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Supreme Court sides with bearded Muslim inmate

WASHINGTON - A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas can grow a short beard for religious reasons.

The court's decision in a case about religious liberty stands in contrast to the Hobby Lobby case that bitterly divided the justices in June over whether family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for women's contraceptives under the health care overhaul.

The justices said that inmate Gregory Holt could maintain a half-inch beard because Arkansas prison officials could not substantiate claims that the beard posed a security risk.

Holt claimed that he has a right to grow a beard under a federal law aimed at protecting prisoners' religious rights. The law is similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that the court said in a 5-4 outcome in late June could be invoked by business owners who object to paying for contraceptives.

This time around, the Obama administration, religious groups and atheists alike backed Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. More than 40 states allow inmates to keep beards.

Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court that Arkansas can satisfy its security concerns in some other way when "so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissent in the Hobby Lobby case, remarked on her view of the differences between the two cases in a brief separate opinion Tuesday.

Unlike the exception the court approved in June for Hobby Lobby, "accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief," Ginsburg wrote.

Holt is serving a life sentence for a brutal assault on his girlfriend and is being held at a maximum security prison 80 miles southeast of Little Rock. His case first came to the court's attention when he filed a handwritten plea to the court asking it to block enforcement of Arkansas' no-beard rule.

Holt argued in court papers that his obligation to grow a beard comes from hadiths, accounts of the acts or statements of the Prophet Muhammad. In one statement attributed to the prophet, Muslims are commanded to "cut the mustaches short and leave the beard."

Holt said he understands that statement to mean he should grow a full beard, but offered a half-inch beard as a compromise because California allows Muslim inmates to wear beards of that length.

The case is Holt v. Hobbs, 13-6827.

MISSOURI DEATH ROW CASE APPEAL

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that lower courts should take another look at an appeal from a Missouri man on death row for killing a woman and her two children 16 years ago.

The justices said inmate Mark Christeson should get a chance to argue that his court-appointed attorneys were ineffective because they missed a 2005 deadline to appeal his conviction in federal court.

It is uncommon for someone to be executed without a federal appeals court hearing.

Christeson would have been the 11th man executed in Missouri last year. But the Supreme Court put his execution on hold in October while it considered his appeal.

A group of attorneys argued that Christeson's court-appointed lawyers, Phil Horwitz and Eric Butts, should be replaced due to a conflict of interest because they would not admit their own ineffectiveness. The outside attorneys who reviewed the case file said substituting lawyers could give Christeston another chance to win federal review.

Horwitz and Butts missed the 2005 deadline to file a federal appeals petition by four months. But they declined to let outside counsel review documents that might show possible negligence in missing the deadline.

Last year, a federal court declined to substitute Christeson's lawyers. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also refused the request, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court said lower courts should have acknowledged that Horwitz and Butts faced a conflict of interest. The justices said the lawyers could not be expected to make a legal argument "which threatens their professional reputation and livelihood."

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying they would not have reversed the appeals court's decision without full briefing and arguments from the parties.

Christeson faces death for killing Susan Brouk, 36, and her children in 1998. According to court records, Christeson, then 18, and his 17-year-old cousin, Jesse Carter, had planned to run away from a home outside Vichy in central Missouri where they were living with a relative. They walked a half-mile away to Brouk's home to steal her Ford Bronco.

Armed with shotguns, they tied her daughter and son's hands with shoelaces. Christeson forced Brouk into a bedroom and raped her. The pair then forced Brouk and the children into her Bronco and drove to a pond.

Brouk and Kyle were stabbed and thrown into the pond to drown. Adrian suffocated when Christeson pressed on her throat while Carter held her.

LOUISIANA CATHOLIC CHURCH LAWSUIT

The Supreme Court is allowing a lawsuit to proceed against a Louisiana Roman Catholic church and a priest over allegations that a teen was kissed and fondled by an adult church parishioner.

The justices did not comment Tuesday in rejecting an appeal from the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the priest of a state Supreme Court decision. That earlier ruling revived the lawsuit that contends the teen told the priest what had happened to her and that the priest should have reported the allegations.

The church and the priest argued that allowing the lawsuit to go forward could lead to the priest being called to testify about information that was disclosed during private confessions.

The case is Roman Catholic Diocese v. Mayeux, 14-220.

SOLDIER'S ELECTROCUTION IN IRAQ LAWSUIT

The Supreme Court on Tuesday turned away three appeals from military contractor KBR Inc. that seek to shut down lawsuits over a soldier's electrocution in Iraq and open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The justices offered no comment in allowing the lawsuits to proceed.

One lawsuit was filed by the parents of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, who was electrocuted in his barracks shower at an Army base in Iraq in 2008. The suit claims KBR unit Kellogg Brown & Root Services Inc. was legally responsible for the shoddy electrical work that was common in Iraqi-built structures taken over by the U.S. military. KBR disputes that claim.

Dozens of lawsuits by soldiers and others assert they were harmed by improper waste disposal while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They seek to hold KBR and Halliburton Co. responsible for exposing soldiers to toxic emissions and contaminated water when they burned waste in open pits without proper safety controls.

The contractors say they cannot be sued because they essentially were operating in war zones as an extension of the military.

