The Court also decided a number of other cases that, while not necessarily gaining the headlines that terrorism or the flag salute cases did, nonetheless had a significant impact, especially in the business community.
Under NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Alliance—trucks from Mexico were to be allowed to transport cargo directly to their destination in the United States, rather than having to unload at a border warehouse and trans-ship the goods on American trucks. Environmental groups as well as American trucking companies objected to this rule, claiming that Mexican trucks did not meet U.S. safety or environmental standards, and would damage highways. A federal appeals court agreed with the environmental suit, and said that federal law required the Department of Transportation to do an environmental impact law on air quality.
A unanimous Court, speaking through Justice Thomas in United States v. Public Citizen, held that the Transportation Department did not have to do a full environmental review and did not violate the law. The permission for the Mexican trucks to enter the United States came from the president, because he had the authority—he and not any federal agency—because the agreement was part of an international treaty duly signed and then ratified by the Senate. The groups that brought the lawsuit estimated that 34,000 trucks from Mexico would be on U.S. highways in the first year alone, and that by 2010 trucks from south of the border would emit twice as many pollutants as U.S. trucks.
Environmental groups suffered another defeat when the Court unanimously ruled that they could not sue a federal agency for failing to protect public lands in a dispute over off-road vehicles in designated wilderness study areas in Utah. In Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (2004), the high court reversed an appeals court ruling that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management could be sued for not carrying out its duties as required by law. The Court, speaking through Justice Scalia, agreed with the Justice Department that under the Administrative Procedure Act courts may not review an agency's ongoing management of public lands. Judicial review is limited to challenges to an agency's final action, not to day-to-day administrative decisions, such as the one in question. The Bureau had designated 2.5 million acres in Utah as wilderness study areas, and the lawsuit had sought to require it to prohibit off-road vehicles in four of those areas.
In a decision affecting phone users in many states, the Court declined—without comment or oral argument—to stop the Federal Communications Commission from discarding a set of rules that had required regional phone companies to lease line capacity to rivals at a deep discount. The leasing allowed companies that are primarily long distance carriers, such as AT&T and MCI, to offer local service as well. A lower court had sustained the FCC decision, after a variety of phone companies and consumer groups had petitioned for a delay. AT&T immediately announced that it might well abandon local service options, and consumer groups charged that the Court had validated the Bush administration's policy of allowing higher prices for consumer services and less competition.
Business also welcomed the Court's decision in F. Hoffman-LaRoche Ltd. V. Empagran S.A. (2004), in which all eight justices agreed to overturn an appeals court ruling that in effect extended the reach of American antitrust laws overseas, and gave federal courts jurisdiction to hear suits originating abroad. The case had grown out of a suit by foreign customers of vitamin manufacturers and distributors who had been the subject of a price-fixing investigation in the United States in the 1990s. That investigation had led to guilty please and a $500 million fine. The foreign customers had then attempted to use a provision of the antitrust law allowing consumers to use the guilty finding as a basis for a civil suit that could lead to treble damages.
The Bush Administration had urged the Court to overturn the lower court ruling, and the Court did. Justice Breyer wrote that the Sherman Act does not cover the foreign effects of anticompetitive behavior unless the defendants' domestic conduct can be shown to have directly contributed to those effects. Several foreign countries had also filed briefs warning the Court that application of American law would interfere with their own efforts at regulating monopolies.
The Court also handed down a decision applauded by labor groups. Under federal law, the Court ruled, pension plans cannot change their rules to reduce or eliminate benefits to workers who retire early and then return to work at other jobs. In a situation that is becoming more and more common, two construction workers retired after twenty years on the job at full benefits. However, Thomas Heinz and Richard Schmitt were only 39, so they returned to work in 1996 in the construction industry as supervisors, a management category that did not disallow them from receiving their benefits. Two years later the Central Laborers' Pension Fund announced that it would no longer allow early retirement benefits to anyone who began a second career in the construction industry. The two men sued, claiming that under the original terms of their pension plan contract, they could take early retirement so long as they did not take on the same jobs in the construction industry.
The high court unanimous agreed in Central Laborers' Pension Fund v. Heinz (2004). Justice Souter said that federal retirement law prohibited a plan amendment expanding the categories of post-retirement employment that would trigger a suspension of early retirement benefits already accrued. "We simply do not see how, in any practical sense, this change in terms" could not be viewed as shrinking the value of the two men's rights. Souter noted that the Court's conclusion was confirmed by Internal Revenue Service regulations that adopted the same interpretation of the federal law.
Finally, Indian tribes, which had not fared well in the high court in recent years, won an important victory in United States v. Lara (2004). In 1990 the high court had ruled that tribes did not have the authority to enforce their criminal laws against members of other tribes. Congress then amended the Indian Civil Rights Act to restore that power, and the Court now had to decide not just the validity of the act but also the nature of the power.
At heart was an issue not often heard in the high court, the meaning of the double jeopardy guaranty. Court precedent has long held that one sovereign cannot prosecute a person twice for the same crime, but under a doctrine developed in 1922 the constitutional protection does not apply to consecutive prosecutions by "separate sovereigns," such as a state prosecution followed by a federal prosecution. In this case, the Spirit Lake Tribe convicted Billy Jo Lara in its tribal court for assaulting an officer of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and then the federal government charged him with assaulting a federal officer. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the tribe had exercised a prosecutorial power not within its authority.
The Supreme Court, by a 7-2 vote, reversed, and held that the tribe had acted well within the bounds of its sovereignty, which was different from that of the United States government. The opinion, delivered by Justice Breyer, only commanded the votes of three other members of the Court, although an additional three concurred in the result. In his concurrence Justice Thomas said that the Court's many decisions on tribal sovereignty were confusing and in need of reappraisal. "Until we begin to analyze these questions honestly and rigorously, the confusion... will continue to haunt our cases."