A busy week for the Supremes


Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2003," Dec. 13, 2003

A decade after White House attorney Vince Foster's suicide, one man's crusade for the release of photos of Foster's dead body reached the Supreme Court. On Dec. 3, Allan Favish said in oral arguments before the Supreme Court that the government can't be trusted to filter raw evidence from the public. Mr. Favish has been seeking 10 ghoulish photos of the body through the open-records law known as the Freedom of Information Act. The White House lawyer died of gunshot wounds ruled self-inflicted. Mr. Favish and many conspiracy theorists argue that the long-time Clinton family friend's death was a homicide.

Foster's relatives have argued the release of the photographs would reopen healing wounds. And lawyers for the Bush administration told the justices that many Foster records have already been made available to the public and that the open-records law requires "not maximum disclosure, but responsible disclosure."

In other Supreme Court news last week:

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The court ruled in the case of LaShawn Banks, who in 1998 stepped out of the shower soapy and wet and then discovered police officers searching his Las Vegas apartment for drugs. The justices held that police don't have to wait any longer than 20 seconds before busting into a home to serve a warrant. This was the first time the Supreme Court specified how long police must wait after knocking on the door before breaking in. The court didn't set a 20-second standard in so many words, but Justice David Souter penned in the majority opinion that 15-20 seconds is sufficient time to respond but not enough time to flush cocaine down the toilet.

The Bush administration asked the justices to overturn a decision the White House argues is so wrongheaded it would even protect at-large terrorist Osama bin Laden from capture. The high court agreed to decide whether U.S. government agents can covertly arrest suspects in other countries, contrary to a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court.

Gun-owner groups complained that the high court misfired badly in its understanding of the Second Amendment. The court refused to hear a California case on whether the Constitution guarantees individuals the right to own any sort of firearm. The decision lets stand a 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruling that the Second Amendment's intent was to guarantee the right to arm militias, not individuals. By ducking the case, the Supreme Court refused to clear up any perceived ambiguity over the Second Amendment. The last time the Supreme Court heard a major gun-rights case was 1939 and then too, the court never said whether the right to "keep and bear arms" applied to ordinary citizens or just militias.

The court also considered whether citizens should be able to sue over privacy violations even if they're not able to show actual damages. At issue is whether a coal miner-who was appealing for black-lung benefits with the Department of Labor-can sue the government for using his Social Security number publicly as his case number, putting him at risk for identity theft. In 1997, seven coal miners sued the Department of Labor, contending that public use of their Social Security numbers violated the federal Privacy Act.


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