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U.S. court to decide corporate reform law, gun case

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court could strike down a key part of a 2002 corporate reform law and extend gun rights in the United States on Monday when the justices issue their final rulings of the term.

In eagerly awaited rulings, the nation's highest court is expected to decide the constitutionality of a national board that polices auditors of public companies and whether gun rights extend to every state and city in the nation.

The nine justices could also decide a dispute closely watched by some software, biotechnology and financial companies on whether business methods can be patented if they involve a machine or transformation.

Chief Justice John Roberts has already announced that Monday will be the last day of the 2009-10 term. It will also be the last time retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's leading liberal, takes the bench.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday starts confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to replace Stevens on the court, long been divided with five conservatives and four liberals.

Kagan, the solicitor general who represents the U.S. government before the Supreme Court, personally argued the accounting board case and defended the law as constitutional.

At issue is whether the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) violated the U.S. Constitution's separation of powers principle, because board members are not appointed by the president.

At stake in the case is how corporate America is audited and a key provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform law adopted in 2002 in response to the Enron and WorldCom accounting scandals.

If the Supreme Court strikes down the board, the ruling will put pressure on Congress to revisit the law, opening it up for potential changes in the reporting duties of companies.

Susan Hackett, senior vice president and general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, cited the current anti-corporate sentiment and said the ruling could result in broad changes in the law by Congress.

"It is conceivable that the re-proposed legislation would become a Christmas tree on which every ornament of corporate reform and governance will be hung," she said.

The law's defenders told the Supreme Court the board has led to substantial progress in meeting the goal of Congress of improving the quality of audits and increasing investor confidence.

In the gun rights case, even gun control advocates said they expect the Supreme Court to strike down Chicago's 28-year-old handgun ban.

They said they also expect the court to extend its landmark 2008 ruling that individual Americans have a constitutional right to own guns to all the cities and states.

Dennis Henigan of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said the decision will be used by the gun lobby to challenge a myriad of state and local gun laws. "With few exceptions, these challenges will fail," he said.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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