Supreme Court passes on state-VA feud Maryland wants hospital to turn its canteen over to blind vendors

October 07, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A feud developing for more than four years over setting up a store run by blind vendors at the veterans hospital in Baltimore deadlocked yesterday after the Supreme Court refused to step in to settle it.

Without comment, the court turned aside an appeal by Maryland's Department of Education that sought to force the Veterans Medical Center on North Greene Street to turn a canteen at the hospital into a convenience store operated by the blind.

Robert A. Burns, Maryland's assistant superintendent of rehabilitation services, said yesterday that "extensive negotiations" with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs over the issue failed to reach an agreement.

Burns said that officials would consult with the state attorney general for advice on what to do next. The VA Medical Center said it would not comment until after it had reviewed the court's action.

Ralph Sanders of Baltimore, head of the Maryland Committee of Blind Vendors, said that organizations for the blind have been engaged in "an ongoing battle" with the VA over retail facilities in medical centers, including the one in Baltimore.

Another part of that battle, Sanders said, resulted in a victory for the blind yesterday: A congressional committee deleted a clause in a bill that would have exempted the VA from the federal law requiring federal buildings to include space for blind vendors.

After the VA hospital in Baltimore opened in January 1993, hospital authorities rejected a demand by Maryland officials that space be set aside for blind vendors under the federal law, the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Act.

The state then demanded that the issue go to arbitration. A panel of arbitrators ordered the VA to hand over the canteen store to blind operators, along with equipment and fixtures for the facility. The VA refused. The state went to court, seeking to enforce the arbitration decision.

A year ago, the federal appeals court in Richmond ruled that arbitration panels set up under the blind-vendor law have no power to order a federal agency to take spe- cific action to remedy a violation of the law. If a violation is found, the court ruled, it is up to the agency to decide how to remedy it.

If state officials are dissatisfied with how a federal agency reacts, the state may begin anew with another complaint and seek a new arbitration panel for a new advisory opinion.

Burns, the Maryland official, contended that this process leads to "a futile effort" to achieve results and that is why the state went to the Supreme Court.

The National Federation of the Blind also filed a separate appeal, and the appeals were supported by 17 other states and various advocacy groups.

The Clinton administration had urged the justices to reject the two appeals.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court refused to disturb the appeals court's ruling against the arbitration panel's authority.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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