First High Court Ruling for Thomas

JUSTICE Clarence Thomas issued his first opinion Tuesday as a member of the Supreme Court, ruling against the Bush administration in a dispute over government liability in cases of negligence.

The court unanimously ruled Tuesday that the widow of a military veteran who became comatose and later died because of negligence at a Veterans' Administration hospital can collect damages beyond those considered strictly "compensatory."

The court said as long as awards in such cases do not meet the legal requirement of "punitive damages," they can be upheld under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946.

A second case involved a lawsuit brought by William Lewis Smith against Maryland prison officials. Smith claimed that the state's refusal to give him a wheelchair during part of his incarceration constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Though not a lawyer, he sent the 4th Circuit an "informal brief" of his case rather than a formal notice of appeal within the allotted time after trial. The 4th Circuit then refused to hear the appeal, contending Smith had failed to follow specific rules.

The court said the suit can proceed. "The notice afforded by a document, not the litigant's motivation in filing it, determines the document's sufficiency as a notice of appeal," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

In a third case, the court said Illinois law has been misapplied to block efforts of the Harold Washington political party to field candidates in Chicago and its suburbs. The court, in a 7-to-1 decision, agreed with most aspects of an appeal by members of the Harold Washington Party (HWP) objecting to restrictions on the 1990 elections in Cook County.

The court stopped short, however, of a total victory for the HWP that would have ensured it a place as an "established party" on future ballots.

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