By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to limit the ability of federal and state prosecutors to separately charge people for the same underlying crime, a decision with major implications for people like Paul Manafort convicted in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe and facing state charges as well.
The justices ruled 7-2 in favor of federal prosecutors and against an Alabama man named Terance Gamble in a gun possession case, preserving the current system that gives states and the U.S. government broad authority to bring charges against criminal defendants arising from the same underlying conduct.
Gamble challenged the federal charges against him, saying they violated his rights under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment to be free of "double jeopardy," the legal principle that people cannot be charged twice for the same offense.
Writing for the court, conservative Justice Samuel Alito gave Gamble's arguments short shrift, saying that "the historical evidence assembled by Gamble is feeble." Alito also said there was a "flimsy foundation" in existing court precedent for the outcome Gamble was seeking.
Trump has not ruled out pardoning Manafort, his 2016 campaign chairman who was convicted in 2018 on tax and bank fraud charges and pleaded guilty to other charges as well in two federal cases brought by Mueller in Virginia and Washington. Manafort faces separate state charges in New York.
A president's pardon power set out in the Constitution covers only federal crimes and does not apply to charges by state and local prosecutors.
Gamble appealed a lower court ruling in favor of the federal government, and Trump's Justice Department argued in favor of allowing prosecutions at the state and federal level.
Mueller, whose investigation has concluded, secured guilty pleas from several former Trump aides and advisors as he investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election and contacts between Trump's campaign and Moscow. Mueller's report on his 22-month-long investigation chronicled Russian efforts to help Trump win the election but did not find sufficient evidence to establish that a criminal conspiracy involving Trump's team and the Kremlin had occurred.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative known for his idiosyncratic legal views, agreed with the outcome of Gamble's case but wrote a separate 17-page opinion expounding on his view that the court should be more willing to overturn its precedents. Addressing the concept of "stare decisis" - the principle that the court gives deference to its earlier decisions and overturns them only in limited circumstances - Thomas said the court has strayed from the Constitution.
"In my view the court's typical formulation of the stare decisis standard does not comport with our judicial duty ... because it elevates demonstrably erroneous decisions - meaning decisions outside the realm of permissible interpretation - over the text of the Constitution and other duly enacted federal law," Thomas wrote.
For many conservatives, the court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide is a precedent that should not be accorded the same deference as other past rulings. Thomas referenced in his opinion on Monday an important 1992 case in which the court re-affirmed the Roe v. Wade ruling over his dissent.
In that case, the court ruled that states cannot place an "undue burden" on a woman's constitutional right to an abortion that was recognized in the Roe v. Wade ruling.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)