Justices reject request to block mercury rule

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from 20 states seeking to block a federal rule targeting mercury pollution from taking effect while the government revises the rule to account for compliance costs.

The justices on Monday left in place a federal appeals court ruling that said the rule could remain in place while the Environmental Protection Agency fixes legal problems and comes out with a revision. The EPA revised its cost analysis in April.

The high court ruled last year that the EPA should have considered costs and benefits before imposing limits on mercury and other air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. But the justices let the rule stay in effect while the lower court decided how a cost-benefits analysis should be conducted.

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Court won't hear dispute over birthright citizenship

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a group of American Samoans who say the United States should grant full citizenship to people born in the U.S. territory.

The justices on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that said the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship does not extend to the islands that have been a part of the country since 1900.

Current law considers American Samoans to be "nationals," not full citizens like those born in Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories. Nationals are allowed to work and live anywhere in the United States, but unlike citizens, they can't vote or hold elective office.

The challengers said that the law violates the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last year that birthright citizenship does not automatically apply to the nation's unincorporated political territories.

The lawsuit was filed by a small group of American Samoans who did not have the support of the islands' government officials. The government of American Samoa has argued that automatic U.S. citizenship could undermine local traditions and practices, including rules that restrict land ownership to those of Samoan ancestry.

The Obama administration also weighed in against the challengers, saying the issue should be decided by Congress if the elected government of American Samoa changes its position.

About 56,000 people live in American Samoa. People born there who want full citizenship must leave the territory and live in a U.S. state for at least three months to apply for naturalization. Many complain that the inconvenience and expense of the process deters them from pursuing citizenship.

The lawsuit's lead plaintiff, Leneuoti Tuaua, said he wanted to become a law enforcement officer in California but couldn't because he isn't a citizen.

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Law aimed at domestic violence on tribal lands upheld

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a federal law and its stiff prison terms aimed at people who have been convicted of repeated acts of domestic violence on Indian lands.

The justices said in a unanimous decision that the law can be used against defendants, even if they did not have lawyers in earlier domestic violence convictions in tribal courts.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees an attorney for criminal defendants in state and federal courts. Under the Indian Civil Rights Act, defendants have the right to hire their own attorneys in tribal court but are not guaranteed that one will be retained by the court for them.

The high court ruled in the case of Michael Bryant Jr., who received a 46-month federal prison term after pleading guilty to assaulting two women. Bryant's record included at least five domestic assault convictions in tribal courts on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. For most of these assaults, Bryant received jail time of a year or less, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her opinion for the court.

But the U.S. appeals court in San Francisco threw out Bryant's federal prison sentence because his earlier domestic violence convictions were handled without a lawyer.

The justices reversed that ruling Monday. "But, we have long held, the Bill of Rights, including the Sixth Amendment, does not govern tribal-court proceedings," Ginsburg said.

The Indian Civil Rights Act restricts the right to a lawyer to sentences that exceed a year, Ginsburg said. And Bryant never received a sentence that long in tribal court, she said.

The case is U.S. v Bryant, 15-420.

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Court eases rules for more money in patent lawsuits

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court has made it easier for patent holders to collect additional money when someone copies their invention without getting permission or paying for it.

The court said in a unanimous ruling Monday that judges have discretion to award additional damages in patent infringement lawsuits in what Chief Justice John Roberts called "egregious cases of misconduct."

Roberts said the court's decision represents a loosening of the "inelastic constraints" on judges in patent cases.

The court ruled in cases involving a water nozzle and a device used to clean wounds during surgery.

The cases are Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, 14-1513, and Stryker Corp. v. Zimmer Inc., 14-1520.

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Justices rule against Puerto Rico in debt case

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Puerto Rico can't restructure more than $20 billion in public debt as it tries to overcome a decade-long economic crisis.

The 5-2 ruling said that federal bankruptcy law bars Puerto Rico from enacting its own law to restructure the debt of its financially ailing public utilities. The decision means the U.S. territory must wait for Congress to pass debt-relief legislation that would address its fiscal woes.

Puerto Rico lawmakers passed the law in 2014 to help cash-strapped utilities meet obligations to bondholders and creditors. Puerto Rico argued that it could enact its own measures since the island is precluded from using bankruptcy law. But the Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that struck down the law.

The commonwealth is mired in recession and cannot pay $72 billion in public debt.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the plain text of the law bars Puerto Rico from enacting its own municipal bankruptcy schemes. He said Congress "would have said so" if it didn't want the exclusion to apply to the island.

"Congress does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes," Thomas said.

The case has diminished in importance since Congress began considering legislation that would create a new control board to manage the territory's finances and allow the board to supervise some court-ordered debt restructuring. Help for the debt-stricken territory may be just weeks after the House voted Friday to approve the bill.

Lawmakers had hoped to pass the measure before May 1, when Puerto Rico defaulted on $370 million in bond payments. GOP leaders are now focusing on a July 1 deadline, when around $2 billion in principle and interest payments come due.

A high court ruling in Puerto Rico's favor would have given the island more leverage to negotiate with creditors, even as Congress moves closer to passing debt-relief legislation.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, filed a dissent that was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She said preventing the island from passing its own debt restructuring laws "means that a government is left powerless and with no legal process to help its 3.5 million citizens."

"Congress could step in to resolve Puerto Rico's crisis," Sotomayor said. "But, in the interim, the government should not have to wait for possible congressional action to avert the consequences of unreliable electricity, transportation and safe water."

The issue before the high court was how to interpret a 1984 amendment to the nation's federal bankruptcy laws. The law allows states to let their cities and utilities seek bankruptcy relief, but it specifically excludes Puerto Rico - a territory - from doing so.

Puerto Rico lawmakers passed their own version of bankruptcy laws in 2014 to help the island's utilities meet obligations to bondholders and creditors. But a federal district court agreed with creditors - including BlueMountain Capital Management, OppenheimerFunds Inc. and Franklin Advisers Inc. - in ruling that the local measure is not allowed under federal bankruptcy law. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, said the ruling makes it "essential" for Congress to pass legislation to help lift the island out of its economic crisis.

Matthew McGill, a lawyer who represented BlueMountain Capital Management, said the company looks forward to "working collaboratively" with Puerto Rico's electric utility to restructure the debt.

The pending bill in Congress contains language that would prevent Puerto Rico from using its own laws to restructure public debt.

The island has been under a state of emergency and many businesses have closed, schools have lacked sufficient resources like electricity and some hospitals are limiting treatment. Puerto Rico's governor says the island can't pay the bonds without cutting essential services.

Only seven justices heard the case. Justice Antonin Scalia died in February and Justice Samuel Alito recused himself. Alito owns shares in a tax-free fund that invests in Puerto Rican bonds and is involved in the case.

Published: Wed, Jun 15, 2016