One case concerns whether railroads may be sued for inadequate warning devices at rail crossings, even when they had been installed under a federally approved project.
The high court agreed to hear an appeal by Norfolk Southern Corp. arguing that such claims of negligence seeking money damages under state law were preempted by federal law and should be dismissed.
The case involved Eddie Shanklin, who was killed in 1993 in a train collision in Gibson County, Tennessee, as he was driving to work from his nearby home. The rail crossing had a warning sign, but no gates or flashing lights.
Shanklin's widow sued, claiming the railroad failed to install adequate warning devices at the crossing, among other things.
Norfolk Southern argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the sign was installed under a state project that had been funded and approved by the Federal Highway Administration.
A jury awarded Shanklin's widow $430,765 in damages, and a U.S. appeals court upheld the award.
Norfolk Southern appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the decision conflicts with rulings by other federal appeals courts.
The Court also agreed Monday to use a California case to clarify when criminal defendants can appeal a judge's decision to let jurors hear about their prior criminal convictions.
The court said it will hear a woman's argument in a drug case that she should be allowed to appeal such a ruling, even though she told jurors from the witness stand about the earlier conviction.
Maria Suzuki Ohler was stopped by customs agents when she tried to enter the United States from Mexico at San Ysidro, Calif., in July 1997. An agent noticed an interior panel of her van had been tampered with, and a search found more than 80 pounds of marijuana.
Prosecutors sought permission to introduce evidence of her 1993 felony conviction for possession of methamphetamine. Before the trial began, the judge ruled such evidence could be used to attack Ohler's credibility if she testified.
Ohler took the stand and during her testimony told jurors of the earlier conviction. She was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
In the appeal granted review today, Ohler's lawyers said she admitted the prior conviction in an effort to "to remove the sting of the imminent cross-examination."
Here are the court's two other rulings:
- It agreed to decide whether federal judges who send ex-convicts back to prison for violating conditions of their supervised release always can add a new supervised-release term to the time behind bars.
- The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to how Ohio's eight largest counties elect judges, turning away arguments that the at-large elections illegally dilute black voters' political influence.