WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court moved into a politically sensitive case yesterday, agreeing to decide a legal question raised by a former prison inmate who tried to make public during the 1988 election campaign his accusation that he sold marijuana to Dan Quayle in the 1970s.
The former inmate, Brett C. Kimberlin, released from federal prison early last year, has claimed in a lawsuit that he was unconstitutionally silenced by two Justice Department officials in the Reagan administration. He tried to speak out against Mr. Quayle in the closing stages of the 1988 campaign, when Mr. Quayle, then a senator from Indiana, was seeking the vice presidency on George Bush's presidential ticket.
The two Justice Department officials, Mr. Kimberlin has claimed in a lawsuit, had him put in prison detention twice to keep him from holding news conferences to accuse Mr. Quayle of having used drugs in his youth. Mr. Kimberlin contended that he had sold marijuana to Mr. Quayle during his law school days in the early 1970s -- an accusation that Mr. Quayle has denied.
The Kimberlin lawsuit was thrown out by lower courts, and he has asked the Supreme Court to let him revive it. A federal appeals court here said in 1993 that his claims against the two federal officials were based on "inference" and "weak circumstantial evidence." More proof would be needed to let the case go forward, the appeals court declared.
When the Supreme Court justices hear the Kimberlin appeal in April, they will not be considering his accusations against Mr. Quayle and will not be reviewing his constitutional complaint against the two officials.
Instead, the court will focus on a question of federal civil rights law, one that has split the lower federal courts. In fact, two of the current Supreme Court justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer -- wrote conflicting rulings on the issue when they were federal appeals court judges.
The issue turns on the proof that someone must offer to obtain a trial of a lawsuit claiming that a federal official intended to violate that person's civil rights. When the justices decide the case in the spring or early summer, the outcome is expected to have an effect on many civil rights cases, not just Mr. Kimberlin's.
At issue is a legal principle that Justice Ginsburg laid down when she was on the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., in 1987. The principle is this: a lawsuit that claims a federal official violated someone's rights in acting from an unconstitutional motive must be dismissed before trial unless the person suing can offer "direct proof" of the bad motive. That ruling, civil rights lawyers have argued, makes it almost impossible to pursue an unconstitutional-motive case, because motive is a hard-to-prove state of mind. Lawyers want the court to rule that circumstantial evidence of such a motive is enough.