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Business-laden docket greets new term

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is about to plunge into an agenda laden with issues affecting the business sector. Tobacco companies, the biotech industry and operators of coal-fired power plants have a stake in cases the court will hear in the next month.

Of the 38 cases the court has agreed to consider so far in the term that begins Monday, 17 are business-related, “an unusually high fraction of the court’s docket,” Washington lawyer Roy Englert says.

Chief Justice John Roberts was managing partner of a major law firm that had a very sizable portfolio of business clients and is “comfortable with the issues presented in business cases in ways that Chief Justice William Rehnquist” was not, Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec says.

Philip Morris USA is fighting an $80 million punitive damage award to the widow of a lung-cancer victim who smoked two packs of Marlboros a day.

Duke Energy Corp. is trying to protect its lower-court victory enabling aging, refitted generating units to operate at full throttle without costly pollution-control equipment. On these and other cases, companies looking for help from the conservative wing of the court may have their work cut out.

For example, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and conservative Justice Antonin Scalia are allies when it comes to punitive damages. Scalia says the issue is “the province of state governments,” ominous words for Philip Morris’ position.

The newest justice, Samuel Alito, comes to the court with a pro-business reputation. But it is uncertain where Alito and Roberts will come down on issues such as punitive-damage awards. As an appeals-court judge, he sided with companies in employment and discrimination cases.

The court this term will consider the case of Lily Ledbetter, found by a jury to have been paid substantially less than the men in her department at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. A favorable ruling for business would sharply restrict the time employees have to sue for illegal discrimination in pay.

In the realm of consumer rights, two insurance companies are fighting allegations they should have notified people about adverse information in their credit reports. The consumers say Geico and Safeco denied them insurance or increased premiums based on credit data.

And two major battles are under way involving patent law. The court will consider a dispute over a gas-pedal design for trucks; this case asks whether an invention is so obvious it does not deserve a patent.

Finally, large companies are watching a battle between two biotech businesses over a childhood respiratory drug.

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