In an appeal that could determine the fate of similar programs in cities across the country, Arlington County attorneys within the next month plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether local programs that ban commuter parking in residential neighborhoods are constitutional.
By appealing a January Virginia State Supreme Court decision, the county will ask the high court for the first time to deal with the issue of whether parking programs that divide residents and nonresidents into separate groups violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as opponents have claimed and some lower courts have held.
A coalition of citizens groups in the District of Columbia will join the county in urging the court to take the case. "We think it's going to be the keystone case," said Charles Clinton, head of the Parkin' coalition in D.C., where a similar program is being challenged in court.
Clinton said that the D.C. coalition would also ask groups in Montgomery County and cities such as Boston and New Oreleans where there are similar parking restriction programs to join in asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.
Arlington is appealing a decision January 14 by the State Supreme Court which struck down an Arlington ordinance banning commuter parking on residential streets near Crystal City.
The state court unanimously held that the ordinance "on its face" violated the 14th Amendment's guarantees of equal protection under the law, upholding a ruling by Arlington County Judge William L. Winston, who blocked the program from being implemented in 1975.
"Local governments have a legitimate interest in regulating the cause of the manifold problems which result from parking congestion," wrote Justice Richard H. Poff for the state court.
But he added that "a regulation which treats the cause by favoring motorists who happen to reside along a public street at the expense of those who live elsewhere may relieve problems, but solutions achieved at the price of invidious discrimination are too dear."
Although Arlington County Board Chairman Joseph S. Wholey said initially that he saw no chance of appealing the decision, the board later changed its mind after reading the state court decision, assistant county attorney Charles Flynn said.
The Virginia court "decided the issue purely on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. They gave us a purely federal constitutional issue," said Flynn. After the county files, the U.S. Supreme Court must first decide whether to hear the case before ruling on its merits.
"The essential distinction between people who are there because they live there or are visiting there and people who are just using the streets as a parking lot has got to be made, and this is the proposition we've got to defend," said Flynn.
A D.C. Superior Court judge last year issued a temporary injunction prohibiting a city restriction on commuter parking in Georgetown, and a ban on commuter parking in east Bethesda in Montgomery County is also under legal challenge.
"Even though there may be some difference in implementation of the programs from one side of the District line to another we think the legal issue is identical," said Clinton. "Is it constitutional to benefit the residents of an area over those people who do not reside there?"