The Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court yesterday in its landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry, arguing that the government should be able to pursue as much as $280 billion in past profits from cigarette makers for allegedly misleading the public about the dangers of smoking.
The petition to the high court could revive a crucial part of the case, and contrasts with the department's recent decision to drastically reduce a separate penalty it wants a trial court to impose, which would pay for smoking cessation programs.
In a forcefully worded 28-page filing, government lawyers call their case against the tobacco industry "the most important" civil filing ever brought by the Justice Department under federal racketeering law and warned that lower-court rulings in the case threaten other prosecutions as well.
"This case graphically illustrates the practical consequences of the court of appeals' decision," the lawyers wrote. "Under that decision . . . violators may retain the profits of their unlawful activity no matter how destructive the consequences for the American public as a whole."
In an eight-month racketeering trial that ended last month, the government argued that the nation's six largest tobacco companies engaged in a 50-year conspiracy to defraud the public and mislead it about the health risks of smoking. The single largest penalty the government was seeking was rejected in February when a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the courts could not order the industry to pay $280 million in "ill-gotten profits."
Last month, Justice officials provoked outrage among anti-smoking activists when they announced they were seeking only $14 billion for stop-smoking and education programs, instead of the $130 billion the department's own expert had recommended. At the request of Democratic lawmakers, Justice investigators have begun an internal investigation to determine whether political influence played a role in that decision.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and other officials have defended the department's decision, arguing that the appellate ruling made it unlikely that the government could prevail in seeking the higher amount for cessation programs.
Yesterday's decision to appeal the earlier appellate ruling drew praise from activists who have complained bitterly about the Justice Department's strategy in the case. William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said that the filing puts "illegal tobacco industry profits back on the table" and that the government should refrain from reaching a "weak settlement" in the case.
Philip Morris USA, one of the defendants in the case, said in a statement that it will oppose the government's petition for a review by the high court and that the appellate court "reached the correct ruling last February."