WASHINGTON >> The Supreme Court added 13 cases to its docket Thursday, including ones on international terrorism, racketeering, judicial bias in a capital case and the free speech rights of government employees. The court chose the cases from among the roughly 2,000 petitions that had piled up over the summer.
The terrorism case, Bank Markazi v. Peterson, No. 14-770, could determine whether Iran’s central bank must pay nearly $2 billion to relatives of Americans killed in the 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing in Lebanon. The money would satisfy a large part of a court judgment the families won based on evidence that Iran had provided support for the attack.
The question for the court is whether a 2012 federal law that made it easier for the families to collect the money violated the Constitution because it was too tightly focused on a single case.
"A statute that effectively directs a particular result in a single pending case violates the separation of powers," the bank told the court in a brief urging it to hear the case.
The court agreed to hear a second case with international implications, this one arising from a lawsuit filed by European countries accusing the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. of complicity in an international money-laundering scheme that involved using the proceeds of illegal drug sales to buy tobacco.
The question for the justices in the case, RJR Nabisco Inc. v. The European Community, No. 15-138, is whether the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, applies to conduct abroad.
On other subjects, including securities fraud and human rights abuses, the Supreme Court has limited the power of U.S. courts to hear cases based on activities outside the United States. In general, it has said that a U.S. law should be presumed not to apply abroad unless Congress clearly said it does.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, allowed the money laundering case to proceed. In April the full court declined to rehear that decision by an 8-5 vote, with dissenting judges asserting that the panel had been unfaithful to Supreme Court precedent.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who sat on the 2nd Circuit before she joined the Supreme Court, has recused herself from the case.
The Supreme Court also agreed to hear a case from a death row inmate who contends that the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should not have participated in the court’s decision on his case. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, now retired, had been the district attorney who supervised the prosecution of the case against the inmate, Terrance Williams, and had authorized seeking the death penalty.
Last year, Castille joined a unanimous decision reinstating Williams’ death sentence. A lower court had ordered a new sentencing hearing, partly on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
Prosecutors had urged the U.S. Supreme Court to decline to hear the case, Williams v. Pennsylvania, No. 15-5040.
"The mere fact that Chief Justice Castille held a high-level supervisory position in the office that brought the underlying prosecution fell well short of mandating his disqualification," their brief said.
Williams, convicted of beating a man to death with a tire iron, is not at immediate risk of execution because Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has announced a statewide moratorium on the death penalty.
The Supreme Court also agreed to hear a First Amendment case with an odd wrinkle, Heffernan v. Paterson, N.J., No. 14-1280.
Public workers as a general matter may not be fired or demoted for speaking out on political topics. But a police detective in Paterson, N.J., Jeffrey J. Heffernan, was demoted to patrol officer based on a supervisor’s understanding that Heffernan had expressed support for a mayoral candidate. In fact, though, Heffernan had taken no position on the candidate.
Heffernan sued and lost, with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Philadelphia, ruling that his First Amendment rights had not been violated because he had not exercised them. That ruling, he told the justices, "has chilling implications."
"When the government is wrong as a constitutional matter, it should not be off the hook because it also happens to be wrong as a factual matter," his petition said.
The city urged the court to reject Heffernan’s "fanciful fears."
"Petitioner imagines public employees," the city’s brief said, "who are — simultaneously — both fiendishly clever and clumsily foolish."
The court will hear arguments in the 13 new cases this winter.
A brief from the Obama administration filed Wednesday made it likely that the court would add another case, again addressing a requirement under the Affordable Care Act that many employers provide insurance coverage for contraception to female workers. In 2014, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the court said that a for-profit company run on religious principles could not be compelled to do so.
In the new brief, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., agreed with his adversaries in urging the court to hear a case concerning nonprofit groups affiliated with religious organizations. The Obama administration has offered such groups an accommodation allowing them to opt out of the requirement, but the groups challenging the requirement say even that makes them complicit in conduct they view as sinful.