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Supreme Court Back, No Rehnquist

Upon returning from holiday recess Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear cases on capital punishment, the power of the patent and consider overturning Arthur Andersen's document-shredding conviction. But it will do so without its chief justice.

Today marks Chief Justice William Rehnquist's 33rd anniversary on the court. But his health troubles will prevent him from presiding over the court this week, a court spokeswoman says. The 80-year-old chief justice is recovering from radiation therapy and a tracheotomy linked to his thyroid cancer.

Rehnquist is still hoping to administer the oath of office to President Bush on January 20th.

He missed arguments in more than two-dozen cases in recent weeks because of his cancer treatment.

Next up in this year's slate is a case the justices agreed to step into Friday over how far a patent can go to thwart a rival drug company's efforts to conduct research, a question with big-money ramifications in the pharmaceutical industry.

Justices will review a lower ruling that a competitor's patent prohibited Germany's Merck KGaA from beginning research into a potential new anticancer drug, even if the drug could not feasibly be marketed until after the patent expired.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer did not participate in deciding whether to hear the case. O'Connor and Breyer own shares in the U.S.-based Merck & Co., which was affiliated with Merck KGaA in the 1800s. The two companies are now separate.

The case centers on a patent held by Integra LifeSciences Holdings Corp. on molecules called peptides that was set to expire by 2006. Integra sued for patent infringement after Merck set up animal trials for a promising cancer therapy as a first step in a decade-long plan toward possible approval.

Merck contends it was entitled to the "head-start" research under a Food and Drug Administration exemption for studies "reasonably related" to a future drug application.

The Washington-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, however, ruled that the FDA exemption did not extend to exploratory research — only later-phase, human trials typically involving generic drugs.

Merck's appeal for review has the backing of the Bush administration and AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans. From 1990 to 2002, spending on prescription drugs nationwide has quadrupled from $40.3 billion to $162.4 billion, according to AARP.

"If this decision stands, the inevitable effect will be that the costs of drug development will be driven up even further and it will serve to delay the development of new medicines," the group states.

Justices will hear the case this spring, with a ruling expected by July.

The Supreme Court is also slated to review victories by death row inmates in Ohio and Tennessee, adding to an already busy year for capital-punishment cases.

While neither appeal involves blockbuster issues, they demonstrate the court's continuing interest in the death penalty and how it is imposed.

Other cases the court is dealing with this term involve the constitutionality of executing juvenile killers, the rights of foreign nationals facing capital charges, and the practice of shackling death row defendants in front of the jury.

The court also agreed to revisit a California murder case that challenges bias in jury selection. Last year the court dismissed Jay Shawn Johnson's case because lower courts were not finished deciding some issues. Johnson, who is black, was convicted of killing his white girlfriend's baby.

The Ohio case gives the court a chance to clarify murder defendants' rights when they plead guilty.

An appeals court had set aside John Stumpf's conviction in the 1984 slaying of a woman, on grounds that he was not fully informed about the details of the charge when he pleaded guilty.

Ohio argued in its appeal that the decision could unsettle thousands of guilty pleas, in all types of criminal cases.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also found that Stumpf's rights were violated because the state argued that Stumpf shot the victim, Mary Jane Stout, but in a separate prosecution maintained that his companion, Clyde Wesley, was the shooter during the robbery.

In the Tennessee appeal, justices will decide if the same appeals court was wrong to order more study of Gregory Thompson's case. Tennessee lawyers argued that the appeal was wrongly reopened by the lower court as Thompson's execution neared.

Thompson was convicted of abducting Brenda Lane from a Wal-Mart parking lot on New Year's Day 1985, driving her to a rural area and stabbing her to death.

The cases were among nine that justices announced Friday they would hear this spring. The court had been running out of time to fill the April argument schedule, but Friday's additions put it back on track.

The court also announced Friday that it will consider overturning Arthur Andersen LLP's conviction for destroying and altering Enron Corp.-related documents.

Justices will review a New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the former Big Five accounting firm's June 2002 conviction. At issue is whether the jury instructions at trial were too vague and broad for jurors to determine correctly what constituted obstruction of justice.

Andersen was charged with obstruction of justice for inducing mass destruction of Enron-related documents in late 2001 as the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating the energy company's convoluted finances.

Andersen put in practice a little-known document retention policy that called for destroying unneeded documentation to streamline needlessly fat files.

Enron filed for bankruptcy in December 2001 amid revelations of hidden debt and inflated profits.

Andersen argued during trial that employees who shredded tons of documents followed the policy and there was no intent to thwart the SEC investigation.

Andersen's appeal is backed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. It argues in a friend-of-the-court filing that the jury instructions' broad characterization of "obstruction" could unfairly punish criminal attorneys who advise their clients to withhold evidence in legal ways.

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