SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK

Bankruptcy courts' authority determined

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court says bankruptcy courts have limited authority to rule on disputes outside the traditional bankruptcy process.

The justices ruled unanimously Monday that a Washington state bankruptcy court did not exceed its powers when it considered a lawsuit claiming the Bellingham Insurance Agency had wrongfully transferred assets to the another insurance company shortly before declaring bankruptcy.

Lower courts had upheld the bankruptcy court action. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the bankruptcy judge was simply making recommendations that were later approved by a federal judge and that all parties had consented to the proceeding.

The high court agreed that a bankruptcy court can rule on non-bankruptcy matters as long as a federal district court reviews those findings.

The case is Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkison, 12-1200.

Children over 21 go to back of visa line

By Sam Hananel

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that most immigrant children who have become adults during their parents' years-long wait to become legal permanent residents of the United States should go to the back of the line in their own wait for visas.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices sided with the Obama administration in finding that immigration laws offer relief only to a tiny percentage of children who "age out" of the system when they turn 21. The majority - tens of thousands of children- no longer qualify for the immigration status granted to minors.

The case is unusual in that it pitted the administration against immigration reform advocates who said government officials were misreading a law intended to keep families together by preventing added delays for children seeking visas.

The ruling also features President Barack Obama's two court appointees - Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor - on opposing sides of a complicated debate over what the law means and what Congress intended when it wrote the laws governing wait times for children seeking visas.

The case does not have any impact on the recent influx of thousands of immigrant children traveling on their own to cross the U.S. border from Mexico.

Five justices agreed with the outcome of the case but there was no majority opinion. Writing for three justices, Kagan said the law preserves the place in line for a child whose petition for a visa was filed directly by a parent who is a green card holder, but not for children in other categories. She was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion agreeing only with the outcome, but not Kagan's reasoning.

Because approving families for green cards can take years, tens of thousands of immigrant children age out of the system each year, according to government estimates. Congress tried to fix the problem in 2002 when it passed the Child Status Protection Act. The law allows aged-out children to retain their child status longer or qualify for a valid adult category and keep their place in line.

But appeals courts have split over whether the law applies to all children or only those in specific categories. The Obama administration argued that the law applied only to a narrow category of immigrants, leaving out most of the children affected. Government attorneys said that applying the law too broadly would lead to too many young adults entering the country ahead of others waiting in line.

Immigration advocates assert that the law was passed to promote family unity. According to Catholic Legal Immigration Network, forcing an aged-out child to go back to the end of the line would increase his or her wait time by more than nine years. By contrast, it says keeping the child's priority dates would increase the wait time for others by just a few months.

The case involved Rosalina Cuellar de Osorio, a Salvadoran immigrant who was in line for a visa along with her 13-year-old son. But after years of waiting, her son turned 21 and government officials said he no longer qualified as an eligible child. He was placed at the back of the line, resulting in a wait of several more years.

The family won its challenge before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision.

In a lengthy dissent, Sotomayor said there is no conflict in the law and it should be read to clearly allow all aged-out children to keep their place in line. She quotes a book by Scalia in which he says courts "do not lightly presume that Congress has legislated in self-contradicting terms."

Sotomayor was joined in dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissent.

A group of lawmakers in Congress when the law was passed - including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. - submitted a brief arguing against the government in the case.

Immigration reform groups were hoping the issue would be addressed in Congress. The Senate last year passed a bipartisan bill that would tighten border security, provide enforcement measures and offer a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. That measure stalled in the House, where Republicans have rejected a comprehensive approach in favor of a bill-by-bill process.

Court rules against homeowners in toxic water case

By Sam Hananel

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a group of homeowners in North Carolina can't sue a company that contaminated their drinking water decades ago because a state deadline has lapsed, a decision that could prevent thousands of other property owners in similar cases from recovering damages after being exposed to toxic waste.

In a 7-2 decision, the justices said state law strictly bars any lawsuit brought more than 10 years after the contamination occurred - even if residents did not realize their water was polluted until years later.

The high court reversed a lower court ruling that said federal environmental laws should trump the state law and allow the lawsuit against electronics manufacturer CTS Corp. to proceed.

The decision is a setback for the families of several thousand former North Carolina-based Marines suing the federal government in a separate case for exposing them to contaminated drinking water over several decades at Camp Lejeune. The government is relying on the same state law to avoid liability. That case is currently pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

The ruling on Monday involves property owners living on land where CTS used to make electronics equipment until it sold the property in 1987. It wasn't until 2009 that residents discovered their well water contained chemicals that can cause numerous health problems including cancers, reproductive disorders and birth defects.

North Carolina has a "statute of repose" that ends a plaintiff's right to seek damages to property more than 10 years after the last act of contamination occurred. The property owners argued that their claims were still valid under federal environmental laws, which give victims two years to sue from the date they discover what caused their illness.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Congress did not intend to pre-empt statutes of repose. He said federal environmental laws only pre-empt more traditional statutes of limitation, where the clock starts running at the time of the injury.

"The case for federal pre-emption is particularly weak where Congress has indicated its awareness of the operation of state law in a field of federal interest, and has nonetheless decided to stand by both concepts and to tolerate whatever tension there is between them," Kennedy said.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress was concerned about state statutes that "deprive plaintiffs of their day in court." That concern is apparent in the case of diseases like cancer that take years to develop before a victim understands the cause, she said.

Ginsburg said the majority's decision "gives contaminators an incentive to conceal the hazards they have created until the repose period has run its full course." She was joined in dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer.

Only four states other than North Carolina have statutes that place a similar time limit on property lawsuits: Connecticut (3 years), Kansas (10 years), Oregon (10 years) and Alabama (20 years).

At Camp Lejeune, health officials estimate as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted groundwater over several decades. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law providing health benefits to Marines and family members exposed to the water from 1957 to 1987.

Justices let stand $70 million in awards to smokers

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has turned away appeals from cigarette manufacturers of more than $70 million in court judgments to Florida smokers.

The justices did not comment Monday in rejecting the companies' complaints.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris USA Inc. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. wanted the court to review cases in which smokers won large damage awards without having to prove that the companies sold a defective and dangerous product or hid the risks of smoking.

Those cases all relied on a Florida court ruling that allows individual smokers or their surviving relatives to use jury findings in an earlier large class-action lawsuit, even though the verdict in that earlier case was overturned. Each plaintiff still has to show addiction to cigarettes, and resulting death or illness.

Published: Wed, Jun 11, 2014

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