by Pete Yost
The Associated Press
The Supreme Court agreed Friday to step into an environmental dispute over a gold mining operation near Juneau, Alaska and a California criminal case in which a convicted killer was granted a new trial.
The decisions to hear the cases were among the last actions by the Supreme Court before its lengthy summer break. The term that began in October featured major rulings striking down the handgun ban in the District of Columbia, slashing by 80 percent a punitive damages award for victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and granting prisoners at Guantanamo Bay access to U.S. civilian courts.
In the Alaska case that the court will hear next winter, a mining company and the state of Alaska are fending off a challenge by environmentalists to the planned dumping of tailings from gold mining into 23-acre Lower Slate Lake in the Tongass National Forest.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for the dumping after the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to a regulatory change in 2002. The rule defines “fill” as “tailings or similar mining-related materials.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco invalidated the permit, saying the dumping is barred by stringent EPA pollution-control requirements under the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Dumping the tailings would kill all the fish and nearly all aquatic life and deposit potentially hazardous materials including aluminum, copper, lead and mercury, the appeals court said.
It has been illegal since 1982 for new gold mines using a particular mining process to discharge waste into lakes or rivers. The corps permit would allow the discharge.
The corps has often issued permits in situations that create tailing ponds. Environmentalists say the current permit is the first to authorize the discharge of mining process wastewater into a navigable waterway.
The case is Coeur Alaska Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, 07-984; State of Alaska v. SACC, 07-990.
In the criminal case in California, the justices agreed to review another ruling by the federal appeals court in San Francisco, this one in favor of a man who was convicted of fatally stabbing and shooting his cousin in Los Angeles.
The appeals court said Alexandre Mirzayance is entitled to a new trial because his lawyer persuaded him not to pursue an insanity defense. A jury convicted Mirzayance of first-degree murder, although the lawyer had sought lesser charges.
The high court will consider whether the appeals court should have deferred to state court rulings that affirmed the conviction.
The case is Knowles v. Mirzayance, 07-1315.
Separately, despite the urging of the Bush administration, the court refused to hear the case of a widow denied $426,000 in life insurance benefits on grounds that a federal retirement law does not entitle her to sue for compensation. Lawyers for the Houston-area woman asked the court to intervene in the dispute, in which Melissa Amschwand accuses her late husband’s employer of breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the life insurance policy.
Aetna denied benefits because Amschwand’s ailing husband never returned to work for at least a day, a requirement for triggering the life insurance coverage.
The case is Amschwand v. Spherion, 07-841.