The Supreme Court chose a baker’s dozen of cases Thursday to help form the coming term’s docket, among them a challenge from Iran’s central bank over a law that makes it easier to distribute nearly $2 billion to terrorism victims, including the families of U.S. service members killed in the 1983 bombing in Beirut.
The justices accepted a Pennsylvania death row inmate’s complaint that a judge in his case was also his prosecutor; a European Union case against R.J. Reynolds for alleged money-laundering; and a determined hunter’s challenge that the federal government can’t keep him from boarding a hovercraft on an Alaskan river to hunt moose.
Those cases and others will be added to about 35 petitions the court has agreed to hear in the term that begins Monday. Generally, the court hears arguments in 75 to 80 cases each term.
When the docket is finalized in January, the court will most likely have added a challenge to the contraceptive mandate from the Affordable Care Act and a review of state abortion restrictions. But they were not among Thursday’s granted cases.
In the case involving Iran’s Bank Markazi, the justices will review a ruling from the federal appeals court in New York over funds that have been in the custody of a court-appointed trustee after President Obama’s 2012 order blocking Iranian assets in this country.
Citizens are generally barred from suing foreign governments in U.S. courts, but there is an exception for terrorist acts. Each family could receive about $5 million, and Congress passed additional legislation that was meant to ensure such a resolution in this case.
The Iran bank claims such action violates treaty agreements and a long-standing separation of powers doctrine that says the legislative branch cannot dictate the outcome of a legal dispute.
The law change “threatens the judiciary’s ability to operate as an independent branch rather than a mere adjunct resolving property disputes as the legislature may direct,” the bank argued.
The government disagreed, and asked the Supreme Court to let the lower court ruling stand.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said the appeals court was right to recognize that “Congress may constitutionally alter the law governing a pending case, even if doing so changes the outcome of the case.”
The October 1983 bombing that killed 241 sleeping service members in a Beirut barracks was blamed on the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. The case is Bank Markazi v. Peterson.
The case against R.J. Reynolds also calls on the court to look beyond national borders, which coincidentally is the subject of a new book on the court’s global role by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
The court will review a ruling, again by the New York appeals court, that said the European Union and 26 of its member states may proceed in U.S. courts with a suit based on federal racketeering laws.
They charge that a complicated global money-laundering scheme involved Reynolds and New York-based financial institutions. Reynolds denies the claim. It attempted to have the suit thrown out, but a New York appeals court said racketeering laws include crimes committed abroad.
The case, RJR Nabisco v. European Community, will be heard by only eight of the nine justices. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who ruled on the long-running case while a lower court judge, recused herself.
Judicial recusal is at the heart of another case, that of Terrance Williams, a high school football star who at age 18 murdered church deacon Amos Norwood in 1984. Prosecutors presented the case as a robbery and did not tell the jury that Williams and Norwood knew each other.
In fact, Williams had been having sex with Norwood for years, according to Williams, in exchange for money and gifts. Before Norwood, Williams had killed another older man with whom he also had been paid to have sex.
Williams’s lawyers say prosecutors withheld the sex abuse information about Norwood for fear that a sympathetic jury would spare Williams a death sentence.
As the years passed, the Philadelphia district attorney who prosecuted Williams was elected chief justice of the state supreme court. Justice Ronald Castille refused to recuse himself when his court upheld the death sentence for Williams.
Williams’s lawyers said Castille, who recently left the bench, had sought the death penalty for Williams, defended it upon appeal, ran for office touting the verdict and then presided over a review of the case that criticized the actions of the prosecutors who worked for him. “It is hard to imagine a claim more susceptible to bias,” Williams’s lawyers told the court.
The case is Williams v. Pennsylvania.
From Alaska comes John Sturgeon, who since 1990 had used his hovercraft on the Nation River to hunt moose. But in 2007, he was told by National Park Service law enforcement officers that he was not allowed to do so, since the river was part of a national preserve where hovercraft were prohibited. He used his satellite phone to call his lawyer.
Sturgeon contended that while park regulations might apply on land, he was on navigable waters that belonged to the state. A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit disagreed.
Even assuming Sturgeon was right about the river, the panel said, the law gave the Park Service wide latitude over the entire “conservation system units” it controlled.
The case is Sturgeon v. Masica.