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John Locher/The New York Times/Redux Photos

Prosecutor on trial

And other news briefs

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that would clarify some of the laws governing the war on terrorism. Abdullah al-Kidd, an American citizen, brought a suit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft for detaining him as a material witness, a detention al-Kidd alleges was a pretext for holding him as a terror suspect.

Federal officials arrested al-Kidd in 2003 as he was about to board a plane to Saudi Arabia, detaining him for 16 days as a witness for another case, for which he never testified. Under material witness laws, law enforcement officials can temporarily detain someone as a witness, but the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Ashcroft could be held responsible if he used the law as a pretext for terror detentions.

Ashcroft has pleaded for immunity from the high court. If the 9th Circuit's ruling stands, it "would seriously limit the circumstances in which prosecutors could invoke the material witness statute without fear of personal liability," wrote acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of Ashcroft.

New editorial climate?

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Doubts about climate-change science may appear more frequently on British airwaves now. The BBC on Oct. 12 issued new editorial guidelines that for the first time included science as a "controversial subject." The news organization came under fire last year when one of its reporters neglected to report the "Climategate" emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia, emails that called into question some of the data supporting global warming theory. At least one skeptic of man-made global warming theory doesn't expect a dramatic change in coverage of the issue. "It's highly unlikely that they'll be more balanced in their coverage," James Delingpole, a British columnist, told the Daily Telegraph. "It's a whole cultural thing at the BBC-that people who don't believe are just 'flat earthers.'"

De facto moratorium

When the Obama administration lifted its ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Oct. 12, the oil industry offered a lukewarm response: Executives say a bevy of new federal regulations could mire the permit process for weeks, keeping some oil rigs dormant until the end of the year. Administration officials acknowledged it could take weeks to re-evaluate rigs and issue new permits.

Industry leaders also pointed to problems facing smaller companies already drilling in shallow water: Those operators report that new regulations have acted as a de facto moratorium. They say officials granted only six permits in four months, instead of the usual 40 permits during the same time span last year. And they say the new regulations are dramatically raising insurance costs for small companies.

Meanwhile, fishermen along the Gulf Coast are anxiously awaiting the beginning of oyster season, slated for Nov. 15. Many are worried that oyster beds could have been damaged by the spill, and private leaseholders of some waters have reported large areas of dead oysters on reefs.

Cell test

For the first time, scientists have injected a human with human embryonic stem cells. Geron Corporation, a biopharmaceutical company, announced on Oct. 11 that it would test human embryonic stem cells on patients suffering from spinal cord injuries. Maureen Condic, a neurobiologist at the University of Utah's School of Medicine, said some researchers are concerned about unresolved safety issues and are surprised that the human clinical trial has progressed. The FDA put the clinical trial on hold last year when some mice developed spinal cord cysts after receiving human embryonic stem-cell treatment. The FDA lifted the clinical hold in July following an appeal from Geron.

Fighting back

The fight over Obamacare has moved from Congress to the courtroom. Opponents of the healthcare overhaul received good news on Oct. 14 when a federal judge ruled that a major legal challenge to the law could proceed. U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson denied the Obama administration's request to dismiss the case being brought by 20 states. These states argue that the law's requirement that Americans buy insurance represents a federal overreach. Vinson wrote that "the power that the individual mandate seeks to harness is simply without prior precedent." Vinson also allowed the states to challenge the law's requirement that states greatly expand their Medicaid programs.

In Virginia, on Oct. 19, a second federal judge heard more than two hours of oral arguments on a similar suit. "Virginia is trying to put the federal government back inside the constitutional fence the Founding Fathers put in place," said Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general. The final stop for both of these lawsuits will likely be the Supreme Court.

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