The courts face off against the White House.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 18 2006 6:21 AM

Courts 2, White House 1

The New York Times and Washington Post lead with the decision by a federal court that an Environmental Protection Agency rule violates the Clean Air Act. The Los Angeles Times leads with another federal court's ruling that Google does not have to comply with a Justice Department request to release keyword search terms. (It does have to release a sample of Web addresses.) The NYT and WP bury this story with wire dispatches.

The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide news box with an Iraq roundup: The U.S. envoy will allow Iraqi leaders to join in the newly announced U.S.-Iran talks; the U.S. military continued its offensive north of Samarra; and 19 Shiite pilgrims were killed on the road to Karbala.  

Although the Clean Air Act requires power plants to upgrade their smokestack scrubbers whenever they remodel their facilities, the EPA's rule would have allowed plants to avoid installing new pollution controls as long as new construction was less than 20 percent of the plant's value. Fourteen states sued the feds to stop this exemption. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 3–0 that the EPA's interpretation of the law is flat-out wrong. They even referenced Lewis Carroll in their decision, which is worthy of Justice Scalia

EPA's approach would ostensibly require that the definition of "modification" include a phrase such as "regardless of size, cost, frequency, effect," or other distinguishing characteristic. Only in a Humpty Dumpty world would Congress be required to use superfluous words while an agency could ignore an expansive word that Congress did use. We decline to adopt such a world-view.

Ouch. The opinion was written by a Clinton appointee and joined by another Clinton appointee and … Janice Rogers Brown—who, the LAT notes, was appointed by Bush over a Democratic filibuster.

Privacy advocates hailed the decision by a U.S. District Court judge denying the Justice Department's request for 5,000 randomly selected search terms from Google's database. Although the company does have to forfeit 50,000 Web site addresses, its disclosure will amount to far less than the DoJ's original request for billions of search terms and a million Web site addresses. (The DoJ wants the information to defend a lawsuit against a pornography law; Microsoft, Yahoo!, and America Online complied with the DoJ's original subpoena.) In his ruling, the judge linked Google's business interests with its customers' sense of privacy:

The expectation of privacy by some Google users may not be reasonable, but may nonetheless have an appreciable impact on the way in which Google is perceived, and consequently the frequency with which users use Google.

The Journal runs a handy cheat sheet on the origins of the case, while its editorial page slams the government. "It is one thing when company data are pursued by the government as evidence in a criminal proceeding," the editors write. "[This] trial is different. … The Justice Department has embarked on a fishing expedition … The whole project suggests that the government has little basis for defending the [pornography] law in the first place, and is hoping it can use the Web sites' data to generate a rationale after the fact."

The White House didn't lose every court battle yesterday. The judge in the Moussaoui trail kept alive the government's death penalty case by agreeing to a list of alternative aviation witnesses not tainted by the recent misconduct of a government lawyer. The LAT and WP front this.

The Journal fronts a long feature on stock-option grants to corporate executives that repeatedly fall on days when the company's stock price is at a low point. Soon after the options are granted, the stock takes off. The paper describes repeated examples of this phenomenon. This exerpt is representative: "In eight of [CEO Louis] Tomasetta's nine option grants from 1994 to 2001, the grants were dated just before double-digit price surges in the next 20 trading days. The odds of such a pattern occurring by chance are about one in 26 billion."

The Journal, and the experts it consulted, attribute these gilded coincidences to the backdating of option grants. In theory, it is legal to grant options below market price if agreed to by the board of directors and reported to the SEC as executive compensation—i.e., a cost against earnings. But in almost all cases the stockholders, directors, and SEC are left in the dark. More importantly, the paper notes, backdating undermines the stated purpose of granting options. If executives are guaranteed a profit on their options from Day 1, they have that much less incentive to increase the company's market value. (Kudos to the Journal for explaining their methodology.)

The LAT fronts an investigation of Slobodan Milosevic's final days and hours in prison, revealing that he had chest pains while playing cards with a friend a few hours before he died. (Apparently he went to bed without informing his jailers of the incident.) According to autopsy results released yesterday, Milosevic was not poisoned, nor did he have traces of an allegedly smuggled antibiotic in his system.

Props to the NYT for an excellent front-page St. Paddy's Day picture.

The Post fronts an amusing feature on the dumbing down of recipe vocabulary to compensate for the nearly absent cooking skills of those under age 40. Companies like Kraft, Betty Crocker, and Pillsbury have discovered that you can't assume people know how to sauté vegetables, cream butter and sugar, or dredge chicken in flour. Instead, it's "cook the vegetables on the stovetop," "mix the butter and sugar with an electric mixer," and "coat the chicken with flour." 

At a conference … [an] executive of General Mills Inc. … described the kind of e-mails and calls the company gets asking for cooking advice: the person who didn't have any eggs for baking and asked if a peach would do instead, for example; and the man who railed about the fire that resulted when he thought he was following instructions to grease the bottom of the pan—the outside of the pan.

You Say Potayto, I say Potahto:

"U.S. is Denied Google Queries" (LAT online)

"Google Ordered to Submit Data for Child Pornography Study" (NYT online)

And the TP Award for Most Labored Pun by a Lobbyist goes to…

Irish eyes are surely smiling—and we all will be breathing easier—with this green court ruling on St. Patrick's Day.

—John Walke, Natural Resources Defense Council

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