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The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review a 55-year-old case brought against the federal government by the families of three civilian engineers killed during the crash of an Air Force bomber. Presented as a request for a writ of error coram vobis, to reverse a decision in which the court was defrauded, the petition derives from a suit originally filed by Drinker Biddle & Reath patriarch Charles Biddle. The petition, called In re Patricia J. Herring, was denied certiorari without comment Monday. “Our clients are very disappointed,” Drinker Biddle partner Wilson Brown, who picked up the case this year, said in a statement. “This was, of course, a highly unusual petition. But it was a petition we thought the court could and would exercise its discretion to take.” Despite this latest setback, Brown said he and his clients “will be reviewing other options” as they continue to pursue the claim. Though denied a hearing by the Court, Drinker Biddle may continue to fight the case in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. “The government pointed out in its response that one alternative to immediate Supreme Court consideration might be an independent action brought in the district court,” Brown said. “Our clients will certainly be considering that, as well as other potential remedies, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.” After the B-29 Superfortress crashed near Waycross, Ga., in 1948, killing nine of the 13 men aboard, the widows of the Philadelphia-area engineers sought damages against the Air Force in federal court. Though the Air Force refused to surrender the results of its internal investigation of the crash, the widows were awarded a total of $225,000 — the equivalent of $1.5 million in today’s dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator. Arguing that the widows’ claim that Air Force negligence was responsible for the crash was unsupported — and that the release of any information on the aircraft or its mission would pose a threat to national security — the government appealed. Though the government’s appeal was defeated in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court overturned the district court’s verdict, ruling in United States v. Reynolds that even federal judges were not necessarily entitled to access sensitive information if national security could consequently suffer. The precedent would later be cited in a number of government secrecy cases, including the Court’s 1974 ruling that President Nixon had to release the Watergate tapes. In an out-of-court settlement, the Air Force agreed to pay a total of $170,000. Decades later, Judith Loether, the daughter of one of the engineers, obtained a copy of the now-declassified accident report. Reportedly concluding that an engine fire resulting from poor maintenance had caused the accident, the document appeared to contain no military secrets — just evidence of an Air Force coverup. Drinker Biddle was called on once again to argue the case that first caught the imagination of Biddle, who served as a pilot during World War I, in the early 1950s. Suing the Air Force for deceiving the court and seeking to vacate the decision made in Reynolds, Loether and the relatives of the other civilians who died in the crash are seeking what the plaintiffs have calculated is the rough 2003 equivalent of the $55,000 the Air Force deducted from the original verdict plus 50 years’ worth of interest: $1.14 million. The Air Force press office declined to comment on the case.

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