The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 yesterday that the states have wide discretion in letting prisoners out on parole, saying that the states "may be specific or general in defining the conditions for release and the factors that should be considered by the parole authority."
And, the court said, the simple possibility of parole doesn't entitle a prisoner to the full protection of the 14th Amendment, which says that a state can deprive a person of liberty only with due process of law.
The possibility of parole is "no more will be obtained," Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote for the majority.
In partially dissenting, however, Justice Thurgood Marshall accused the majority of adopting "an unduly narrow view" of the liberty protected by the Constitution. All prisoners potentially eligible for parole have an interest in their liberty that can't be taken from them due process, he said. Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and John Paul Stevens signed his opinion.
The court reversed a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that, under a Nebraska law, each inmate eligible for discretionary parole was entitled to:
A full formal hearing, with an advance, written notice giving the time of the hearing and the factors to be taken into account by the parole board.
The right to appear in person before the board.
A record of the hearing "capable of being reduced to writing."
In addition, the 8th Circuit had ruled, if the board denies parole, it must give the inmate a full written explanation of the facts it relied upon and its reasons for the denial.
In handing down the ruling, the appeals court was guided by a 1972 decision in which the Supreme Court held that certain due-process standards must be met by a state when it deprives a former prisoner of his liberty by revoking his parole.
"The fallacy," Chief Justice Burger said, "is that parole release and parole revocation are quite different." In this regard, he cited the remark of another judge that "there is a human difference between losing what one has and not getting what one wants."
But Justice Marshall said in his dissent that the admitted difference between a deprivation of liberty one has and a denial of liberty one desires is "not . . . relevant to the established constitutional inquiry," partly because "this court has repeatedly concluded that the due process clause protects liberty interests that individuals do not currently enjoy."
Marshall also rejected Burger's description of the Nebraska parole system as offering prisoners "no more than a mere hope" of release, mainly on the ground that legislators provide and judges impose sentences in awareness that inmates will be paroled well before their sentences expire.
Burger conceded that the Nebraska law creates an "expectancy of release" that entitles prisoners "to some measure of constitutional protection." But he termed the law "unique" and concluded that its provisions supply due process for a decision on discretionary parole.
By contrast, Marshall said he would supplement current Nebraska procedures by requiring the parole board to give each inmate reasonable notice of hearing dates and the factors to be considered and, in event of a denial of parole, the written reasons and "essential facts."
In other actions, the court:
Held 6 to 3 that a Memphis judge could admit the police confessions of three codefendants in a murder-robbery joint trial to convict a defendant who didn't take the stand.
Affirmed, without hearing argument, a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that New Jersey's 1976 income tax laws - the state's first - violates the First Amendment by providing a $1,000 exemption to parents for each child enrolled in a religious school. Three members of the court wanted to set the case for argument.
Voted 8 to 1, in an unusual South Carolina desegregation case, to leave intact a ruling under which a rural white elementary school teacher lost her job for rejecting a transfer based on her race.