By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear four new cases, addressing matters as diverse as the reach of a law designed to combat chemical weapons, and whether lawyers could be sued for having once represented convicted swindler Allen Stanford.
Two more cases, one involving workplace bias, and another on whether a state could retroactively withdraw a murder suspect's ability to raise a defense, make up the four cases likely to be the last heard by the court in its current term, ending in June.
Arguments may be heard in April for some of the four cases.
The chemical weapons case involved an appeal by Carol Anne Bond, a Pennsylvania microbiologist convicted of trying to poison a former friend who had an affair with her husband.
Bond admitted to trying to poison Myrlinda Haynes with toxic chemicals she took from her employer. Bond sprinkled lethal compounds on Haynes' mailbox, car door handles and house doorknob between November 2006 and June 2007.
Such cases are normally handled by local prosecutors under state criminal laws. However, Bond was prosecuted under a 1998 U.S. law banning the use of chemical weapons other than for a "peaceful purpose."
That law grew out of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, an international agreement designed to keep rogue countries and terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
Bond was sentenced to six years in prison after entering a guilty plea that gave her a right to appeal the use of that law in her case. She said its use invaded the powers reserved to U.S. states under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The case presents an unusual clash between the desire to enforce international treaties, including provisions designed to thwart terrorism, against the 10th Amendment.
Last May, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld the conviction, despite finding that the law "turns each kitchen cupboard and cleaning cabinet in America into a potential chemical weapons cache."
STANFORD, OTHER CASES
The Supreme Court also agreed to decide whether New York-based law firms Chadbourne & Parke and Proskauer Rose, which once represented Allen Stanford, could avoid lawsuits by people who lost money in his $7 billion Ponzi scheme.
Willis Group Holdings Plc, the insurance brokerage, was also sued over its alleged role in the fraud.
The defendants argued that the federal Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA) precluded state-law class actions over alleged misrepresentations made "in connection with" the purchase or sale of covered securities.
Stanford's fraud involved the sale of certificates of deposit by his Antigua-based bank, and much of the investor litigation centered on whether these were securities.
A federal judge in October 2011 ruled that SLUSA preempted the state law cases, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and revived the cases. Stanford is serving a 110-year prison sentence.
The court also accepted two other cases for review:
- Whether a clinician at a Texas university medical center could pursue a claim that he was retaliated against in the workplace if he shows that bias was only one factor in the alleged retaliation, not the only factor;
- Whether Michigan could retroactively withdraw the right of Burt Lancaster to claim a defense of diminished mental capacity at his second trial over his girlfriend's 1993 death. The defense was available to him at his first trial, but not at his second because of a change in the law. A federal appeals court said Michigan violated his rights by withdrawing the defense. Lancaster is not related to the former Hollywood actor.
Including the cases on Friday, the Supreme Court has this term accepted 78 cases for review, in line with its average over the last decade. In its 2011-12 term, the full court issued signed opinions in 64 cases and unsigned opinions in 11 others.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes in New York; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Jackie Frank)