For business and organized labor, some of the Supreme Court's decisions in its just-ended term - whether perceived as victories or defeats - had one thing to recommend them: they provide clearcut guidelines for planning and conduct over the long term.
One example: The 8-0 ruling that the antifraud provisions of the securities laws don't apply to the compulsory, noncontributory pension plans that enroll an estimated 37 million workers and have assets valued at a staggering $264 billion.
But with other decisions, the justices left a trail of uncertainties to be followed not only by business and labor, but also by judges around the nation who look to the High Court for unambiguous guidance.
One example: the Weber ruling in which a 5-2 majority gave employers and unions virtually no advice on the legality of affirmative-action plans that deviate from those in the case, which were negotiated by the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO, in 1974.
As described by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., in the opinion for the court, these plans seek to overcome "conspicuous" or "manifest" discrimination in traditionally segregated job categories, neither totally exclude nor cause dismissal of whites, and are temporary.
Some decisions were significant because they signaled a major modification or even abandonment of certain prolonged trends.
One such trend began in 1976 with the first of two decisions extending the protection of the First Amendment to certain forms of commercial speech: pharmacists' advertising of the prices of prescription drugs, and lawyers' advertising of prices for routine legal services.
These decisions were widely seen as precursors of others that would go further in striking down efforts by states to take paternalistic views toward the capacity of rank-and-file consumers to use truthful advertising to their self-interest.
Then came a case involving the Texas Optometry Act, which prohibits the practice of optometry under tradenames. These are usually used by high-volume chains that advertise heavily and claim to offer sharply lower prices than do "professional" optometrists who usually practice solo.
A lower court held that the tradename ban is an unconstitutional restriction of the "free flow of commercial information" under the First Amendment.
Last February, the Supreme Court reversed. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., in the opinion for a 7-to-2 majority, said that a tradename is "a significantly different form" of commercial speech than that conveying the prices of prescription medicines or routine legal services.
"These statements were self-contained and self-explanatory," Powell wrote. "Here, we are concerned with a form of commercial speech that has no intrinsic meaning."
Citing numerous "possibilities for deception" in the use of tradenames, including their retention by ownerships that have changed the staffs "upon whose skill and care the public depends," Powell said that Texas had a "substantial and well-demonstrated" interest in enacting the law to protect the public.
By contrast, Justice Harry A. Blackmun, for himself and Justice Thurgood Marshall, protested that the majority, ignoring the undisputed legality of the practice of optometry under tradenames, had abridged First Amendment rights "by absolutely prohibiting, without reasonable justification, the dissemination of truthful information about a wholly legal commercial product."
Blackmun pointed out that the state had conceded that the law bars a tradename even when the optometrist's name also is prominently displayed. Thus, he said, the law "prohibits wholly truthful speech that is entirely removed from the justification on which the court most heavily relies to support the statute."
For Bruce E. Fein, author of an annual book-length analysis of Supreme Court decisions published by the American Enterprise Institute, the decision was a "very, very long step backward" toward the old paternalistic attitude that, without the intrusion of the state, consumers can't cope with truthful advertising.
A trend of another sort derived from a common habit of Congress: writing laws that, by accident or unadmitted intent, don't say explicitly whether they give a private person a right to try to enforce them with a suit for money damages. The result has been to leave it to the judiciary to divine whether Congress had implied a private right to sue.
Under a 1975 Supreme Court decision, the 11 federal courts of appeals have made at least 20 decisions that, under various laws, Congress implied rights of private action.
"It defies reason to believe that in each of these statutes Congress absentmindedly forgot to mention an intended private action," justice Powell wrote last May in a dissenting opinion.
The case was one in which the court held that under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a person has an implied right to sue a federally funded private educational institution for alleged sex discrimination.
But while going along with the implied-right theory in this case, the majority, in an opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, expressed impatience. "When Congress intends private litigants to have a cause of action to support their statutory rights, the far better course is for it to specify as much when it creates those rights," he wrote.
A month later, the court underscored the warning with a 7-1 ruling that relieved accounting firms of a big worry: the possibility of being sued by customers of securities firms for allegedly misleading audits.
Until the court disposed of it, the possibility had been held by the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to exist on the theory that a private cause of action for damages had been created in the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act's Section 17(a).
Overruling the appeals court in a case involving claims of $65 million against Touche Ross & Co., one of the accounting profession's "Big Eight," justice William H. Rehnquist's opinion for the court sent a clear message to Capitol Hill. The court is "not at liberty to legislate," he said. under these circumstances, Congress must provide it."
Here is a summary of other important decisions.
