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Court: Whistleblowers can sue local governments

©Associated Press
March 11, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that whistleblowers who suspect a local government is misusing federal funds can sue to help recover the money.

The decision is a victory for the Bush administration, which argued that whistle-blowers are a major weapon for fighting local fraud.

Justices used psychologist Janet Chandler's case to clarify that individuals can sue local governments under the federal False Claims Act, after notifying the federal government. She was fired after alleging wrongdoing at a hospital clinic.

The case is Cook County vs. United States.

MIRANDA RIGHTS: The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider limits on police questioning, revisiting its 1966 Miranda ruling that officers must warn people they arrest of their right to remain silent and see a lawyer.

Justices will review an appeal from a convicted drug dealer who said his confession was wrongly obtained when police came to his home after getting an indictment.

The case is Fellers vs. United States.

ASBESTOS EXPOSURE: Some workers exposed to cancer-causing asbestos on the job can collect monetary damages in court even if they do not yet have cancer and may never develop it, a divided court ruled Monday.

The fear of developing cancer is grounds enough to collect for workers who already have asbestosis, a separate asbestos-related ailment, and can document their health fears, the court said by a vote of 5-4.

The court sided with six retired railroad workers who won $5.8-million from Norfolk & Western Railway Co. The trial judge later reduced the awards to about $4.9-million.

In dissent, four justices said if these workers and others like them can collect money, there may be nothing left to compensate people who do not have asbestosis but who will develop asbestos-related cancer. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the dissenting opinion for himself, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer.

The case is Norfolk & Western Railway vs. Ayers.

BABY BELL LAWSUITS: The Supreme Court said Monday it will consider blocking some lawsuits that accuse Baby Bell companies of anticompetitive business practices.

The case has big-money implications for the Bells and their rivals in local telephone service. At stake for consumers is the ability to use federal laws to sue over poor phone service, and potentially other things.

The case is Verizon Communications vs. Trinko.

COURT SETTLEMENTS WITH STATES: The Supreme Court agreed Monday to examine the court system's ability to enforce deals that states often strike to end mass lawsuits and whether states can later claim they are immune to allegations that they had not lived up to the bargain.

The case about Medicaid benefits for the poor could further the Supreme Court's recent line of states' rights rulings that have increased state powers at the expense of individuals and Congress.

The case is Frew vs. Gilbert.

In other action Monday, the court:

Granted the Bush administration permission to present its views during oral arguments in a marquee affirmative action case next month. The administration opposes the University of Michigan's race-conscious admissions policies but is not a party to the case.

Rejected an Internet trash talk case that would have clarified where someone can sue after being libeled on the World Wide Web. The court refused to be drawn into a dispute between two Egyptology scholars whose disagreements spilled over into exchanges on the Web.

Turned back a free-speech appeal from New York real estate agents over a law that prevented them from soliciting clients in some neighborhoods. The 1969 law is intended to stop agents from scaring residents into selling their homes cheap, with insinuations that new neighbors are driving down house prices.

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