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The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 22 and 23 rendered the following decisions: The justices ruled, 5-3, that state prisons cannot temporarily segregate inmates by race except under the most extraordinary circumstances, thereby ending a long-standing California policy aimed at reducing gang-related violence. Johnson v. California, No. 03-636. At issue was California’s policy of requiring officials to bunk inmates by race for the first 60 days after their arrival, and upon transfer to a new facility. The lawsuit was brought by Garrison S. Johnson, a black inmate in prison since 1987 for murder, robbery and assault. He contended the policy violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection, saying he was constantly humiliated by the segregation after each of his five prison transfers. “Racial classifications raise special fears that they are motivated by an invidious purpose,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority. She was joined by justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens dissented. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not take part in the considerations. The justices ruled unanimously that a dredge is a “vessel” for purposes of the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which allows seamen to sue for damages for job-related injuries. Workers injured on dredges will not be limited to workers’ compensation but may also sue vessel owners for negligence. Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co., No. 03-814 The high court reversed lower court opinions that had prevented Willard Stewart, an injured engineer, from suing Dutra Construction Co. after he fell through a hatch when the dredge he was working on collided with a nearby floating platform used to collect sediment. Writing on behalf of the court, Thomas stated that since Congress’ enactment of the statute a vessel has been defined as “any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.” The justices ruled, 5-4, that it was unconstitutional double jeopardy for a judge in midtrial to throw out a gun possession charge, then change her mind and reinstate it later in the trial. Smith v. Massachusetts, No. 03-8661. The case involved Melvin Smith, who was convicted on several charges arising out of a 1996 shooting. One of those charges was unlawful possession of a firearm. During the trial, the judge found him not guilty of the firearm charge after the defense had argued that the prosecution rested without proving all the required elements of the crime. The judge later reconsidered and sent the charge to the jury after all. Writing for the majority, Scalia said “False assurance of acquittal on one count may induce the defendant to present defenses to the remaining counts that are inadvisable-for example, a defense that entails admission of guilt on the acquitted count.” Scalia’s opinion was joined by Stevens, O’Connor, Souter and Thomas. Ginsburg filed a dissent in which Rehnquist, Kennedy and Breyer joined. The justices also heard arguments last week in a closely watched property rights case. The issue is the protection the Fifth Amendment’s public-use requirement provides for individuals whose property is being condemned, not for the elimination of slums or blight, but for the sole purpose of economic development. Kelo v. New London, No. 04-108 [See NLJ Roundtable, 12-6-04, Page 12.]. The justices added a high-profile case to its docket for next term when it agreed to review Oregon’s doctor-assisted suicide law. The U.S. attorney general has said that the Controlled Substances Act prohibits the distribution of federally controlled substances to facilitate an individual’s suicide, regardless of Oregon’s Death With Dignity statute permitting such distribution. Gonzales v. Oregon, No. 04-623 The justices will also hear arguments on two consolidated cases that ask whether employers have to compensate employees for the time they spend daily waiting to be issued required safety equipment. IBP Inc. v. Alvarez, No. 03-1238, consolidated with Tum v. Barber Food, No. 04-66. The justices agreed to resolve the question of whose burden it is to prove the adequacy of a plan to provide educational opportunities to disabled children under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Schaffer v. Weast, No. 04-698.

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