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Supreme Court to rule on prayers, patents

Boston Scientific in device dispute

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide cases concerning prayers at the start of town meetings and a patent dispute over heart monitors involving Medtronic Inc. and Boston Scientific Corp.

It also issued an important administrative law decision that said the Federal Communications Commission was entitled to deference in determining the scope of its jurisdiction.

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The case concerning prayers came from the town of Greece, near Rochester, N.Y. For more than a decade starting in 1999, the town board began its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month.” Town officials said that members of all faiths and atheists were welcome to give the opening prayer.

Two town residents sued, saying the prayers ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of the government establishment of religion. The federal appeals court in New York agreed, pointing out that almost all of the chaplains were Christian.

In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with an invocation from a paid Presbyterian minister, saying that such ceremonies were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

David Cortman, a lawyer for the town, said its practices were consistent with that tradition.

“Americans today should be as free as the founders were to pray,” he said in a statement.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group behind the lawsuit, said the Supreme Court should bar prayers in governmental settings such as town meetings.

In other action Monday, the justices agreed to consider which side bears the burden of proof in some patent disputes. The case concerns devices made by Medtronic that deliver electrical jolts to the heart when it fails to pump normally.

Medtronic licensed patents owned by Mirowski Family Ventures concerning various aspects of such “cardiac resynchronization therapy.” The license agreement also addressed new products developed by Medtronic, requiring it to pay royalties on ones said to be infringing the patents or to go to court for a “declaration of noninfringement.”

Boston Scientific also controlled similar patents and had objected to Medtronic’s usage.

In 2007, the patent owner asserted various infringements, and Medtronic asked the courts to decide the matter. The question for the justices is whether a federal appeals court in Washington was right last year when it put the burden on Medtronic to prove it had not infringed the patents. In ordinary cases, the patent holder must prove infringement.

The administrative law case concerned a 1996 federal law that requires state and local authorities to act “within a reasonable period of time” after receiving applications for building or altering wireless facilities. In response to a request from a trade association for the wireless industry, the FCC made two decisions.

First, it found that it had jurisdiction to define what a reasonable time was. Second, it said that a deadline of 90 or 150 days was generally appropriate.

The general rules in this area were set out by the Supreme Court in 1984.

That general framework, the court said Monday, applies to an agency’s determination of whether it has the power to act at all. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said it did.

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