Tough crime measures get high court review


WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court, which opens its new term next week, will take up constitutional challenges this fall to two popular tough-on-crime measures of the 1990s: Megan's Laws, which alert the public to sex offenders who were released from prison, and three-strikes laws, which can keep three-time offenders in prison for life.

Judges in California, Connecticut and Alaska have ruled that these laws sometimes go too far.

They say Megan's Laws brand as dangerous all former offenders, even if their crimes were long in the past. And in California, shoplifting can be the third strike that sends a two-time offender to prison for life.

The high court also will decide whether states can force drug makers to discount the price of prescription drugs. With the debate on how to temper soaring drug costs stalled in Congress, lawyers for the pharmaceutical industry and the Bush administration are urging the court to void Maine's discount-drugs law.

And in a case that has attracted wide interest in the entertainment industry, the court will decide the fate of a 1998 law that extended the copyrights for films, books, songs and plays that were released in the 1920s and 1930s.

These are among the 41 cases set for arguments this fall, with the first to be heard Oct. 7.

But the fall term truly gets underway this week when the nine justices meet behind closed doors for the annual ritual of sifting through the nearly 2,000 appeals that arrived over the summer.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who hates to take time even for discussion or debate, will ask fellow justices to vote on a list of appeals that, in his view, raise a significant and disputed legal question. It takes at least four votes to grant an appeal. And as early as tomorrow, the court is expected to announce new cases that will be taken up in the coming months.

So far, there are no cases arising directly from the war on terrorism.

The Justice Department says it will appeal a ruling that opens the immigration hearings for people picked up during the FBI's anti-terrorism probe. Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered all such hearings closed to the public and media. But in August, a U.S. appeals court sided with Detroit's newspapers and ruled that the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of the press forbids secret hearings.

Terrorism also might cast a shadow over several current cases.

One case, from Oxnard, Calif., tests whether a police officer can try to force a confession out of man who has been shot and is near death.

In the war on terrorism, information about al-Qaida operatives is more important than possible testimony in a criminal trial. Ashcroft wants federal agents to be free to hold witnesses and suspects and pressure them to talk. He hopes these detainees can tip off agents to other plotters.

If the Supreme Court upholds a constitutional "right to be free of coercive questioning," Olson said in a court brief, it "will undermine legitimate efforts to obtain potentially life-saving information during emergencies."

The war on terrorism also might affect the outcome in a pending deportation case.

Congress in 1996 said that immigrants who commit crimes in the United States must be deported. The government also insists they remain jailed until their deportation.

Last year, however, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said this mandatory detention rule is extreme, unfair and unconstitutional.

Olson urges the Supreme Court to reverse that decision and to rule that deportable immigrants can be jailed without a hearing. If the high court agrees, most legal challenges to last year's roundup of 1,200 immigrants in the terrorism probe would be swept aside.

David G. Savage is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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