WASHINGTON -- Efforts by two Maryland counties to curb the spread of adult bookstores faltered yesterday as the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their pleas, meaning they can't enforce their ordinances in their current form.
The justices gave no reason for turning aside separate appeals by Prince George's County and Harford County seeking to revive local laws that a federal appeals court struck down in two rulings in July.
Prince George's has been trying for 20 years to control retailers that sell sexually explicit magazines, books and movies, but it has spent the past nine years trying to fend off constitutional challenges to several versions of its bookstore law.
Harford County began similar efforts to regulate retailers of adult materials three years ago, but it, too, has found itself in court since then.
The two counties, rather than banning specific items as obscene, have sought to control the sale of those items by limiting adult outlets to specific areas of the counties. They hoped to take advantage of a 1986 decision by the Supreme Court allowing local governments to use their zoning controls to limit adult merchandising operations.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled in July that Prince George's and Harford had not simply adopted zoning limitations, but also had imposed strict license requirements before an adult bookstore or theater could open for business in the designated zones.
The appeals court said the two counties' ordinances were invalid because, when a license application was denied, there was no guarantee of quick review in court.
In the Prince George's case, the appeals court also ruled that the licensing procedure itself could be stretched out too long.
In Prince George's, a licensing case can take up to 150 days before a decision, the appeals court noted. In addition, it said, at least 103 additional days could pass before a court decision on whether a license denial was legal.
In Harford County, the court noted, there is no time limit for judicial review of the county's denial of a license. The licensing process there, which can take up to 44 days, was not at issue before the appeals court or the Supreme Court.
In their appeals to the Supreme Court, the two counties argued that courts across the nation have been issuing widely differing decisions on local governments' use of their licensing power over adult retailers.
They said the confusion resulted from a widely split decision by the Supreme Court in a Dallas licensing case in 1990. They urged the court to hear the new appeals and provide clear guidance for lower courts.
The justices rejected both appeals without comment.