The Supreme Court opened its 1980 term yesterday by agreeing to major reviews of the government's regulation of occupational safety, strip mining and campaign fund-raising.
The court's strip mining and job safety actions yesterday, coupled with an earlier decision to consider federal water pollution laws, means that the next nine months will see the most thorough legal review yet of the far-reaching restrictions placed on industry over the last decade by the new generation of regulatory agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Interior Department's strip mining office.
The cases stem from a multi-industry contention that the new regulations are unreasonably harsh, expensive and sometimes unconstitutional.
The election law case, only the second to be heard by the court since enactment of the post-Watergate campaign finance laws, questions whether fund-raising limitations placed on the increasingly potent special-interest political action committees violate free speech guarantees.
In another action yesterday, the justices decided to review the State Department's power to strip former CIA agent Philip Agee of his passport. dThe department contended that Agee's activities, including the naming of alleged covert agents in foreign countries, endangered the national security.
The job safety case accepted yesterday from the textile industry raises questions left unresolved last term about whether the benefits of worker health regulations need to be weighed against their cost to industry.
The case (American Textile Manufacturers Institute, et al. vs. Labor Secretary Ray Marshall) attacks OSHA's standards for cotton dust exposure. Cotton dust causes the crippling byssinosis, or "brown lung" disease, in workers. OSHA promulgated a limit in 1978 that industry contends could cost it as much as $2.7 billion. The textile makers claimed that OSHA had failed to consider whether the standard was economically feasible using current technology and whether the protection it would offer justified such an expense.
The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the argument.
In a water pollution case accepted late last term, the gravel, coal and crushed stone industry made a similar claim about EPA regulations to protect waterways.
The strip mining case attacks the government's stringent land reclamation requirements, enacted in 1977, as an unconstitutional infringement on private property. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act requires mining companies to restore the land they strip in search of coal, prohibits dumping of soil on steep slopes, creates restrictions on surface mining near roads, homes, schools, and parks, and imposes civil penalties for violations.
Federal judges in Virginia (Cecil Andrus vs. Virginia Surface Mining and Reclamation Association) and in Indiana (Andrus vs. Indiana) invalidated the law.
The election law case (California Medical Association vs. the Federal Election Commission) could result in the lifting of the $5,000 limit on individual contributions to political action committees (PACs), the multimillion-dollar campaign fund-raising machines created by businesses, labor unions, single-issue organizations and professional groups to raise and distribute money.
As it stands, the thousands of "PACs" already dominate the contribution lists of incumbents and challengers alike because of their fund-raising resourses. Individuals and associations are prohibited from giving more than $5,000 to a PAC, however, and this limits their potential.
The California Medical Association challenged the limit when it sought to contribute more to the California Medical Political Action Committee. The court yesterday agreed to consider whether the $5,000 limit violates the association's right to free speech. The medical association also challenged the law as discriminatory, because labor unions and corporations, unlike associations, are allowed to funnel unlimited funds into their PACs by footing the bill for PAC administrative expenses.
In other actions yesterday, the justices decided to review a D.C. decision allowing a stepfather to adopt children over the objection of their natural father, a California-Sierra Club fight over the largest water reclamation project in the United States and a battle between the federal government and the state of Alaska over revenues from oil and gas.
In another action, the justices rejected the appeal of parents in Lansing, Mich., who tried unsuccessfully to prevent a birth control clinic from dispensing contraceptives to teen-agers without notifying parents.
The court also let stand a California libel decision that made it easier for businesses to win libel suits. In a suit brought by a retailer featured in an ABC consumer report, the California Supreme Court had ruled that businesses are not "public figures" who need to show a news organization's malice before collecting damages in a libel case.