain cells.

The case, to be argued in the fall, is Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, 09-152.

And the high court on Monday agreed to referee a dispute between NASA and some of its independent contractors over required security checks, a decision that could affect how the federal government investigates the background of current and future employees.

The justices said they will hear an appeal from the space agency, which had its worker investigations at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California blocked after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the questions threatened the constitutional rights of workers.

The high court's decision in this case could throw into question the background checks routinely done on all federal government workers.

While the case before the court deals solely with whether to dissolve the temporary restraining order placed on NASA's background checks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA said in its filings that the forms in question "are the same ones that have long been used to conduct background checks for applicants for federal employment."

Twenty-eight scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sued the federal government after NASA required them to submit to background checks. They said the agency was invading their privacy by requiring the investigations, which included probes into medical records and questioning of friends about everything from their finances to their sex lives.

If the workers didn't agree to the checks, they were to be barred from the 177-acre campus east of Los Angeles and fired.

The scientists and engineers had worked for years at the labs run for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, and none of them work on top-secret projects. The lab is chiefly known for its scientific explorations of the solar system and study of the Earth.

NASA required all employees to submit to the background checks, saying it was following a government-wide policy applying to millions of civil servants and contractors.

A 2004 presidential directive ordered every government agency to step up security to their facilities and computer systems by issuing new identification badges to employees. To obtain the new cards, workers have to be fingerprinted, undergo a background check and sign a waiver allowing federal investigators access to personal information.

A federal judge originally refused to stop NASA's background checks, saying they could continue while the lawsuit made its way through the courts. He was overturned by the San Francisco-based appeals court.

NASA's forms "seeks highly personal information using an open-ended technique including asking for 'any adverse information which ... may have a bearing on this person's suitability for government employment,"' the appeals court said. "There is nothing 'narrowly tailored' about such a broad inquisition."

The court rejected two high-profile cases involving criminal justice:

-The court turned down Texas' attempt to get a death sentence reimposed on a convicted killer who lower courts have found is mentally impaired.

The justices rejected the state's appeal Monday in the case of Eric Lynn Moore, one of four men convicted of the December 1990 murder of Helen Ayers during a robbery at her home north of Dallas.

The high court ruled in 2002 that mentally retarded defendants may not be executed. The state disputes that Moore is mentally retarded and also says federal courts should have deferred to state judges who ruled that he could be executed.

And the court said it will not tinker with a federal prison policy that prohibits death row inmates from giving face-to-face interviews to reporters.

The justices on Monday turned down an appeal from David Paul Hammer, an inmate on the federal government's death row in Terre Haute, Indiana. Hammer argued that the policy adopted after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh appeared on a television program in March 2000 is an unconstitutional violation of his free speech rights.

Twenty-three news media organizations also urged the court to hear the case.

Hammer's sentence has been thrown out, but he remains housed with other death-row prisoners while the government decides whether to seek to have him re-sentenced to death.