Phone issue is put on hold Supreme Court takes no action on conflict over local service

May still review dispute

January 24, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court took no action yesterday on the high-stakes legal conflict over the future of local telephone service, raising the prospect that the dispute could soon wind up back in Congress' hands.

Yesterday was the last day that the court was likely to accept cases for the term that ends in July, and the justices had said they would study eight separate appeals on the telephone matter at yesterday's private session.

They did so, but then issued orders that did not include a review of the telephone dispute. More might become known Monday, when the court will issue further orders on pending cases before taking a four-week recess.

The inaction yesterday did not necessarily mean that the court will deny review of the telephone-service dispute for this term. If it does not reject the appeals Monday, the court still might choose to study them again later.

If the cases are rejected, all the adversaries -- the federal government, the long-distance companies and the local service companies -- are expected to lobby Congress for major changes in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

None of the adversaries is content with the way the 8th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis interpreted the act in two rulings last summer, and each wants Congress to revise the law more favorably to its stance.

The appellate court largely shut the Federal Communications Commission out of a central role in the restructuring of the telephone industry.

That court also refused to ensure that the long-distance companies could move easily into competition in the $100-billion-a-year market for local service.

At the same time, the panel refused to give the local companies further protection against competition.

Before the Supreme Court are four appeals by the long-distance companies and four by local service companies.

Although it took no action on those appeals yesterday, the court agreed to hear this term a case of major significance to workers and employers. It agreed to decide whether federal law allows an employer to cut off the health insurance of an employee who leaves or is fired, if that worker is covered by insurance held by a spouse or domestic partner.

Federal appeals courts are split on whether such separate health coverage relieves the primary employer of the duty to maintain the insurance while the worker is unemployed. The issue was raised by a St. Louis woman whose late husband had lost his health insurance after he was fired by his company and his

wife's coverage was extended to him.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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