High Court Action: Day 1

Exxon Mobil Loses Appeal Fla. Prayer Ruling Set Aside ‘Norm’ and ‘Cliff’ Can Sue Boy Loses Suspension Fight Court: Law Exempts Bisexual Harassers

Court Lets Valdez Award Stand

The Supreme Court today refused to free Exxon Mobil Corp. from having to pay $5 billion in damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the nation’s worst ever.

The high court, acting without comment, let stand the award stemming from the tanker spill that polluted more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, killed tens of thousands of birds and marine mammals and disrupted fishing.

The Exxon order was among dozens released by the court on the first day of its new term.

Lawyers for Exxon Mobil had urged the justices to throw out the punitive-damages award on grounds of irregularities during jury deliberations.

In one of several challenges to the $5 billion award imposed by a federal jury in 1994, Exxon Mobil attacked the behavior of Don Warrick, a court bailiff who escorted the jury and served food to its members during five months of trial and deliberations in Anchorage.

Warrick admitted that in a conversation with one of the Exxon Valdez trial jurors he pulled out his gun and removed one of its bullets before saying another juror — one holding out against making a punitive-damages award — should be put “out of her misery.”

Warrick, who said he was only joking, was fired. He died in 1996.

The Exxon Valdez hit a charted reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of Alaska crude oil.

School Prayer Ruling Set Aside

The court also set aside a ruling that let public school students in a Florida county choose a class member to give a prayer or other message at high school graduations.

The justices today ordered a federal appeals court to restudy the case in light of their decision last June to bar student-led prayers at public high school football games. The justices said such prayers violated the constitutionally required separation of government and religion.

In 1992, the justices prohibited clergy-led prayers at public school graduations.

Invocations and benedictions were allowed at Duval County, Fla., public school graduations before the 1992 ruling.

In 1993, school officials adopted a new policy letting high school seniors decide whether to choose a fellow student to give a “brief opening and/or closing message” at graduation. The student would decide the message’s content with no review by school officials.

A group of students and their parents sued in 1998, saying the policy amounted to a government establishment of religion, barred by the Constitution’s First Amendment. A federal judge upheld the policy. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, but the full appeals court ruled for the school district last March.

Cheers Case Moves Ahead

In other action, the court let “Norm” and “Cliff” continue with their lawsuit against the studio that produced the television show Cheers.

Without comment, the court today rejected an appeal from Paramount Pictures and Host International.

Actors George Wendt and John Ratzenberger filed suit after the studio granted Host a license to set up Cheers bars in airports around the world.

Some of the bars feature two life-size, robotic customers named “Hank” and “Bob.” One of the robots is heavy; the other wears a Postal Service uniform.

Wendt played the overweight barfly Norm on the show. Ratzenberger played Cliff the mailman. They contend the robots violated their rights of publicity, which give people exclusive control over the use of their likeness or voice for profit.

Boy Loses Court Fight

A Kansas youth suspended from school for three days after he drew a picture of a Confederate flag lost his high court appeal today.

The court, without comment, turned away arguments that the suspension violated the youth’s freedom of speech and other constitutionally protected rights.

T.J. West was a seventh-grader at Derby Middle School in Sedgwick, Kan., when in spring 1998 he made a 4-by-6 inch sketch of the Confederate flag during a math class. West later told his assistant principal a friend had urged him to draw the flag, and that he knew what it was but not what it meant.

West also knew drawing the flag violated a “racial harassment and intimidation” policy the school district had adopted after incidents of racial tension in 1995. The policy banned, among other things, students from possessing “any written material, either printed or in their own handwriting, that is racially divisive or creates ill will or hatred.”

Married Couple Loses Appeal

The court also rejected the appeal of a married couple who say they were sexually harassed at work by the same supervisor, letting stand a ruling that said a key federal law does not apply to bisexual harassers.

The court, acting without comment today, turned away the appeal of Steven and Karen Holman, who work together in the maintenance department of the Indiana Department of Transportation.

They sued the state and the department in 1997 over the alleged conduct of their supervisor, shop foreman Gale Uhrich.

In the lawsuit, Karen Holman alleged that Uhrich had been harassing her since late 1995 — touching her body, standing too closely and asking her to go to bed with him.

Her husband alleged that Uhrich had begun in the summer of 1995 to ask him for sexual favors.

Both individuals also alleged that Uhrich retaliated against them for rejecting his advances.

The lawsuit invoked a federal law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans on-the-job discrimination because of someone’s sex.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.