The Supreme Court yesterday barred federal prosecutors from seeking second trials of criminal defendants who have been acquitted by a judge after a jury deadlocked.
With Chief Justice Warren E. Burger dissenting, seven justices held that the constitutional protection against being placed in double jeopardy would be violated by permitting the government to seek to overturn an acquittal won in such circumstances.
The court acted in a case from San Antonia, Tex., where two commonly owned firms were tried two years ago on criminal contempt charges arising from alleged violations of a settlement of antitrust charges to which they had consented.
Eleven jurors voted to convict. One held out for acquittal. Finally, U.S. District Court Judge John H. Wood Jr. declared a mistrial. "I have seen some contempt cases, but this is without a doubt the weakest I have ever seen," he said.
The defendants - Martin Linen Supply Co. and Texas Sanitary Towel Supply Co. - promptly moved for acquittal under a federal rule of criminal procedure permitting such a motion within seven days after a jury has been discharged. "The court may enter judgment of acquittal," the rule says. That's what Wood did.
The government appealed, contending that only a verdict of acquittal formally returned by a jury absolutely bars further proceedings.
The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Wood's directed verdict of acquittal - based on his finding that the government had not proved its allegations beyond a reasonable doubt - prohibits giving a prosecutors a second run at the linen and towel firms, the court said.
The Supreme Court agreed. "There can be no question that the judgments of acquittal entered here were 'acquittals' in substance as well as form." Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said in an opinion for the court.
Chief Justice Burger, in his dissent, found the decision "wholly inconsistent" with the intention of the drafters of criminal procedure rules, who said: "No legitimate interest of the government is intended to be prejudiced by permitting the government to direct an acquittal on a post-conviction motion."
Justice William H. Rehnquist, without explanation, did not take part in considering or deciding the case.
The court took other actions: INDIAN LANDS
With no guarantee of compensation, the government in the first decade of the century passed three laws that took - for sale to settlers - three quarters of the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Such unilateral action was barred by the 1868 treaty establishing the reservation.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided, 6 to 3, that the language and history of the laws required the Sioux to cede lands within the reservation boundaries as defined in an 1889, treaty.
The dissenters termed the decision "wholly unjustifiable" and said it may sharply decrease federal aid to members of the tribe living off the reservation and puts in doubt the boundaties of more than a score of other resvations. PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES
In the last election, only the major presidential candidates - Republican Gerald R. Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter - had the chance to debate before ational television audiences. Other candidates were excluded. One of them,former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an independent, challenged the Federal Communications Commission ruling permitting the exclusion. Yesterday, the court let the ruling stand. In 1980, unless Congress changes the law, the major-party candidates alone again will appear in televised debates, if there are any.