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Justices put limit on court access for state inmates

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court Monday limited federal court access for state prison inmates challenging their prosecutions. The 6-3 decision was a defeat for an Illinois man who has spent his adult life behind bars for a rape conviction.

The justices ruled that state prisoners seeking a federal court's help generally cannot pursue claims that were not raised on direct appeal to their state's highest court.The ruling continued a decadelong trend in which the nation's highest court has narrowed state inmates' access to federal courts. Congress also has limited such access in a 1996 law aimed primarily at speeding up the executions of those convicted criminals receiving death sentences.

In other court action Monday, the court:

-- Ruled that billions of dollars worth of methane gas found with coal under federal land is not owned by the government and can be claimed by companies that purchase the right to drill for natural gas. The 7-1 decision resolved a big-stakes dispute between Amoco and an American Indian tribe in Colorado. Amoco won.

-- Rejected an appeal by about 14,000 current and former federal law enforcement officers who say they were improperly denied overtime pay. The court, without comment, turned away the officers' effort to collect another four years' worth of overtime pay in addition to two years of pay they were granted in a settlement.

-- Refused to let federal prosecutors use as evidence child pornography seized from a Georgia man's office in what lower courts called an illegal search. The court, without comment, rejected an appeal in which prosecutors said the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches does not apply to an area of someone's office outside their own work space.

In the state prisoner decision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court that, "State prisoners must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the state's established appellate review process."

She noted the ruling could increase the number of appeals to states' top courts, acknowledging, "This increased burden may be unwelcome in some state courts." But O'Connor said Monday's ruling does not require inmates to pursue an appeal if higher state court review is not available.