Maine cases kick off new high court term

Posted Oct. 03, 2008, at 9:34 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:18 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — When the U.S. Supreme Court begins its new term Monday, the first two appeals the nine justices will hear oral arguments about are cases from Maine.

It’s rare for the nation’s high court to accept one case a term from the Pine Tree State, let alone two. The fact that they will be heard back to back on the court’s opening day is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime event for court watchers in Maine.

Decisions in the cases are not expected before next year but could have national implications for consumers seeking to sue manufacturers and labor unions that represent public employees. Both were filed three years ago in U.S. District Court in Maine, then appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

The first case the high court will consider is a lawsuit filed in federal court in Bangor against a tobacco company. It, along with a handful of others the court will hear this term, focuses on the question of pre-emption, a legal doctrine holding that federal laws take precedence over some state laws.

The Maine tobacco lawsuit challenges the claims of low-tar and low-nicotine cigarette makers. It and an unrelated case from Vermont against a drug company are testing whether federal law trumps state consumer-protection policies that let residents sue cigarette and drug manufacturers over the way their goods are described, according to an article published Thursday at stateline.org.

“The cases … could force changes in the way cigarettes and prescription drugs are marketed and labeled and could open up new avenues of litigation for consumers who feel they’ve been harmed by products,” said the Web site, which tracks issues of interest to state governments.

The second case questions whether a labor union’s use of fees paid by nonunion employees to finance the organization’s court battles in other states is constitutional.

Twenty state workers in Maine challenged the expenditure by the Maine State Employees Association, the labor union that bargains on their behalf. The nonmembers are required to pay a service fee for the union’s collective bargaining efforts and contract administration.

The national Service Employees International Union relies on a portion of the fees to subsidize lawsuits concerning union units other than Local 1989, to which the current and former Maine state employees belong.

The workers are being represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

“In previous cases argued by attorneys at the National Right to Work Foundation, the Supreme Court has thus far ruled that union officials may force employees to pay union dues or be fired from their jobs,” Mark Mix, president of the organization, said in a statement issued Friday. “But they may not legally charge nonmembers for any activities beyond what union bosses can prove is spent on collective bargaining and contract administration.”

Both cases the nine justices will consider Monday were filed in 2005. The cigarette case was filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor by local attorney Samuel Lanham, and the state workers sued in federal court in Portland.

Lanham’s clients, three Maine residents who each smoked light cigarettes for more than 15 years, sued Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent company, Altria Group Inc., under the Maine Unfair Trade Practice Act.

The plaintiffs argued that the manufacturers’ claims that light cigarettes were lower in tar and nicotine than regular “full-flavor” cigarettes when they actually deliver the same amount of tar and nicotine constituted unfair and deceptive trade practices under Maine law. They are seeking the return of the money they paid to purchase the cigarettes, punitive damages and attorney fees.

In August 2007, a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston unanimously reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge John Woodcock that granted the tobacco companies’ summary judgment motion. The appellate court found that the plaintiffs’ claims are not pre-empted by the Federal Trade Commission’s oversight of cigarette advertising, nor barred by exemptions in the Maine law.

In a similar lawsuit, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed with Woodcock and dismissed a case there.

Altria Group and Philip Morris, both of Richmond, Va., asked the nation’s high court to decide the matter. The appeal is part of the tobacco industry’s efforts to head off a wave of state-based challenges regarding light cigarettes while it is appealing a federal judge’s order to stop marketing cigarettes as “low tar,” “ultra light” or “mild” because they mislead consumers.

“What’s exciting is that this is an opportunity for Maine people to potentially have a voice at that level,” Lanham said in January when the Supreme Court said it would hear oral arguments in the case. “As their attorney, I can’t lose sight of the fact that the plaintiffs chose to smoke light cigarettes because they believed light cigarettes offered lower tar and nicotine.

“It’s exciting for them to have the opportunity for their measure of justice,” he continued. “It’s discouraging this is about their right to get to the merits of the case.”

The state employees union case took a similar path to the nation’s high court. In March 2006, U.S. District Judge George Singal granted summary judgment to the union. In August 2007, a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston upheld his decision unanimously.

After the Supreme Court issues its decisions next year, the cases will be returned to Maine for further proceedings in federal court in Bangor and Portland.

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