The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for the tobacco industry's forced release of 39,000 secret documents in a Minnesota trial.
The court rejected an emergency request in which the nation's cigarette manufacturers said most of the documents are privileged information that should stay secret.A Minnesota trial judge had ordered their release.
Monday's order means the documents - totaling some 200,000 pages - must be surrendered to lawyers for Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. The state and the insurance company are suing cigarette companies to recover $1.77 billion assertedly spent to treat smoking-related illnesses. They also are seeking punitive damages.
Tobacco industry lawyers had argued that release of the documents would unfairly harm their clients in the Minnesota case and also in "hundreds of other pending cases."
In other action Monday, the court:
- Agreed to speed up its study of Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr's attempt to get notes taken by the lawyer for White House aide Vince Foster during a meeting shortly before Foster's 1993 suicide.
- Refused to revive an antitrust lawsuit against Domino's Pizza Inc. by 11 franchise holders who accused it of monopolizing the market for pizza ingredients.
- Let stand a ruling that said former Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega received a fair trial when he was tried and convicted for drug-trafficking.
- Turned away a legal battle between mail-order "wine clubs" and states over regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Lawyers for the state and insurance company say some of the sought-after documents may be the most significant to their case.
Michael Ciresi, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said his team is "already geared up" to comb through the documents and to start using them right away in cross-examining tobacco industry witnesses.
It was not immediately clear whether the documents must be surrendered before 5 p.m. EDT.
Some 33 million pages of tobacco industry documents already have been surrendered in the closely watched Minnesota trial, which has completed 10 weeks of testimony and is expected to run another month or two. More than 2,000 documents have been made public as they have been introduced as evidence in the trial.
Ramsey County District Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick on March 7 ordered the tobacco industry defendants to turn over the 39,000 documents after ruling that they were not protected by lawyer-client confidentiality or any other privilege.
The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld his order but postponed its effect until last Wednesday to give the cigarette companies a chance to seek help from the nation's highest court.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who handles emergency matters from Minnesota for the Supreme Court, rejected the tobacco industry's request Thursday but postponed its obligation to surrender the documents until 5 p.m. (EDT) Monday.
Industry lawyers quickly asked Justice Antonin Scalia for help by refiling the same emergency request with him. He subsequently referred the case to the full Supreme Court.