Higher Tobacco Penalty Sought

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The Justice Department on Monday asked the Supreme Court to allow it to seek $280 billion in past profits from tobacco companies.

An appeals court had barred the government from seeking the money in a major blow to the long-running federal racketeering lawsuit against the cigarette companies.

The request came at the deadline for the administration to decide whether to appeal the February ruling, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, that the government could not use a federal racketeering law to seek the huge penalty.

The $280 billion is the most ever sought in a civil racketeering trial. The government has described the sum as an estimate of money the companies earned illegally through fraudulent activities such as marketing to children and denying doing so.

A nine-month trial ended in June, but it could be months before U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler decides the case. The judge has urged the sides to try to reach a settlement.

The government asked Kessler to require the companies to fund a five-year, $10 billion program, a fraction of the 25-year, $130 billion program suggested by government witness Michael C. Fiore, a University of Wisconsin medical professor.

Democrats and other administration critics claimed that top Justice Department officials pressured the lawyers handling the case to back off the more expensive anti-smoking campaign.