The court ruled 8-0 that rank-and-file consumers who buy goods for their personal use are free to sue suppliers alleged to have violated the antitrust laws. The outcome - sought by the federal government and all of the states but Georgia - removed a threat, created by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the tradition of allowing treble damages to be sought by consumers for anticompetitive injuries, mainly pricefixing, inflicted directly upon them.
Consistent with this, the court refused unanimously to uphold "reverse" Freedom of Information Act suits in which a private party - Chrysler Corp., in this case - sought to prevent disclosure to competitors or others information it was compelled to supply to the government. "Congress did not design the FOIA exemptions to be mandatory bars to disclosure," Justice Rehnquist wrote for the court. The act does imply a right - claimed by more than 100 companies - to enjoin disclosure, he said.
In the Weber affirmative-action case, the majority's interpretation of the language and legislative history and intent of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was met with extraordinary scorn by the two dissenters. "Intellectually dishonest," said Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. "Orwellian," said Justice Rehnquist.
Earlier, in a decision that attracted far less notice, Buerger, in an opinion for a 5-4 majority including Rehnquist, held that the National Labor Relations Act doesn't cover lay teachers employed by church-operated schools.
Here, it was the turn of Justice Brennan, who wrote the dissenting opinion and would become the principal target of Burger's and Rehnquist's wrath in Weber, to accuse his accusers of mangling a law to reach a desired result.
The majority's interpretation of the NLRA, Brennan wrote, "is plainly wrong in light of the act's language, its legislative history, and this court's precedents. It is justified solely on the basis of a statutory construction seemingly invented by the court for the purpose of deciding this case."
In other rulings, the court held that the states are free to pay unemployment compensation to strikers, that Arizona is free to enforce a law denounced by Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers Union as the "brainchild" of the states growers, and that the food and beverage prices charged by in-plant cafeterias and vending machines are conditions of employment subject to mandatory collective bargaining.
By a 5-4 vote, the court held that an anticompetitive agreement to supply goods or services isn't immunized from antitrust suits just because an insurance company is a party to it. The "business of insurance" - to the extent that it isn't a boycott and is regulated by state laws - is exempted from the federal antitrust laws by the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945.
The court ruled 8-1 that violations of the securities laws, once proved by the government, can be accepted without private litigants having to prove them anew.
The court affirmed the denial of a jury trial to Parklane Hosiery Co. and 12 of its officers, directors, and stockholders on charges by minority owners that the September 1974 proxy statement was "false and misleading."
The ruling appeared to enhance the clout of the Securities and Exchange Commission by giving an incentive to corporations and officers to settle charges rather than go to trial knowing that, if they lose, the charges can't be challenged when used by dissident shareholders.
In a powerful dissent, Justice Rehnquist said that "outrage is...all but impossible to generate with respect to a corporate defendant in a securities fraud action..." But, he wrote, he was in fact outraged because the court had achieved a "wholesale abrogation" of the right to a jury trial in civil cases, a right guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment.
In separate 8-0 decisions, the court held that the Securities Act of 1933 forbids frauds against brokers as well as investors, and that the Investment Company Act of 1940 lets a mutual fund's independent minority directors block a shareholder lawsuit if state law permits.
The court ruled 8-1 that a state can't levy a property tax on ocean cargo containers that are owned, based, and registered abroad and that are used exclusively in international trade. Had the ruling gone the other way it would have caused retaliation, mainly by Japan, and probable upheavals in foreign relations.
In a 6-to-3 decision affecting two-thirds of the states, the court upheld an Alabama law that lets a municipality extend broad governmental powers - including imposition of fees or taxes to compensate for mandatory licensing of businesses and professions - to nearby nonresidents who can't vote in municipal elections.
"Perhaps the most striking opinion of the entire term," Prof. Aviam Soifer of the University of Connecticut School of Law told a reporter. Justice Rehnquist, who wrote the opinion for the court, "appears quite willing to uphold taxation without representation," Soifer said. "Where are the revolutionaries who made the Constitution now?"
The court held 7-2 that real estate agents who steer customers into neighborhoods on the basis of their race can be sued by homeowners and their local governments.
The Ku Klux Klan Act, enacted in 1871 to deter Reconstruction-era violence against blacks, can't be used to redress violations of the protections against employment discrimination in the 1964 civil-rights law's Title VII, the court ruled 6-3. CAPTION: Picture 1, "Contemplation of Justice," one of two statues on the west side of the Supreme Court building. By James K. W. Atherton - The Washington Post; Picture 2 - Detail from "Contemplation of Justice" at Supreme Court Building. By James K. W. Atherton - The Washington Post