Civil rights law may be used to punish officials for assault Supreme Court rules against Tennessee judge accused of sex crimes

April 01, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court gave federal prosecutors authority yesterday to use a 123-year-old civil rights law to punish police, jailers, teachers, judges and other state and local officials who commit assault.

The decision implied, without specifically saying so, that sexual assaults are among the forms of physical abuse that could be covered by the 1874 law.

The justices acted in the case of a Tennessee judge accused under that law of sexually assaulting five women, sometimes while wearing his judicial robe, while they were at the courthouse to work or to seek a job.

That case will be sent back to a federal appeals court for a new look, based on the Supreme Court's broader reading of the post-Civil War statute.

The appeals court, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, had overturned the judge's conviction and his 25-year prison sentence and $25,000 fine. That court concluded that public officials could not be tried for sexual assault under the 1874 law.

Justice Department lawyers told the Supreme Court that the law has served for decades as "the primary tool for bringing to justice state officials who engage in the most egregious abuses of official power, including rapes, beatings and other unjustified assaults."

The law was used successfully against Los Angeles police officers for beating motorist Rodney G. King. In recent years, the Justice Department has used the law in nearly 30 cases of sexual assault of women by jailers, judges, police or border patrol agents.

But any wide-ranging use of the law had been put under a heavy cloud by the federal appeals court's ruling in Cincinnati last year in the case of David W. Lanier, a Tennessee state court judge. Federal prosecutors moved against Lanier after the local prosecutor -- the judge's brother -- declined to do so under state law.

The appeals court said the 1874 statute could not be used in cases of sexual assault by public officials because the Supreme Court had never ruled that there is a specific constitutional right not to be sexually assaulted.

Other federal courts have ruled that there is such a right and that the 1874 law protects it. But, according to the appeals court in Lanier's case, those decisions did not count, given that they were not Supreme Court rulings.

In yesterday's decision, the Supreme Court said that rights covered by the law could be established by lower courts as well as by the justices themselves. But the justices did not explicitly declare that the law covers sexual assault.

Lynn Hecht Shafran, who directs a program on sex equality in the courts for the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund, said the decision makes "inescapable" the conclusion that sexual assault is covered by the law given that lower courts have said so.

Shafran noted that the same appeals court that found no right against sexual assault under the 1874 law has ruled since then that a public school teacher may be prosecuted under another civil rights law for sexually abusing a student. The later ruling set a precedent that would count under yesterday's Supreme Court decision, she said.

Justice David H. Souter, who wrote the new decision, said "we think it unsound" that only decisions of the Supreme Court could establish the rights that the 1874 law protects. The appeals court, he said, was wrong to lay down "a categorical rule that decisions of the courts of appeals and other courts are inadequate" to recognize such rights.

Minors and abortions

The court reinstated a Montana law that required minors seeking abortions to have a parent or guardian notified beforehand, except in narrow circumstances where it would be threatening to the minor. A lower court had struck down the law.

In an unsigned opinion, the justices said the lower court had misunderstood the options available to teen-agers under the law to avoid having a parent or guardian told.

In another action bearing on abortion, the justices voted to leave DTC intact a federal appeals court ruling in a California case that a state university may use mandatory student fees to subsidize student abortion services, even though other students object for religion reasons.

Reprinting articles

The court refused to review a federal appeals court ruling that stores that do copying are bound by copyright law when they reprint copyrighted articles and book excerpts and sell them to college students.

Such copying, the lower court said in a Michigan case, cannot be done without permission and without paying fees to the owners of the copyrights on the material.

Religion in schools

A fourth-grade student in Racine, Wis., was denied a hearing by the court on his appeal claiming that he had a right to pass out religious literature to fellow students in the hallways and other places outside the classrooms at school.

A federal appeals court ruled that public school officials do not operate a public forum, with free speech rights for students.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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