The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for states to require public officials to disclose their federal income tax returns and other personal financial information.
The justices let stand a ruling -- the first of its kind in the lower federal courts -- that a Florida "sunshine" amendment to the state constitution doesn't violate the "fundamental" constitutional rights of officials.
The amendment, supported by the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause, but opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, was adopted by the voters by 4 to 1 in 1976.
The voters apparently were reacting to years of political scandals. The state controller, treasurer and super-intendent of education were indicted for selling influence. For doing the same, impeachment of a state Supreme Court justice was recommended by a legislative committee. A second justice resigned under fire and a reprimand was issued to a third by the state body that supervises judicial conduct.
The amendment requires state and local elected and specified appointed officials, as well as candidates, to "file full and public disclosure of their financial interests," meaning: the most recent federal income tax return, identification of each asset and liability in excess of $1,000, and identification of the source and amount of each item of income exceeding $1,000.
In July 1977, three weeks before the deadline for the first filing with the Florida Commission on Ethics, five state senators challenged the amendment in federal court.
In the absence of wrongdoing, they said, revealing financial data "is disclosure for disclosure's sake alone. It is an aid to newspaper sales and rumormongery." And, they argued, disclosure of wealth "can bring mischief, even kidnapers..."
U.S. District Court Judge William H. Stafford Jr. dismissed the suit, holding that the right to privacy protected by the Constitution concerns intimate decisions of the kind usually connected with one's family.
Last June, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. While acknowledging that disclosure may influence a family, the court said that such an effect "does not rise to the level of a constitutional problem."
The court rejected an ACLU argument that disclosure impermissibly burdens the right to run for office. "Mere deterrence is not sufficient for a successful constitutional attack," Circuit Court Judge John Minor Wisdom wrote.
His opinion for the court also rejected an argument that the amendment would not stop corruption because officials aren't likely to disclose illegal income.
The reporting requirement "will discourage corruption," Wisdom said. "Sunshine will make detection more likely."
He recognized that officials' privacy is "severely limited" by the amendment. And, he said, "We do not say that it is wise: the people of Florida... have done that. We do say that, on its face, it is constitutional."
Starting in May, under a new federal law, anyone who wants to inspect financial statements of the nation's top bureaucrats, politicians, generals, judges and Supreme Court justices will be able to do so.
The court took other actions before recessing until Feb. 20: SOCIAL SECURITY
When a married wage-earner dies, his widow can draw Social Security benefits for their children. But must the same benefits be paid to illegitimate children? Yes, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Roberts ruled in Austin, Tex., last June. They "have an equal need and an equal right... to have their mothers stay home to care for them when they are young."
If the ruling is affirmed, the annual cost would be about $60 million. The government also says benefits to legitimate children would be decreased. Yesterday, the court agreed to review the decision. COMMUNITY PROPERTY
In 1975, when his retirement and pension benefits were five years off, railroad worker Jess H. Hisquierdo sued for divorce in Los Angeles. His wife contended that under the "community property" law of California (and of six other states), what was his was hers, and vice versa -- so she was entitled to share in the pension benefits.
The state's highest tribunal agreed. Yesterday, in an opinion by Justice Harry A. Blackmun for a 7-to-2 majority, the Supreme Court reversed citing the Railroad Retirement Act. FELONS' FRANCHISE
The court let stand a ruling that Texas can permanently take away the right to vote from a felon convicted in a federal or out-of-state court, but restore it to felons convicted in Texas state courts.