Justices reject plea to wait on Clinton for handling of Haitian refugees case

December 01, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused yesterday to slow down its schedule for dealing with Haitian refugee policy to give President-elect Bill Clinton more time to ponder his own approach.

By a vote of 7-2, the court rejected a plea, from lawyers for refugees, to put the legal dispute on hold until Mr. Clinton gets a chance to carry out his campaign pledge to change Bush administration policy.

President Bush's 6-month-old policy of picking up fleeing Haitians at sea, and taking them back to their homeland without any review of their pleas for asylum, is under a legal challenge before the court. Mr. Clinton has vowed to overturn that policy, but the court may force him to move more rapidly than he had planned.

In another significant order yesterday, the court agreed to give more constitutional guidance on when juries may award "megabuck" verdicts: multimillion-dollar awards that are designed to punish wrongdoers.

The court said it would rule again on so-called "punitive damages" -- that is, add-on damage verdicts that can go well beyond the amount it takes to cover the harm done or the losses suffered, in order to make an example of a wrongdoer. In March 1991, the court upheld wide-ranging power for juries to impose such damages but urged judges to monitor the awards closely.

Doctors, hospitals, consumer goods manufacturers, insurance companies and news organizations have been hit often by rising levels of "punitive" damages. The issue returns to the court in a legal dispute over oil and gas lands in West Virginia; a jury awarded $19,000 for actual harm done, plus 526 times that amount -- $10 million -- in punitive damages.

On Haitian refugees, the court has been planning since early October to decide whether Mr. Bush acted illegally in May in imposing his forced-return policy on Haitian "boat people" as they tried to leave their country to avoid what some say is persecution by the military regime there.

That case is due for a hearing in February but, after last month's election, lawyers for the refugees said the court should put the case on standby status until Mr. Clinton gets into office next month and can fashion a new policy.

If Mr. Clinton does erase the Bush policy on forced return of the Haitians, it would scuttle the Supreme Court case.

But, under the schedule now unfolding, he would have to act swiftly after inauguration to seize the case away from the court and thus avert a potential ruling that could uphold a policy he feels is wrong.

Mr. Clinton's strongest argument to justify a change in the Bush policy would be a claim that it violates international law on refugee protection.

But that is an issue at the heart of the case before the court, and his ability to make that point could be undercut if the court case moves to a final decision in the new year, perhaps upholding the Bush policy.

The court did not explain why it would not delay its work on the case. It would have taken the votes of five justices to do that, and only two voted for delay: Justices Harry A. Blackmun and David H. Souter.

Among other orders issued yesterday, the court:

* Cleared the way for a California preschool teacher in a celebrated child molestation case, involving the McMartin School in Manhattan Beach, to pursue a million-dollar civil rights case against prosecutors and local officials who unsuccessfully pressed criminal charges against her.

* Rebuffed the sixth plea for relief from a murder conviction and life-prison term for former Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, found guilty of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters in their Fort Bragg, N.C., home almost 23 years ago.

* Declined to interfere with a Georgia court ruling giving primary custody of a 9-year-old boy to a couple who had adopted him after he was taken away from his natural mother at birth by a mistaken switch in the hospital nursery. The mother already has adopted the child who was given to her at the hospital, but she wanted custody of her natural child, too.

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