The Obama administration agreed with the contractors that lower courts should have dismissed the lawsuits, but said the Supreme Court should not get involved now because lower courts still could dismiss or narrow the claims.

MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS DRUG PATENT DISPUTE

The Supreme Court has sided with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. in the company's high-profile patent dispute with rival firms over the top-selling multiple sclerosis drug.

The justices ruled Tuesday that a federal appeals court wrongly overturned five of Teva's patents for the drug Copaxone. The decision allows the Israel-based company to keep its exclusive rights to the drug until September 2015.

Copaxone generates about $4 billion in annual sales for Teva.

Teva had argued that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit should not have second-guessed factual findings made by a federal district court that had earlier ruled in Teva's favor.

The justices agreed that the Federal Circuit should have deferred to factual findings made by the lower court.

DEBIT CARD CHARGES DISPUTE

The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a challenge from retailers who claim the Federal Reserve allows banks to charge businesses too much for handling debit card transactions.

The justices let stand a federal appeals court ruling that upheld the Fed's cap of about 24 cents per transaction on so-called "swipe fees." That ruling was a setback for merchants who pay the fees to banks every time a customer uses a debit card to make a payment.

The case was a battle between two powerful and politically influential industries with billions of dollars at stake.

Retailers pay the fees to banks every time a customer uses a debit card to make a payment. Swipe fees are supposed to cover the banks' costs for providing the service.

The fee cap set by the Fed in 2011 currently averages about 24 cents per transaction. Before the cap was imposed, fees averaged 44 cents per swipe.

A federal judge struck down the cap last year, agreeing with merchants that the Fed improperly including data that made the cap too high. But the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned that decision in a win for the banks. That decision will stand now that the high court declined to intervene.

Congress mandated a ceiling on debit-card swipe fees as part of 2010 legislation passed in response to the financial crisis. The Fed had initially proposed a 12-cent fee limit, but retailers argued that the Fed was influenced to double that level under pressure from bank lobbyists.

Retailers said the Fed deviated from the 2010 law's intent by having the cap include bank expenses that the law doesn't allow. The appeals court rejected that argument, deferring to the Fed's "reasonable interpretation" of the law.

The Fed rule doesn't apply to credit cards, government-issued debit cards, prepaid cards or cards issued by banks and credit unions with assets under $10 billion.

Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association, praised the high court for refusing to hear the case and said consumers should come first, "not the bottom line of retailers."

But Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Retail Federation, said retailers would continue to press the issue in the courts over the "anti-consumer and anti-competitive practices of the card industry."

JUDICIAL RACE CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS

A divided Supreme Court struggled Tuesday with whether states can prohibit personal appeals for campaign contributions by candidates for elected judgeships.

The justices heard arguments in a case from Florida, five years after the court's Citizens United ruling freed corporations and labor unions from limits on spending in elections for Congress and president.

The court's conservative justices prevailed in that case by a 5-4 vote. The same ideological divide was apparent Tuesday.

Chief Justice John Roberts was among those who suggested that candidates for judicial offices have a broad right to seek contributions.

The choice "was made by the state when they said judges will be elected," Roberts said.

Several liberal justices said lawyers might have a hard time refusing to contribute when a judge personally asks for campaign cash.

Justice Elena Kagan imagined a judge's letter asking for a donation and reminding the lawyer that he will have future cases in front of the judge. "'I hope I always will be fair,'" Kagan said, using a phrase that might persuade a sensible attorney to contribute.

Justice Anthony Kennedy could hold the deciding vote and he said little during the hour-long session. He has been a critical voice against campaign finance limits and restrictions on judicial candidates' speech in the past.

The case of Lanell Williams-Yulee of Tampa, Florida, was before the court Tuesday. Williams-Yulee received a public reprimand for violating a Florida Bar rule that bans candidates for elected judgeships from personally soliciting donations.

The bar and many good government groups argued that the ban that is in place in Florida and 29 other states is important to preserve public confidence in an impartial judiciary.

Barry Richard, representing the bar at the high court, said the prohibition on personal appeals is among steps taken by every state to "set higher standards for the judicial branch."

A ruling for Williams-Yulee could free judicial candidates in those states to ask personally for campaign contributions.

In all, voters in 39 states elect local and state judges. In the federal judicial system, including the Supreme Court, judges are appointed to life terms and must be confirmed by the Senate.

The justices already have struck down limits on what judicial candidates can say during campaigns. In 2002, the court struck down rules that were aimed at fostering impartiality among judges and barred candidates for elected judgeships from speaking out on controversial issues.

But in 2009, the court held in a case from West Virginia that elected judges could be forced to step aside from ruling on cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

Lower courts have been split on the issue in the Florida case.

Williams-Yulee ran into trouble when she signed and mailed a generic "Dear Friend" fundraising letter that sought contributions of up to $500 for her campaign for a local judgeship. She also posted it on her website. She would have been in the clear had the letter been signed by anyone else. And nothing prevents a candidate from learning who did or did not give, or writing personal thank-you notes to contributors.

Williams-Yulee received just 20 percent of the vote in the 2010 election. Her appeal for money was no rousing success either. Her lawyer, Andrew Pincus, said it didn't yield a cent.

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