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The U.S. Supreme Court passed up a chance yesterday to get into the delicate issue of judicial recusals in a case that questioned the impartiality of a California judge. An appeals court had said that the judge appeared to be biased against anti-logging protesters and reassigned the demonstrators’ lawsuit. The protesters had sued, claiming that they were hurt when pepper spray was applied to their eyelids in 1997. They were shackled at the time, and their suit seeks to prevent police from using chemicals on nonviolent protesters. Attorneys for Humboldt County, Calif., and several lawmen had asked the Supreme Court to reinstate U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to the case. Justices refused without comment. The trial was to begin last spring when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided to have the case heard by another judge. Walker had already dismissed the case once, only to have his decision overturned on appeal. He was criticized for plans to move the 2003 trial from San Francisco to a city closer to the location of the protest, which environmental activists said would result in a jury sympathetic to the law officers. The recusal subject has also been up for debate at the Supreme Court. Last week, Justice Antonin Scalia rebuffed a request that he stay out of a case involving his good friend, Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney and Scalia hunted together in Louisiana in January shortly after the court agreed to consider whether the Bush administration must release information about closed-door meetings of Cheney’s energy task force. Congressional Democrats contend the Supreme Court should re-evaluate its recusal process, which is unique because justices decide for themselves if they will stay out of a case, and their decisions are final. The California case dates to the fall of 1997, when there were multiple sit-ins protesting the cutting of ancient redwood trees. When demonstrators, who had chained themselves with a 25-pound steel device, would not leave, law officers applied pepper spray near their eyes. Television coverage of the arrests, and of the protesters’ screams of pain, was broadcast nationally. The case is Humboldt County v. Headwaters Forest Defense. Also yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to consider a health-funding dispute between the government and two American Indian tribes, a case with about $100 million at stake nationwide. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected arguments that the government did not live up to promises made in contracts with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Shoshone-Paiute tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada. Attorneys for the tribes said the outcome will affect more than 300 tribes. At issue is a law that allows the government to contract with tribes for services that would normally be provided by the government. Tribes in about 35 states have contracts for things like running hospitals, clinics or community health care programs, the court was told. The cases are Cherokee Nation v. United States and Thompson v. Cherokee Nation.

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