The Supreme Court ruled yesterday cities may be sued for violating someone's civil rights.
The question was raised when the city of Independence, Mo., sought immunity from such suits, joining a lengthening list of institutions and public officials who have in recent years sought to escape civil liability for their actions.
George D. Owen had sued the city over his firing as police chief, contending that the city's failure to notify him of the reasons for dismissal or to give him a formal hearing violated federal civil rights law.
A federal appeals court eventually threw out the suit on the grounds that cities are entitled to a limited form of immunity for acts in good faith.
In the Supreme Court, civil rights lawyers argued that this might give city governments, including police departments, unbridled liberty to violate civil rights.
The justices agreed yesterday, 5 to 4. "Many victims for municipal malfeasance would be left remediless" if the city were given immunity, Justice William J. Brennan wrote for the majority. "The knowledge that a municipality will be liable for all of its injurious conduct, whether committed in good faith or not, should create an incentive for officials who may harbor doubts about the lawfulness of their intended actions to err on the side of protecting citizens' constitutional rights."
Brennan noted that other grants of immunity -- to judges, prosecutors, local school board members and various executive officers -- were designed to insulate them from personal liability for decisions made on behalf of a government. Those immunities were grounded in history and law, as well, he wrote. Insulating the governments themselves is a different matter, he said.
Justice Lewis Powell wrote a dissent, along with Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Potter Stewart and William Rehnquist. The majority decison, the dissenters said, ignores legal history and "will hamper local governments unnecessarily. . . ."
In another action yesterday, the court ruled that a District of Columbia man was improperly sentencted after his conviction for a rape-related murder.
Thomas Whalen was convicted in 1974 of the rape and strangulation of Rebecca Reisner. He was charged under a law that combined the two offenses in a felony murder charge. But the judge handed out separate consecutive sentences for each: 15 years to life for the rape and 20 years to life for the murder.
Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the 7-to-2 majority, ruled that such a sentence was in effect a double penalty for a single crime and thus a violation of the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution.
In a third decision yesterday the court strengthened the Interior Department's control over about 2.4 million acres of Idaho desert land.
Under the Carey Act of 1894, the government may cede part of these lands to states. Idaho has sought title to about 27,000 acres for state development, saying that under the law the United States had to accede. The federal government had other plans for the land and denied Idaho's request.
The justices ruled yesterday that the federal government acted within its powers.