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Supreme Court Refuses to Shield Confidential Tobacco Documents

By Saundra Torry and John Schwartz
The Washington Post

Tobacco companies lost their fight to keep some of their most closely guarded documents secret Monday when the Supreme Court denied cigarette makers' emergency request to keep them confidential.

As a result, the industry sent more than 100 boxes containing 39,000 documents, including secret communications among industry law firms and between the companies' lawyers and executives, to lawyers for the state of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which are suing the tobacco industry. The papers could begin appearing in court as early as Wednesday.

"This landmark decision puts an end to the most egregious corporate fraud in American history," Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III said in a statement.

The industry also delivered copies to Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) who had demanded the documents as Congress grapples with tobacco legislation. Bliley said he would conduct a bipartisan review of the documents and hoped to release them on the Internet.

The documents could play a pivotal role in congressional debate over national tobacco legislation. Last year, the release of documents suggesting that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for years had targeted teen-agers in its marketing intensified the opposition to granting the industry broad protection from lawsuits. That issue remained a subject of heated debate as the Senate Commerce Committee approved a tobacco bill last week.

Minnesota and Blue Cross are suing the tobacco industry for $1.77 billion, charging that the industry should be held liable for the cost of treating health problems among smokers. The state and the insurer had already gathered more than 33 million pages of documents to support its allegations that the tobacco industry had purposefully misled the public about the dangers and addictiveness of smoking.

But Minnesota and Blue Cross have been fighting for a final set of some 200,000 that the industry had refused to turn over. The industry had claimed that those documents were protected under longstanding privileges accorded to communications between attorneys and their clients, and to the work by lawyers in preparation for litigation.

Those protections can be broken by a court if the documents are found to show crime or fraud, however, and Minnesota argued that the industry had fraudulently raised questions about the health risks and addictiveness of smoking for decades after conclusive scientific evidence had emerged.