Justices to review `adult' cable TV law

Measure sought to keep children from seeing sexually explicit programs

June 22, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to clarify Congress' power to require cable TV systems to keep sexually explicit programs out of the easy reach of children.

At issue is a 1996 federal law that requires cable operators either to block out all sexually explicit programming for customers who do not want it or to put such programs on the air only during hours that children would probably not be watching.

A federal court in Wilmington, Del., struck down that law in December as an unconstitutional violation of cable operators' free speech rights. The Clinton administration has urged the justices to revive the law.

The justices stepped into the cable TV case amid a flurry of activity yesterday as they moved toward the end of their current term, perhaps later this week. Ten decisions remain to be announced.

Among other actions yesterday, the court issued its first ruling on a 1994 federal law that extended the death penalty to 40 federal crimes, deciding 5-4 to give federal prosecutors considerable leeway to obtain death sentences.

The court also temporarily spared a devoutly religious Jewish village in New York state from having to dismantle a taxpayer-financed public school district that provides education for disabled children. The long-term fate of that district, run by the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, may be decided by the court at its next term.

The cable TV law the court will review this fall or winter was passed by Congress after parents complained that, even though they had not subscribed to sex-oriented channels, they found their children viewing images or hearing sounds from those channels.

Ordinarily, a customer who does not pay for premium channels -- such as the Playboy channel -- cannot see those programs because the signal is scrambled. But, occasionally, a premium channel's signal will "bleed" into other channels, allowing at least fleeting images and perhaps the full sound to be picked up from the unwanted channel.

The federal government has estimated that about 38 million homes, with 29.5 million children, could potentially be exposed to "signal bleed."

In the 1996 law, Congress ordered cable operators either to stop signal bleed or put sexually explicit programming on their systems only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Most cable operators have chosen the latter.

Playboy Entertainment Group, which operates two channels devoted to sexually explicit programming, successfully challenged the constitutionality of the law in U.S. District Court in Delaware.

The high court will hold a hearing on the issue before making a decision sometime next year.

Death penalty law

The court's death penalty ruling involved retired Army veteran Louis Jones Jr., the first person sentenced to die under the 5-year-old death penalty law. Jones was sentenced for the kidnapping and brutal murder of a young Air Force enlisted woman at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, in 1995.

The court, in its 5-4 ruling, decided that juries in federal death penalty cases do not have to be told what will happen to the individual on trial if the jury cannot agree unanimously on punishment.

In the Texas case, the defense lawyer wanted the jurors to be told that if they deadlocked, the sentence would be life in prison and, thus, Jones would not be freed any time soon. The lawyer feared that, without such an instruction, jurors would be feel bound to vote for a death penalty as the only way to assure adequate punishment.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said neither the 1994 law nor the Constitution dictates what juries must be told about the sentencing if they are deadlocked.

Federal prosecutors

In a separate criminal case, the court put an end to a dispute that had unsettled the Justice Department and federal prosecutors across the country. In a routine drug case from Kansas, a federal appeals court had ruled last summer that it is illegal for federal prosecutors to offer leniency to a criminal suspect in exchange for testimony against others.

In the case of Sonya Evette Singleton of Wichita, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that her conviction could not stand because prosecutors used testimony against her by an accomplice who had been given lenient treatment.

But that result was overturned in January by the full membership of that appeals court, declaring that the law against obtaining evidence in exchange for something of value was never intended to apply to federal prosecutors. Singleton's lawyers tried to get the Supreme Court to review that result, but the court turned the appeal aside without comment.

Tax authority

The court upheld, 7-2, an Alabama county's authority to impose a tax on the salaries of two federal judges who conduct court in that county.

The tax, unique in the country but likely to be imitated in the wake of the decision, is only a tax on the judges' salaries, and because state judges must pay it, too, there is no constitutional defect, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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