Court blocks judicial review of system of picking military bases to close

May 24, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a broad reaffirmation of the president's power to make decisions, the Supreme Court ordered judges yesterday to stay out of the process that leads to the closing of U.S. military bases.

The ruling will doom the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which is already in the process of being dismantled after being put on the shutdown list three years ago.

The unanimous decision leaves it to the U.S. government's two political branches, Congress and the presidency, to sign off on base closings and to fight off the efforts of local communities to save their military facilities.

Under a 1990 law that the court yesterday insulated from judicial second-guessing, both Congress and the White House gave up their option to pick and choose among individual bases. Now, most of the hard choices are made by an independent commission, with first the president and then Congress acting on the final list, but with both obliged to act on an all-or-nothing basis.

Pennsylvania politicians, Navy Yard workers and their unions had tried to use the courts to save that facility and had been making some headway in a lower court. But the Supreme Court thwarted that effort.

Those trying to save the Philadelphia yard aimed their criticism at the Pentagon and at the base-closing commission's procedures. They complained that Congress and the president had given up so much authority over the closing process that only the courts could stop arbitrary decision-making by the independent commission.

But five of the nine justices used the case as a vehicle for a sweeping review of the president's discretion and joined in an opinion reaffirming in broad terms the constitutional independence of the presidency.

Those justices, in an opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, said Congress had left the president with an unrestricted choice of adopting or rejecting the base-closing list for "whatever reasons he sees fit."

Justice Rehnquist wrote: "How the president chooses to exercise the discretion Congress has granted him is not a matter for our review." That opinion rejected the claim of the Philadelphia Navy Yard supporters that the outcome would mean, in essence, an abandonment of judicial review of unconstitutional presidential acts.

The four other justices joined in a narrower separate opinion written by Justice David H. Souter, limited solely to the conclusion that the 1990 law had barred judicial review of the base-closing process.

The 1991 base-closing list eliminated 34 military bases. Another list, made up last year, targeted 130 more. A final round of closings is to occur next year.

In other actions yesterday, the court issued numerous rulings as it began the annual push to finish for the summer sometime in June.

Guns and drugs

In a decision that raises doubts about efforts in Congress and state legislatures to ban the possession of high-velocity guns that shoot in bursts, the court said the federal government can win a conviction for possession of a machine gun only by proving that a defendant knew that the gun would operate in a dangerous way.

Justice Clarence Thomas' opinion said Congress is limited in its power to outlaw repeating weapons as if they were as obviously dangerous as hand grenades or narcotics.

In a part of the 7-2 ruling that he read from the bench, Justice Thomas spoke approvingly of "a long history of widespread lawful gun ownership by private individuals in this country." Guns, he added, are not the kind of item that one knows, immediately, is dangerous. "Guns generally can be owned in perfect innocence," he said.

To avoid punishing innocent gun owners, the court declared, Congress must put the public on notice when a particular gun is so dangerous that its mere possession will be treated as a crime. The ruling overturned the conviction of a Jenks, Okla., man for possessing an unregistered machine gun because of a lack of proof that he knew it would fire repeatedly with one pull of the trigger.

But in a separate unanimous ruling, the court said that the federal government can win a conviction for dealing in drug paraphernalia without proof that the individual knew that the items being sold would be used with illegal drugs. It is enough, the court said in an Iowa case, that the items be a kind that most people probably will use with outlawed drugs.

Nurses as supervisors

Splitting 5-4, the court appeared to have put many nurses outside the protection of federal labor law for their pay, benefits and working conditions.

The ruling said the National Labor Relations Board policy on nurses deviated from federal law, which denies protection for supervisors. Under the NLRB view rejected yesterday, nurses who care for patients are not supervisors even if they oversee the work of less-skilled staff members such as nurses' aides.

Nurses who do that, the court majority said, are acting on behalf of their employer and are not confining themselves solely to patient care. Thus, it said, they qualify as supervisors. The ruling FTC came in a case from a nursing home in Urbana, Ohio.

Amtrak billboards

In brief orders, the court agreed to decide the constitutionality of Amtrak's policy of controlling the messages put on billboards in railroad depots, and turned aside a plea that it bar prosecutors from excluding individuals from juries solely because of their religious views.

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