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Ginsburg Was First Questioner in Two Supreme Court Arguments Yesterday

Posted Feb 24, 2009 10:43 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The first justice to ask questions in Supreme Court oral arguments yesterday was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was back on the bench less than three weeks after cancer surgery.

Ginsburg asked “crisp and vigorous questions” in the two cases, the New York Times reports. One case involved an Indian tribe’s right to coal royalties. The other concerned the effect of a judge’s peremptory challenge error.

In the Indian tribe case, the Navajo Nation contends the federal government conspired with a coal company to cheat the tribe out of royalties amounting to more than $600 million, the Associated Press reports. The suit contends the government violated its trust duties to the tribe.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 in an opinion by Ginsburg that the Department of Interior had protected the tribe's interests under the Indian Mineral Leasing Act, the AP story says. Now the tribe contends the government violated a network of different laws.

Ginsburg’s first question suggested the broad language of her majority ruling covered the new case, according to the Times account. “Do you think that was just carelessness on the court’s part?” she said in regard to her opinion’s broad language.

The lawyer for the tribe, Carter Phillips, fielded the question. “Oh, I would never assume that, Justice Ginsburg,” he replied.

Legal Times counted the number of questions Ginsburg asked in the first argument—seven of them, it turns out—and says the total is “on par with her usual inquisitiveness.” The case is United States v. Navajo Nation.

At issue in the second case, Rivera v. Illinois, is whether a murder defendant’s conviction should be overturned because a judge denied a peremptory challenge in error. Ginsburg asked the first question and appeared to agree with several other justices that reversal is not required, the Times story says. “It was just a judge who was over-exuberant in denying a peremptory challenge,” Ginsburg said.

Legal Times says Ginsburg asked even more questions during the Rivera arguments--12 in all.

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