- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — This time Elena Kagan got to ask the questions. With her confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court now a part of history, the court’s newest justice — and third woman — took a direct role for the first time in a case before the court.

Less than 20 minutes into the court’s new term Monday, Justice Kagan asked her first questions during a Supreme Court argument. In this case, the issue centered on a debtor’s plan to get out of bankruptcy.

When that argument ended, Justice Kagan departed because she is not taking part in the other case that was argued Monday. It is one of two dozen cases that Justice Kagan is out of because of her work at the Justice Department before joining the high court in August.

In the first hour, though, she was among eight justices who asked questions. The ninth, Justice Clarence Thomas hasn’t asked a question in more than four years.

The court was trying to figure out whether someone in bankruptcy who owned a car outright could still shield some income from creditors by claiming an allowance for a car payment. Like many seemingly easy issues that come to the court, this one has divided federal appeals courts.

Justice Kagan wanted to know if the debtor could instead claim the gas and maintenance expenses that go along with having a car.

At another point, Justice Kagan wondered whether someone with a car that had 200,000 miles on it “and was going to break down in the next five years” could plausibly claim the allowance.

The court did not appear to lean one way or the other in the argument between a consumer on one side and a credit card company on the other. At one point, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested the arguments on both sides would lead to absurd results.

Among the decisions of the day, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from John and Timothy Rigas, the father and son who built Adelphia Communications into a cable television powerhouse and were convicted of fraud after it collapsed into bankruptcy.

The Rigases were prosecuted after Adelphia collapsed in 2002 following the company’s announcement that it had more than $2 billion in liabilities it had not previously reported. At the time, it was the country’s fifth-largest cable TV company.

The Supreme Court also rejected an appeal by Apex Oil company of Hartford, Ill. against a government order to clean up pollutants from the soil and groundwater near its former refinery in Illinois.

The government sued to make Apex Oil clean up land under its former refinery, located about 20 miles north of St. Louis. Apex says it shouldn’t be forced to pay for the clean up, since its responsibiloty for cleaning up the land was discharged with its other debts during the bankrupcy proceedings.

The high court also rejected an appeal from an online cigarette marketer who claimed his company was immune from Idaho laws regulating tobacco sales.

The justices on Monday let stand an Idaho Supreme Court ruling against Scott B. Maybee, who sold millions of cigarettes to Idaho smokers through Smartsmoker.com and Ordersmokesdirect.com.

The state claimed in a lawsuit that Mr. Maybee, a Native American from New York, was violating state laws requiring cigarette peddlers to register with the state and pay a fee to the state. The laws were passed in the wake of the national tobacco settlement in 1998.

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