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Washington�Rejecting the views of the Bush administration and several foreign governments, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 7 ruled that federal law allows Americans to sue other nations in U.S. courts for war crimes from long ago and other offenses. By a 6-3 vote, the court gave the green light to a suit by a California woman, Maria Altmann, against the Austrian government. She is seeking to recover valuable paintings owned by her uncle that were expropriated after World War II. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority in Republic of Austria v. Altmann, No. 03-13, said the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows for certain civil suits against foreign governments, applies to conduct that occurred before the law’s passage in 1976. Stevens emphasized the narrowness of the ruling, noting that the U.S. and foreign governments will still be able to argue that sovereign immunity should apply under other doctrines, or that the suits should fail because of statutes of limitations or treaty obligations. “Nothing in our holding prevents the State Department from filing statements of interest suggesting the courts decline to exercise jurisdiction in particular cases implicating foreign sovereign immunity,” he wrote. In dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the decision “injects great prospective uncertainty into our relations with foreign sovereigns.” Joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, he said traditional presumptions against the retroactivity of new laws should have prevailed. The paintings sought by Altmann had hung in the Vienna home of her uncle. She won at the district court level and before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. CONSTITUTIONAL LAW Reversing a 10th Circuit decision, the justices ruled that a Littleton, Colo., ordinance controlling the licensing of adult businesses is constitutional even though it does not facially provide for a “prompt judicial determination” of any First Amendment challenge to the constitutionality of the ordinance. City of Littleton v. Z.J. Gifts D-4 LLC, No. 02-1609. The court rejected the municipality’s argument that the statute’s provision for “prompt access” to judicial review of a licensing decision satisfied constitutional concerns. The justices agreed, however, with Littleton’s second contention: that Colorado law satisfied any requirement for a “prompt judicial determination.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the majority opinion, joined by justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rehnquist. Justices Kennedy and David H. Souter joined in part. Stevens and Souter filed separate opinions concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Antonin Scalia concurred separately in the judgment. EMPLOYMENT LAW In a unanimous ruling, the justices held that Section 204(g) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) bars the amendment of a plan to redefine post-retirement employment in such a way as to terminate early retirement benefits already accrued. Central Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Heinz, No. 02-891. Affirming a 7th Circuit decision, the court said that ERISA’s anti-cutback provision was essential to the act’s central object of protecting employees’ justified expectations of receiving the benefits that they had been promised. The decision comes in a case where construction worker Thomas Heinz had taken early retirement, with the understanding that he could still work as a supervisor. The plan’s administrator later redefined disqualifying work to include supervisory positions and terminated Heinz’s benefits. Souter wrote the court’s opinion. Joined by Rehnquist, Ginsburg and O’Connor, Breyer concurred. ENVIRONMENTAL LAW In another unanimous ruling, this one penned by Thomas, the high court ruled that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was not required to assess the environmental impact of licensing Mexican motor carriers to operate within the United States, because the ultimate authority on that issue is the president. Dept. of Transp. v. Public Citizen, No. 03-358. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, had argued that the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and the Clean Air Act (CAA) compelled a more thorough review of the environmental impact of allowing Mexican trucks on U.S. roadways than the FMCSA had deemed necessary. The agency contended that its role was simply one of promulgating safety regulations, and that any environmental impact would be caused not by its regulations, but by the president’s lifting of a moratorium against operation of the trucks here. Siding with the FMCSA, the justices concluded that because the agency lacks the discretion to permit cross-border operation of Mexican trucks, that neither NEPA nor the CAA compelled the agency to evaluate the environmental effect of its regulations. BANKRUPTCY LAW The high court on June 7 agreed to add to its docket next term a case to decide whether individual retirement accounts are exempt from Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings. Rousey v. Jacoway, No. 03-1407. The 8th Circuit last year ruled that two IRAs, one of nearly $43,000 and one of more than $12,000, were not exempt. The accounts, which had been rolled over from their previous employer’s pension plans, had not received any further deposits and, save for tax penalties, could be withdrawn at will. With those characteristics, under the appeals court’s precedents, the accounts should be included in the bankruptcy estate, even though four other courts of appeals have ruled otherwise. – From NLJ Staff Reports

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