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The Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Constitution bars the execution of mentally retarded convicts as "cruel and unusual" punishment. The court will hear an appeal by North Carolina death-row inmate Ernest McCarver, whose execution the justices halted earlier this month. They also will also hear arguments on a case involving Texas death-row inmate Johnny Paul Penry, whose lawyers say he is mentally retarded. Lawyers contend jurors who sentenced Penry to death for murder did not properly consider his mental capacity.

The high court also reentered the debate over affirmative action, agreeing to decide whether a federal program to help minority-owned businesses amounts to unlawful discrimination. Adarand Constructors Inc. won a 1995 ruling that sharply restricted federal affirmative-action programs. The justices will hear Adarand's second challenge to a revised Transportation Department highway program that rewards contractors for giving subcontracts to racial minorities and women. The court imposed limits on affirmative action in 1995, ruling that such federal programs must meet strict standards.

Cuts in power-plant emissions mandated by the Clean Air Act have had little impact on reducing acid-rain damage in the Northeast, a new report by the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation found. The scientists said acid rain has contributed to a decline in red spruce trees in the East generally and to sugar maples in Pennsylvania. The report also found that about 24 percent of the 1,469 lakes in New York's Adi-rondack mountains cannot sustain fish life and 15 percent of the lakes in New England have become acidic. The scientists advocated further reductions in nitrogen-oxide and sulfur-dioxide emissions.

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Warning of severe power shortages this summer, California's top energy regulator plans to propose raising electricity rates again today. Large users and residential customers would be hit with the largest increases starting in May, Loretta Lynch, president of the California Public Utilities Commission said. Some have speculated the hike could be as high as 50 percent. It would come on top of the 9 to 15 percent increase approved in January.

Defending champion Michigan State, Arizona, Duke and Maryland all reached major college basketball's prestigious Final Four. All but Maryland have won previous NCAA men's titles. Michigan State will play Arizona Saturday in Minneapolis. Duke, making its 13th Final Four appearance, will play Maryland for the fourth time this season. The championship game will be played Monday.

Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts won Oscars for best actor and actress at the 73rd annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles Sunday night. Crowe won for his role in "Gladiator"; Roberts for "Erin Brockovich." The full list of winners appears at right.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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