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Guantanamo inmates' rights to get fresh look

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The Supreme Court today opens a new term that includes a rich mix of cases -- on election law, sentencing in drug cases, executions by lethal injection, age bias in the workplace and the rights of employees who put their money into 401(k) accounts.

The court will also consider -- again -- whether the detainees at Guantanamo Bay have a right to plead their innocence before a judge.

Three years ago, the justices ruled that the right to habeas corpus written into American law extended to the terrorism prisoners at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. This seemed to open the door to hearings before an independent judge.

But the Bush administra- tion balked, and last year's Republican-controlled Congress changed the law to say that foreign-born "enemy combatants" did not have a right to habeas corpus. Now the high court faces a historic decision on whether to overrule both the president and Congress on a war-related matter.

The dispute turns on the Constitution, which says "the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended" except during times of "rebellion or invasion." Civil libertarians have urged the court to say that Congress violated this provision when it took away from the Guantanamo prisoners the right to go to court.

With just half of the court's docket set for 2007-08, room remains for the justices to add cases that could reshape the course of the term.

Among those it may add is one that could weigh the meaning of one of the best-known phrases in the Constitution: the right "to keep and bear arms" in the 2nd Amendment.

The court has never invoked this amendment to strike down a law restricting guns. That may be because the amendment begins by saying a "well-regulated militia" is "necessary to the security of a free State." For much of the court's history, it was ignored as archaic, merely a guarantee that states could maintain militias.

More recently, scholars -- liberal as well as conservative -- have come to view the amendment as protecting an individual's right to bear arms.

The justices will decide this fall whether to hear an appeal from lawyers for the District of Columbia, where a 30-year-old ban on the private possession of handguns was recently struck down as unconstitutional under the 2nd Amendment. Even if the high court agrees that gun rights are protected by the Constitution, its decision will probably leave room for some regulation of firearms.

Cases already on the court docket include:

Death penaltyIt's a question that might prompt a double take: Did President Bush overstep his powers when, citing an international treaty, he ordered Texas authorities to reopen a death penalty case?

Three years ago, Mexico sued and won a ruling from the International Court of Justice in the Hague saying that Texas, California and other states had violated the Vienna Convention by arresting, trying and sentencing to death Mexican nationals without notifying Mexican authorities.

A treaty, once ratified by the Senate, becomes part of American law, but it is not clear how such a treaty can be enforced. When lawyers for Jose Medellin, a Mexican citizen on Texas' death row, sought enforcement of the world court's ruling, they picked up an unlikely ally. Bush, who since his days as governor of Texas has been a staunch supporter of the death penalty, issued an order in 2005 saying the state's courts must take a new look at Medellin's case.

Last year, the state's high court responded with a ruling that essentially said: "Don't mess with Texas." The state justices said the president had no authority to tell the state to reopen a criminal case.

On Oct. 10, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Medellin vs. Texas. If Medellin and the Bush administration prevail, California may be forced to reconsider the death sentences for several dozen Mexican nationals at San Quentin.

The future of the death penalty also will be before the court when it considers whether lethal injections create an "unnecessary risk" of pain. Defense lawyers say the commonly used three-chemical compound may cause intense pain in a dying inmate. Since more effective drugs are available, they say, the court should stop executions for now.

If the high court agrees, its ruling will force changes, but it will not prohibit the use of lethal injections.

ElectionsThe rules for elections and voting will be examined in three cases.

The first, from Washington state, will decide whether California and other states can use primary elections that allow the voters -- not just the political parties -- to decide which two candidates appear on the fall ballot. Washington's law calls for the top two primary vote-getters -- regardless of their party label -- to appear on the general election ballot. This was struck down last year as a violation of the parties' rights. The high court will hear the state's appeal Monday, the first case of the new term.

On Wednesday, the court will reconsider a New York law that allows party leaders to pick the judicial candidates who will appear on the ballot.

And in January, the court will hear a challenge to state laws that require voters to show a photo and proof of their identity before casting a ballot. Republicans say such checks will prevent fraud. Democrats say the requirements are likely to turn away thousands of the poor and elderly, even if they are registered to vote.

DrugsOn Tuesday, the court will reconsider the stiff prison terms for drug dealing, including the 100-to-1 disparity for crack versus powder cocaine. This rule was set in law by Congress in the mid-1980s. It means, for example, that someone convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack, or 500 grams of powder cocaine, receives a "mandatory minimum" prison term of five years.

Though the Supreme Court cannot overturn this law, the justices can give judges more leeway to impose lower prison terms in some cases. For example, a judge in Norfolk, Va., gave Derrick Kimbrough, a Persian Gulf War veteran, 15 years in prison for selling crack cocaine and having a gun in his car. Federal prosecutors insisted he deserved the 19-year term called for under the U.S. sentencing guidelines.

WorkplaceRulings in a pair of disputes could shape the rights of employees and their employers.

Ellen Mendelsohn was a 51-year-old manager and the oldest employee in her unit when she was fired from Sprint's headquarters in Kansas City. She sued, alleging she was victim of age bias, and she wanted other older employees to testify at her trial because they too were fired.

But the judge excluded this testimony, ruling it was irrelevant because they worked for other supervisors. The court will hear her case in December to decide whether "me too" evidence can be used in discrimination suits.

Tens of millions of American workers put money into 401(k) retirement funds sponsored by their employers. However, it is not clear if they have a right to sue and seek a refund if the plan's sponsors misdirect their money or otherwise cause their individual accounts to suffer losses.

Last year, a U.S. appeals court in Virginia said federal law allowed suits only for "losses to the plan" as a whole, not for losses by individuals. The case was brought on behalf of James LaRue, who says he lost $150,000 in 2002 when his plan's sponsors did not act on his instructions to move his money to safer investments.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it fears a torrent of lawsuits if LaRue prevails. The court will hear the case in December.

Stock fraudFor business and investors, the most-watched case tests the reach of lawsuits over stock fraud. Companies that inflate their earnings can be sued by those who lost money on their stock. Plaintiffs' lawyers want to go further and sue other companies if they joined in the scheme to inflate the earnings.

If the court agrees with the plaintiffs, the ruling could revive claims against others who joined in the schemes that led to Enron's collapse.

david.savage@latimes.com

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