The High Court Has Spoken

A replica 18th century wooden square rigger sails as 'The Zong,' past Tower Bridge on the Thames Thursday, March 29, 2007 in London. The voyage was part of recognition of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade act. The Zong was at the center of a court case in 1783 after 133 slaves were thrown overboard in an insurance scam. The resulting public outrage led to the rise of the Abolitionist movement.
GETTY IMAGES/Peter Macdiarmid
The Supreme Court issued statements Monday on cases related to census "sampling," tobacco, harassment pay, the legality of car searches without warrants, zoning for religious groups and Medicaid.

Among the actions taken or not taken Monday:

  • Concerning the census, the justices refused to be quickly drawn into a burgeoning national fight over whether statistically sampled Census Bureau data can be used when redrawing state political districts.

    Acting in a case from Virginia, the justices affirmed a three-judge federal court ruling that the state had acted prematurely in seeking to avoid getting federal approval for its statute barring the use of sampled data.

    The statistical method known as "sampling," intended to make up for an expected undercount of minority voters, is in addition to the traditional head count conducted every decade.

    The Supreme Court previously barred the use of such sampling to parcel out congressional seats among the states. The 435 House seats are redistributed according to state population after each decennial Census.

    But the justices left open whether states might use sampled numbers to redraw election districts at other levels of government.

  • The Supreme Court agreed to use a dispute over state limits on cigarette advertising to possibly consider giving commercial speech broader protection against government regulation.

    The court said it will hear tobacco companies' argument that limits on cigarette and cigar advertising at retail stores in Massachusetts violate constitutional free-speech protections. In recent years, the justices have edged toward giving commercial speech the same constitutional protection as political or artistic expression.

  • The Court agreed to settle whether victims of on-the-job harassment can win up-front damages that are higher than a cap set by Congress.

    The court said it will review the sexual harassment case of a Tennessee chemical plant worker whose male co-workers allegedly sabotaged her performance, called her barnyard names and refused to talk to her after she was chosen to address a group of girls visiting the plant for "Take Your Daughters to Work Day" in 1994.

    At issue for the Supreme Court is whether the woman can collect more than $300,000 in "front pay," or money she presumably would have earned had she been able to go on working at the plant. One economist estimated at trial that she was really due about $800,000 in front pay and benefits.

    The Cincinnati-based Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that front pay amounts to compensatory damages in this case, and is thus subject to a $300,000 cap set by Congress as part of 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act.

    The Supreme Court ruling, expected by summer, could affect any employee who wins a harassment or discrimination case in which the potential for front pay is over $300,000.

  • The justices also agreed to clarify whether police can always search a car without a warrant aftr arresting its occupant.

    The court said it will hear Florida prosecutors' appeal of a state court ruling that said police cannot automatically conduct such a search if the person got out of the car before the initial contact with police.

    The nation's highest court ruled in 1981 that when a police officer has arrested the occupant of a vehicle, the officer can search the car's passenger compartment.

  • Opponents of a large new Mormon temple near Boston lost a Supreme Court challenge Monday to a Massachusetts zoning law they said gives unconstitutional advantages to religious groups.

    The court, without comment, turned down the opponents' argument that the zoning law violates the Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.

    The 1950 state law says zoning ordinances cannot ban the construction of buildings for religious uses in any zoning area, although they can set requirements for size, height, parking and open space on a lot.

    The law was challenged in 1998 after the Mormon church started construction on a new $30 million temple in Belmont, a suburb of Boston. The 69,000-square-foot structure, on a hilltop surrounded by private homes, has been completed and was dedicated on Oct. 1.

    The opponents said the state law violates the Constitution's First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion. A separate lawsuit over the height of the temple's planned 139-foot steeple is ongoing.

    A federal judge and the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law.

    The law does not create favoritism toward religion, the appeals court said last May, but represents "a secular judgment that religious institutions...are compatible with every other type of land use and thus will not detract from the quality of life in any neighborhood."

    In the appeal acted on Monday, lawyers for the temple's opponents said the zoning exemption gave "enormous power and privilege to religious individuals and institutions to determine the characteristics of neighborhoods."

  • The Court stayed out of a New York dispute over how to count some Medicaid applicants' Social Security income in deciding whether they have too much money to qualify for government-funded health care.

    The court, without comment, turned down appeals by the state and an upstate couple who applied for Medicaid to pay for the husband's nursing home care.

    The state counted the couple's income — including the husband's pension and Social Security income — in a way that would require the wife to give up more than half of her assets for the husband to be eligible for Medicaid.

    Thirty-five other states have policies similar to the New York rule for counting spouses' income in Medicaid cases. New York's appeal said a lower court ruling would cost it large amounts of money.

    The spouse of a Medicaid-covered nursing home patient is allowed to keep only a certain amount of assets and income, and any excess must be contributed to the ost of care.

    A federal judge ruled for the state. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed last June that the pension benefits could be counted toward Nova Robbins' income, but the court said it would violate federal law to do so with Social Security benefits.

    The state's appeal to the Supreme Court said the 2nd Circuit court's ruling would allow such couples to "shelter substantial amounts of resources" that otherwise would be used to help pay for nursing home care — about $105,000 per case.

    The couple's appeal said it violates federal pension law to divert pension benefits from the beneficiary.

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