The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 yesterday that a state can't imprison or jail an indigent convicted of even a minor offense unless he had counsel at his trial.

The decision is intended to resolve a conflict in lower tribunals about how to apply a 1972 ruling of the court in cases where an indigent offender could be -- but isn't -- incarcerated.

The 1972 ruling, while not "unmistakably clear," "did indeed delimit the constitutional right to appointed counsel in state criminal proceedings," Jutice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the opinion for the majority.

The central premise of the 1972 ruling -- "that actual imprisonment is a penalty different in Kind from fines or the mere threat of imprisonment -- is eminently sound and warrants adoption of actual imprisonment as the line defining the constitutional right to appointment of counsel," Rehnquist said.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote that the ruling runs counter to the guarantee of the Sixth Amendment that the accused shall have the right to the asistance of counsel in "all" criminal prosecutions. Joining him were Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a separate dissent, said he would hold that an indigent defendant in a state criminal case must be afforded appointed counsel if he is prosecuted for a nonpetty criminal offense -- one punishable by more than six months' imprisonment.

The case came from Chicago, where Aubrey Scott was charged with theft for shoplifting merchandise valued at $13.68. The offense carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine, one year in jail, or both.

Scott, an indigent, appeared before a judge without counsel and without being told that he was entitled to have one. The judge found him guilty and fined him $50. On appeal, the state's highest tribunal held that he would have been entitled to a lawyer only if he had been sent to jail -- a view that was affirmed yesterday.

The court handed down other decisions.


Under federal labor law, the duty of an employer to bargain collectively includes the supplying of relevant information that a union needs to perform its legal role as the representative of the employes.

At a plant in Monroe, Mich., employes of the Detroit Edison Co. were covered by an agreement providing that certain promotions were to be based on seniority "whenever the reasonable qualifications and abilities of the employes being considered are not significantly different."

To screen employes for a job classification called "Instrument Man B," the company administered certain standardized psycholigical aptitude tests -- and did so with an express commitment that the scores would be kept confidential. Indeed, the company's psycholigists, as members of the American Psychological Association, felt themselves ethically bound to withhold test information from unauthorized persons.

In 1971, none of 10 employes at the Monroe plant who applied for six Instrument Man B openings got a score rated by the company as "acceptable," and all were rejected. The company filled the openings with persons from outside the bargaining unit.

The union, Local 223 of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, then filed a grievance claiming that the test procedure was unfair.

The issue then came down to this: Was the union, in addition to materials validating the tests, entitled to the test battery, applicants' test papers and the scores under assurances that it would safeguard them?

The National Labor Relations Board ruled for the union and was upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Yesterday, a divided Supreme Court reversed. The NLRB abused its discretion in ordering Detroit Edison to turn over the disputed materials, Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the majority. "A union's bare assertion that it needs information to process a grievance does not automatically oblige the employer to supply all the information in the manner requested," he said.


In a case invloving the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, an entity created by a compact between California and Nevada to perform legislative and executive functions, the court ruled that the agency does not enjoy the sovereign immunity from liability enjoyed by a state, which can be sued only with its permission.


The court held that a state is not constitutionally immune from suit in the courts of another state. The case arose when residents of California filed a damage suit in a California court for injuries against the state of Nevada, which owned a car that collided in California with a car owned by the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs won a $1,150,000 award. Nevada then tried to invoke one of its laws limiting awards against it to $25,000. Yesterday, the court upheld the ruling of a California appeals tribunal that Nevada was barred from doing that.


In June 1976 the court upheld a Massacvhusetts law compelling state troopers to retire at age 50, because that cutoff hadn't been shown to be "not rationally related to furthering a legitimate state interest."

Ever since, courts have handed down conflicting decisions in trying to apply that ruling to other public employes, principally teachers.

Yesterday, the court passed up, without explanation, a chance to clarify the situation. It declined to review four decisions from three states, including one from New York, where a law compelling a teacher to retire at 70 was upheld, and one from illinois, where a law compelling a teacher to retire at 65 was struck down.


The court let stand the convictions of two Albany, Calif., men, Dr. John A. Richardson and Ralph S. Bowman, for conspiring to smuggle, and for conspiring to receive, buy and sell Laetrile, a substance used by some terminal cancer patients.