Analysis: Big business scores key Supreme Court term wins

WASHINGTON Tue Jun 28, 2011 3:29pm EDT

Customers are seen at a Wal-Mart market in Miami, May 18, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Customers are seen at a Wal-Mart market in Miami, May 18, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Giant retailer Wal-Mart Inc, telecommunications company AT&T Inc and coal power companies came out the big winners in the U.S. Supreme Court's just-ended term that rejected large lawsuits against them.

The high court threw out the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history by Wal-Mart's female employees, ruled for AT&T in favoring arbitration over big class actions and ended a global warming lawsuit against the utilities.

Despite some losses, businesses prevailed in the biggest cases, provoking criticism by liberal groups that the court's five-member conservative majority shielded companies from suits seeking to protect workers, consumers or the environment.

"It is a pro-business court," said Steven Shapiro, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in assessing the 2010-11 term that ended on Monday.

"Unfortunately, the instinct to protect business interests often comes at the expense of ordinary citizens looking for justice," he said.

Other rulings held a mutual fund's investment adviser cannot be sued for securities fraud over misstatements in fund prospectuses and gave greater protection to generic drug companies and vaccine makers from liability lawsuits.

On the term's last day, the court struck down a California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors for violating free-speech rights, a landmark victory for video game publishers, distributors and sellers.

Leland Yee, a California state senator who authored the law, said, "The Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children."

NOT BEST OR WORST TERM FOR BUSINESS GROUP

Robin Conrad, head of the legal arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, rejected the notion of a pro-business court and said its term had produced mixed results.

"It goes without saying that this was not our best Supreme Court term. But it's not been our worst term either," she said, acknowledging that business won the three most important cases -- Wal-Mart, AT&T arbitration and the global warming lawsuit.

Business favors arbitration and individual lawsuits, rather than massive class-action lawsuits with big groups of plaintiffs that have often led to payouts of billions of dollars.

Attorney Andrew Pincus, who frequently argues before the Supreme Court and who served as Commerce Department general counsel in the Clinton administration, said businesses lost as many cases as they won this term.

In prepared testimony for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to be held on Wednesday, Pincus said his analysis of decisions in which business prevailed showed the plaintiffs urged radical changes from existing law.

Businesses suffered losses this term when the court upheld an Arizona law that penalizes employers who hire illegal immigrations, ruled companies have no privacy right to stop disclosure of government records about them and reaffirmed that some class-action securities fraud lawsuits can proceed.

Many pro-business rulings came by a 5-4 vote, splitting along conservative-liberal ideological lines that have divided the court for years.

The conservative bloc consists of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both appointees of then-President George W. Bush, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.

The liberal faction consist of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and President Barack Obama's two appointees -- Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The court adjourned for its traditional summer recess and is scheduled to return to the bench in October for a new term.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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