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Supreme Court Strikes Down State's Law to Diminish Internet Tobacco Sales to Teens

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Supreme Court yesterday shut down state efforts to curb Internet sales of tobacco to teenagers, saying that the efforts were well-intentioned but violated federal restrictions against states regulating shipping.

The court ruled unanimously that federal restrictions against state laws that relate to a "price, route or service of any motor carrier" bar Maine's attempt to require those delivering tobacco to make sure that the person receiving it is of legal age, among other things.

Other states have employed similar laws to try to cut down on the delivery of cigarettes bought over the Internet, and 31 states joined Maine in asking the court to uphold the law.

But Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the restrictions were a clear violation of federal law and could lead to a "patchwork of state service-determining laws, rules and regulations" that Congress meant to forbid.

Maine said its law, which among other things would require the deliverer to make sure the person receiving the shipment shows a valid photo ID, should receive an exemption because its efforts were to protect citizens' health, not regulate the shipping industry.

"Despite the importance of the public health objective, we cannot agree with Maine that the federal law creates an exception on that basis," Breyer wrote.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the decision but wrote separately to urge federal lawmakers to come up with a solution. She said she doubts those who wrote the federal law "anticipated the measure's facilitation of minors' access to tobacco. Now alerted to the problem, Congress has the capacity to act with care and dispatch to provide an effective solution."

The Maine decision -- Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association-- was among five decisions the court rendered yesterday involving business and criminal procedure.

In Danforth v. Minnesota, the court ruled 7 to 2 that states may give prisoners the retroactive benefit of Supreme Court decisions that expand criminal procedure rights. That is the case, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, even if the court does not extend the same benefit in federal habeas corpus cases.

In this case, a Minnesota prisoner wanted to take advantage of a Supreme Court decision that in some cases barred the admission of out-of-court or pretrial testimony. Stephen Danforth had been convicted of the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old boy, based partly on a taped interview with the boy.

The Minnesota Supreme Court said Danforth was barred from benefiting from the decision because of a separate Supreme Court ruling that said such criminal procedure decisions would not be applied retroactively in federal cases.

But Stevens said that this restriction does not bind state courts, and the justices sent the case back to Minnesota. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy dissented.

And in Preston v. Ferrer, justices ruled 9 to 1 against Alex Ferrer, a former Florida trial court judge who appears as "Judge Alex'' on a Fox television program. The case involved a fee dispute with attorney Arnold Preston, who said he had a claim on some of Ferrer's earnings.

Even though the two had signed a contract that said disputes would be handled by arbitration, Ferrer had gone to court. Ginsburg wrote that the Federal Arbitration Act supersedes state laws. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

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