High court appears to uphold curfews

June 01, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for cities across the country to try to fight crime by banning juveniles from the streets and public places at night -- an idea that appears to be spreading rapidly.

In a one-line order, with no justice voting to dissent, the court refused to hear a constitutional challenge to a curfew for minors in Dallas, similar to nighttime limits imposed on youths in about 1,000 communities, including some of the nation's largest cities.

Baltimore's City Council has been pondering such a measure, but municipal lawyers have urged it to wait until after Maryland's Court of Appeals rules on a juvenile curfew law in Frederick. That law was struck down in July 1992 by the state Court of Special Appeals. About 40 other Maryland communities have nighttime curfew laws that are under a legal cloud as a result of the Special Appeals Court decision.

Baltimore has a daytime curfew that is designed to assure that youths remain in school. That kind of law was not at issue in the Supreme Court yesterday.

Under the Dallas ordinance, enacted three years ago, anyone under age 17 is forbidden to remain in any public place or establishment between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weeknights, and midnight and 6 a.m. on weekends. The ordinance allows exceptions for young people accompanied by an adult, who are on an errand for parents, are going to or coming from work, are involved in an emergency, or who are on the sidewalk outside their home or the neighbor's home.

The ordinance also bars parents from giving their minor children permission to be out at night. Violations of the Dallas law can lead to fines of up to $500 for each incident.

The ordinance was upheld in November by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Noting a rise in juvenile crime and an increase in criminal attacks against juveniles, the Circuit Court said the ordinance was justified.

The Circuit Court said the Dallas ordinance created enough exceptions to assure that young people's rights are not unduly ++ restricted.

A Dallas woman, Elizabeth Qutb, and her daughter, Sabrina, took their constitutional challenge to that law to the Supreme Court. They argued that courts across the country have been reaching conflicting decisions on the constitutionality of nighttime curfews for minors.

They urged the justices to settle the matter.

The court's order in that case was one of four actions it took yesterday on free speech rights.

In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled for the first time that government agencies dealing with complaining comments made by one worker to another must investigate the incident with some care before firing a worker for disrupting the workplace.

Unprecedented protection

The investigation -- a requirement that three justices said was unprecedented protection for public employees in free-speech cases -- is to test whether a worker's remarks to a fellow employee were dealing with a public issue, and thus were protected against punishment.

If the investigation convinces the employer that the comments dealt only with internal or personal grievances, the worker may be fired even if the management was mistaken in its conclusion -- so long as its interpretation was a "reasonable" one.

The management also must believe that the comments disrupted workplace efficiency.

That ruling came in the case of a Macomb, Ill., hospital nurse who was fired after a dinner-break conversation with another nurse.

The management fired the complaining nurse, saying her private comments amounted to insubordination. The nurse said she was talking about a public policy issue: the adequacy of nurse training at that hospital. Lower courts will now apply the new ruling in that case.

First Amendment case

Over the sole dissent of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court voted to leave intact a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that there is no violation of First Amendment free speech rights for a civic group that runs a local festival but excludes groups that take "controversial" positions.

At issue in the appeal was a decision by the operator of a local government-sponsored "Great Pumpkin Festival" in Frankfort, Ky., to keep out all groups that take a public position -- for or against -- abortion.

Privacy case

The court also declined to review a Texas appeals court ruling -- jTC growing out of a woman's appearance on Phil Donahue's television show -- saying that an individual involved in a deeply embarrassing incident or events may disclose the facts in public, even if those facts invade someone else's privacy.

The Texas court thus threw out a lawsuit by a Galveston, Texas, woman whose mother revealed on the Donahue show in 1989 that her daughter had been raped when she was 11 years old by her stepfather.

The son born as a result of that rape was raised as if he were the brother of the young woman who bore him, until both were told the truth years later.

Religious disputes

The Supreme Court issued two orders in cases involving religious disputes. In one, the court refused to review the constitutionality of a $1.2 million jury verdict awarded against the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and its bishop for failing to protect a worshiper from a priest who engaged her in oral sex.

In the other, the justices left intact a federal appeals court ruling barring a county courthouse near Atlanta from displaying a plaque of the Ten Commandments and the commandment of Jesus Christ to "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

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