updated 10/17/2005 11:18:33 AM ET 2005-10-17T15:18:33

The Supreme Court refused Monday to allow the Bush administration to pursue a $280 billion penalty against tobacco companies on claims they misled the public about the dangers of smoking.

The decision, a major victory for cigarette makers, was not unexpected because the government’s case is still pending and the federal judge who presided over the nine-month trial has not yet decided whether tobacco companies are guilty of wrongdoing. The Supreme Court declined, without comment, to intervene.

The fight at the high court was over the amount of money the companies would have to pay, if the judge rules that they violated a federal anti-racketeering law known as RICO.

William Corr, executive director of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said Monday that the Justice Department “should not use the Supreme Court’s decision as an excuse to let the tobacco companies off the hook with a weak settlement.”

“The government’s suit, by any measure, is the most important civil RICO action that the government has ever brought,” justices had been told by Bush administration lawyer Edwin Kneedler.

The lawsuit was filed by the Clinton administration, and Kneedler argued that if the court did not step in now to deal with this issue, the case may drag on several more years.

The tobacco companies’ lawyer, Michael Carvin of Washington, said that the court should give U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler time to decide the case. He also argued that the government had a weak case “far removed from the heartland of RICO.”

The Supreme Court is already hearing a case involving the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and whether the law can be used against anti-abortion protesters. The law, aimed primarily at fighting mobsters, has both criminal and civil provisions.

The $280 billion is the most ever sought in a civil racketeering trial. The government has described that as an estimate of money that companies including Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds earned illegally through fraudulent activities.

An appeals court said that the law did not authorize the recovery of past proceeds and was designed instead to prevent future corruption. The Supreme Court has never decided that issue.

Without that option the government would instead pursue its other request, that the companies be ordered to spend $10 billion for a stop-smoking program and $4 billion for education. The government had been harshly criticized for not asking for more. An expert had recommended a $130 billion stop-smoking program.

The government has spent $140 million since 1999 litigating the case, and the Justice Department also is trying to force tobacco companies to pay those costs.

The federal case is independent of settlements worth $246 billion that states reached with the industry in the late 1990s to recoup the cost of treating sick smokers.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent, Altria Group Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.; British American Tobacco Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co.; Liggett Group Inc.; Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A.; and the Tobacco Institute.

The case is United States v. Philip Morris, 05-92.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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