(by Joseph Goldstein, NYSun.com) WASHINGTON – Sixty-four years ago on the battlefields of France, a round of ammunition exploded in Woodrow Sanders’s face while he was loading his bazooka to attack the Nazis. Later this year, Mr. Sanders’s case will be heard before the Supreme Court, which will decide whether the American government owes the World War II veteran disability benefits for the blindness he has suffered in his right eye.

Mr. Sanders, who, his lawyer says, is on dialysis and cannot speak, first applied to the Veterans Administration for benefits relating to the loss of his vision in 1949. He has claimed that the blindness was an aftereffect of the burn to his face from the bazooka explosion, according to court records. His claim was rejected in 1949 and several times over the course of the 1990s.

The federal government’s court papers suggest that Mr. Sanders’s loss of sight could have been due to an eye infection that he suffered in 1948, three years after being discharged from the Army.

The case, which will receive close attention from veterans’ organizations when it is argued in December 2008, is one of several cases on the Supreme Court’s docket for the coming term that are already generating interest.

A second case involving a grievous injury, Wyeth v. Levine, is considered one of the term’s most important business appeals. A guitarist from Vermont, Diane Levine, underwent two amputations of an arm after it became gangrenous from an injection of antinausea medication.

The issue before the court is whether drugmakers can be held liable for failing to include emphatic enough warnings about a drug’s dangers on its labels. Such drug labels are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The stakes of the case go beyond the $6.8 million award Ms. Levine won from Wyeth, the maker of the anti-nausea medication. A win for Wyeth could foreclose many suits brought by patients over bad reactions to prescription drugs on the grounds that the F.D.A. had found the warnings about the drug to be sufficient.

That result would mean an end of 70 years of “peaceful coexistence” between the tort system and the federal regulatory system, a lawyer for Ms. Levine, Brian Wolfman of the consumer advocate organization Public Citizen, said. The United States solicitor general has filed a brief supporting Wyeth.

In Ministry of Defense of Iran v Elahi, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical School is seeking to collect damages from Iran relating to the 1990 assassination of his brother, a leading figure in an Iranian opposition group. The suit is one of several efforts afoot by plaintiffs in suits against Iran to locate Iranian assets in this country and collect damages. The professor, Dariush Elahi, had earlier obtained a $311.7 million verdict in federal court in Washington D.C. against Iran for culpability in the killing in Paris of his brother, Cyrus Elahi. And he had gotten $2.3 million from the U.S. Treasury, which holds frozen Iranian assets. Mr. Elahi’s efforts to collect a second small portion of his judgment against Iran prompted the case before the Supreme Court.

Mr. Elahi has sought to gain control over a $2.8 million judgment, that Iran’s Ministry of Defense holds against a San Diego-based military contractor. That judgment is from a contract between the Iranian Air Force and a San-Diego based military contractor in 1977, two years before the Iranian Revolution. The goods were never delivered and Iran subsequently was reimbursed in arbitration before a tribunal in Zurich. The question before the Supreme Court is whether Mr. Elahi’s suit demanding a lien in that arbitration award is prevented under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

A case generating interest among First Amendment scholars is Pleasant Grove v Summum. A religious organization called Summum is claiming a right to erect a monument displaying a number of aphorisms in a city park in Pleasant Grove, Utah. The park already boasts a monument to the 10 Commandments.

In Ashcroft v Iqbal, the court will consider whether Attorney General Ashcroft can be sued over allegations that he set up detention policies that led to the abuse of Muslims who were arrested and held at Brooklyn’s federal jail after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A redistricting dispute out of North Carolina has attracted the attention of black congressmen, including Rep. Charles Rangel, who have filed a brief in the case, Bartlett v Strickland.

And on Election Day, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over whether the Federal Communications Commission can fine television networks for errant curse words that end up on air during live broadcasts.

So far the Court has agreed to hear 47 appeals. It is expected to add more by the end of the month.

Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.


1. a) How many of the approximately 7,500 cases sent to the Supreme Court each year are chosen to be heard by the Justices? (See “Background” below the questions for the answer.)
b) How many appeals has the Court so far agreed to hear this session?
c) Between what months will the court be in session? (See “Background” below the questions for the answer.)

2. What must a case involve for it to be considered by the Supreme Court for review? (See “Background” below the questions for the answer.)

3. a) What will the Court be deciding in Woodrow Sanders’ case? Be specific.
b) What groups will be paying close attention to Mr. Sanders’ case?

4. a) What issue is before the Court in Wyeth v. Levine?
b) What would a win for Wyeth mean?

5. What question is before the Supreme Court in the Ministry of Defense of Iran v. Elahi? Be specific.

6. List the additional four cases mentioned in the article that are to be heard by the Supreme Court.


On the Supreme Court from BensGuide.gpo.gov:

  • Approximately 7,500 cases are sent to the Supreme Court each year. Out of these, only 80 to 100 are actually heard by the Supreme Court. When a case comes to the Supreme Court, several things happen. First, the Justices get together to decide if a case is worthy of being brought before the Court. In other words, does the case really involve Constitutional or federal law? Secondly, a Supreme Court ruling can affect the outcome of hundreds or even thousands of cases in lower courts around the country. Therefore, the Court tries to use this enormous power only when a case presents a pressing constitutional issue. …
  • The Supreme Court convenes, or meets, the first Monday in October. It stays in session usually until late June of the next year. When they are not hearing cases, the Justices do legal research and write opinions. On Fridays, they meet in private (in “conference”) to discuss cases they’ve heard and to vote on them. …
  • Most cases do not start in the Supreme Court. Usually cases are first brought in front of lower (state or federal) courts. Each disputing party is made up of a petitioner and a respondent.
  • Once the lower court makes a decisions, if the losing party does not think that justice was served, s/he may appeal the case, or bring it to a higher court. In the state court system, these higher courts are called appellate courts. In the federal court system, the lower courts are called United States District Courts and the higher courts are called United States Courts of Appeals.
  • If the higher court’s ruling disagrees with the lower court’s ruling, the original decision is overturned. If the higher court’s ruling agrees with the lower court’s decision, then the losing party may ask that the case be taken to the Supreme Court. But … only cases involving federal or Constitutional law are brought to the highest court in the land.


Read more about the cases accepted by the Supreme Court for 2008-09 at SupremeCourtUS.gov.

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