WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that smokers can sue tobacco companies in state court for making allegedly fraudulent claims.

The surprising 5-4 ruling was a victory for the court's more liberal justices, who in recent years have seen the conservatives systematically curtail courtroom access. The ruling also drove down tobacco company stocks, on the prospect that multibillion-dollar lawsuits seeking class-action status may proliferate.

"Congress had no intention of insulating tobacco companies from liability from inaccurate statements about the relationship between smoking and health," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority in

Altria Group Inc. v. Good

.

Stevens, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer, did not rule on the merits of the fraudulent-advertising claim against Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA. The underlying case will return to Maine, where longtime smokers will make their arguments.

The smokers maintain that Philip Morris deceived them by saying that "light" cigarettes deliver less tar and nicotine to consumers than regular brands do. In fact, the smokers say, the tobacco company knew that consumers would simply draw more deeply on their Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights.

Even the four dissenters, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, did not defend the tobacco company's alleged actions nor deny a link between smoking and disease. Instead, Thomas, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., insisted federal health-and-safety powers preempted the state lawsuits.

The court majority believed that the case was about false advertising, which states can regulate. Dissenters thought it was about tobacco and health, an area that the federal government calls its own.

When "allegedly wrongful conduct involves misleading statements about the health effects of smoking a particular brand of cigarette, the liability and resulting requirement or prohibition are, by definition, based on smoking and health," Thomas wrote.

Share prices for Altria and fellow tobacco giant Reynolds American plunged immediately after the ruling before stabilizing. Trial lawyers praised the ruling; Altria vowed to fight on.

The ruling is a marked departure from other cases upholding preemption, a rule that can determine which lawsuits live or die. In February, for instance, the court ruled that federal law blocks state suits over medical devices.

The federal government preempted some tobacco regulation when it imposed the first health-labeling requirements in the 1960s. States cannot supplement these federal warning labels. The court yesterday clarified that the labeling law's purposes of uniformity and preemption should not block challenges based on fraud.

Other Action by the Justices

Also from the Supreme Court yesterday:

Guantanamo lawsuits

The justices breathed

new life into a lawsuit filed by former Guantanamo Bay detainees over alleged torture and abuse of their religious rights. The justices threw out an appeals court ruling that had dismissed claims by four British men that, while at the U.S. base in Cuba, they were beaten, shackled in painful stress positions, threatened by dogs, and harassed while practicing their religion.

Obama's eligibility

The court denied

without comment another challenge to Barack Obama's eligibility to be president. Cort Wrotnowski of Greenwich, Conn., had contended that because Obama had dual nationality at birth - his mother was American, his Kenyan father a British subject - he could not meet the "natural born" citizenship requirement. The argument echoed another appeal rejected by the justices last week.

Hatfill's lawsuit

The court rejected

a plea by former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill to revive his libel lawsuit against

the New York Times over columns falsely implicating him in the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks. Circumstantial evidence originally led the FBI to suspect Hatfill; the government now believes another Army scientist, Bruce Ivins, who killed himself in July, was responsible for the attacks.

SOURCE: Associated Press

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