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The U.S. Supreme Court on April 26 and April 27 rendered the following decisions: The justices ruled, 7-2, that most state tort actions are not prohibited by federal law and, thus, that 29 peanut farmers in Texas can proceed with their products liability lawsuit against Dow AgroSciences LLC after the Dow Chemical Co. subsidiary’s weed killer unexpectedly destroyed their crops. Bates v. Dow AgroSciences, No. 03-388. The ruling reinstates the farmers’ claim that Dow had failed to warn of possible risks. A lower court had ruled that federal law bars states from imposing labeling requirements on pesticides other than those set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Justice John Paul Stevens, on behalf of the court, ordered the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take a second look at the case. Stevens said that Dow’s claim that the lawsuit should be barred because it relates to the company’s labeling isn’t necessarily accurate, since the claims could involve questions of whether the product was defective. At issue was the question of whether federal law pre-empts state law in suits alleging a defective product. “The long history of tort litigation against manufacturers of poisonous substances adds force to the basic presumption against pre-emption,” Stevens wrote. His opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part. The justices ruled, 5-3, that a criminal conviction in a foreign court cannot be the basis for prosecuting a charge of illegal possession of a gun by a convicted felon. The court held that a federal law that prohibits felons who have been convicted in “any court” from owning guns applies only to domestic crimes. Small v. United States, No. 03-750. Writing for the majority, Breyer said that “Congress generally legislates with domestic concerns in mind,” and that there was no evidence from the law’s legislative history that Congress was thinking of foreign convictions. Interpreting the law broadly to apply to foreign convictions would be unfair to defendants, Breyer said, because procedural protections are often less strictly applied in other countries. His opinion was joined by Stevens, O’Connor, Souter and Ginsburg. Thomas’ dissent was joined by Scalia and Kennedy. The justices ruled, 5-4, that people who cheat foreign governments of tax revenue can be prosecuted under U.S. law for wire fraud. Pasquantino v. United States of America, No. 03-725. The court upheld the fraud convictions of three men accused of sneaking thousands of cases of alcohol into Canada from the United States and avoiding millions of dollars in Canadian taxes. Canada did not pursue the trio for tax evasion, but American prosecutors did, and the three were sentenced to prison. The justices ruled that U.S. wire fraud law can be used if a scheme involves the defrauding of foreign governments. “It may seem an odd use of the federal government’s resources to prosecute a U.S. citizen for smuggling cheap liquor into Canada,” Thomas wrote on behalf of the majority. “But the broad language of the wire fraud statute says so.” His opinion was joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor and Kennedy. Ginsburg’s dissent was joined by Scalia, Souter and Breyer. The justices held, 5-4, that because a petitioner filed his federal habeas petition beyond the deadline and is not entitled to statutory or equitable tolling for any of that time period, his federal petition is barred by the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s statute of limitations. Pace v. DiGuglielmo, No. 03-9627. Following Pennsylvania state court rulings that the post-conviction petition of a man, sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, was untimely under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act, a federal district court found that under the federal antiterrorism act’s statute of limitations, a petitioner is entitled to both statutory and equitable tolling while his state petition, though untimely, is pending. The justices ruled that a petition filed after a time limit, which does not fit within any exceptions to that limit, is no more “properly filed” than a petition filed after a time limit permitting no exception. Rehnquist’s opinion was joined by O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas. Stevens’ dissent was joined by Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. -ALM, AP Former POWs denied The justices declined to consider whether U.S. prisoners of war who say they were tortured in the 1991 Persian Gulf War should collect a $959 million judgment from Iraq. The justices let stand the D.C. Circuit ruling that held that Congress had never authorized such lawsuits against foreign governments. [NLJ, April 18].

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