Supreme Court to rule on limits to nude dancing

Justices will also consider federal law curtailing use of driver's license data

May 18, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, eight years after struggling to define the power of local government to limit nude dancing, said yesterday that it will try again.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal by the city of Erie, Pa., seeking to revive a city ordinance that imposed a nearly total ban on nude entertainment in public places.

Pennsylvania's state supreme court nullified that ordinance in October, saying nude dancing is a form of expression, intended to convey "an erotic message," and so is protected by the First Amendment.

The state court said that the Supreme Court's last attempt to decide the constitutionality of that form of adult entertainment -- a ruling in 1991 -- was so badly splintered that no part of the ruling had a court majority behind it.

In that decision eight years ago, a deeply divided court appeared to say that cities may ban strippers from taking off all of their costumes in a barroom or adult theater, but probably would not be allowed to do so for dancers or actors in a play or program at a regular theater.

Lower courts have since reached conflicting rulings as they tried to apply the 1991 decision. For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision contrasts with a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a similar ordinance in Mobile, Ala.

In Baltimore, completely nude entertainers perform on The Block, protected by a ruling in February by Baltimore Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro. That decision, which was challenged unsuccessfully this year in Maryland's General Assembly, was based on Rombro's view of state law, not on the Constitution.

The Supreme Court will consider the Erie ordinance at its next term, starting in October, and is expected to rule by about this time next year.

In another case, the court said yesterday it will rule on the constitutionality of a 1994 federal law that gives drivers in all states protection for the privacy of the personal information they report when they apply for a driver's license.

Lower federal courts are split on the constitutionality of the federal law, with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking it down, while other appeals courts have upheld it.

The 4th Circuit Court interprets federal law for Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states.

A spokesman for Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration said last night that current state law makes all driver-related information public unless a motorist requests it to be withheld.

A law passed by this year's General Assembly, however, will make all driver-related information private as of July 1 next year. The information will remain accessible to law enforcement agencies.

In the case the court will hear, the 4th Circuit Court said the law curbing public release of personal information about drivers forces states to act as arms of the federal government in enforcing driver privacy -- an intrusion on the states' sovereignty. The Justice Department appealed that ruling.

A final ruling in that case, too, is expected next year.

The court also issued two significant decisions amid a flurry of activity yesterday:

It ruled unanimously that North Carolina should have another chance in federal court to defend the 1997 redistricting of one of its congressional districts, which had been nullified without a trial by a three-judge U.S. District Court on the grounds that it was unconstitutionally drawn to enhance the chances of electing blacks.

In a ruling written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court said that the lower court should have allowed the state to show that the district lines were drawn out of a political motive to include more Democrats in the district.

The 1997 lines were drawn after the Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that an earlier redistricting plan was an unconstitutional "racial gerrymander."

By a 7-2 vote, the court ruled that police do not need a warrant before they may seize a car or truck that they believe has been used to carry illegal drugs.

Under Florida law, a vehicle that has been involved in drug crimes is subject to being forfeited to the state or local government. The court ruled, in another decision written by Justice Thomas, that vehicles subject to forfeiture may be taken by police, without any prior order of approval from a judge.

Sun staff writer Rafael Alvarez contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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