The Supreme Court, eliminating a potent deterrent to misconduct by city governments and police departments, ruled yesterday that municipalities may not be punished for federal civil rights violations by being forced to pay heavy money damages to victims.
Municipalities are immune from punitive damages in civil rights suits, the court ruled by a 6-to-3 vote.
The decision disturbed civil liberties lawyers. "Money talks in this country," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Richard Larson yesterday. The ruling is not "a disaster, but we had a deterrent and they took it away."
It was, however, a blessing for city governments that have complained of an increasing number of substantial awards and suits under the country's most versatile civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1871.
Punitive damages are imposed as retribution for intentional abuses and are often two or three times higher than relatively small compensatory awards, calculated to fit the actual loss suffered. Compensatory awards are still permitted under the ruling.
The costly punitive damage suits, Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote for the majority, cause tax increases and reductions in public services. "Neither reason nor justice suggests that such retribution should be visited upon the shoulders of blameless or unknowing taxpayers."
Individual officials can still be sued for punitive damages. But a police officer, as compared with the city treasury, has little capacity to pay.
The act was passed after the Civil War to protect blacks from white southern terror, particularly the Ku Klux Klan. But in recent years, thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions, Section 1983 of the act has been used effectively against everything from police brutality to welfare check denials.
Yesterday's case stemmed from a suit by a concert promoter in Newport, R.I., whose Blood, Sweat and Tears concert lost money because of the actions of city officials there. Newport officials objected to any kind of rock concert and revoked a Fact Concerts, Inc., license to prevent it. Later, they allowed the concert, but meanwhile radio announcements of the original cancellation decision halved ticket sales.
Fact Concerts, Inc., sued in federal court, charging violations of the First Amendment's protection for free expression and won $75,000 to compensate for losses and $200,000 in punitive damages.
Blackmun said that both legal tradition and the act's history suggest an interest in protecting taxpayers from having to pay for the misconduct of their officials. In addition, he doubted that punitive damages were much of a deterrent since the misbehaving officials don't have to pay them.
More effective deterrents, public humiliation of the officials, or dismissal from office, or personal liability for punitive damages, can still be obtained, Blackmun said.
Under punitive damages, juries may be encouraged to award too much money, he said, because of the prejudicial impact of "the unlimited taxing power of a municipality . . . ." And that "may create a serious risk to the financial integrity of these governmental entities."
The ruling follows court decisions over the last few years revoking a total immunity, and then a limited immunity, that municipalities had previously enjoyed. In addition, just a year ago, the court vastly expanded the violations for which municipalities and state officials may be sued under the civil rights law to include not just constitutional breaches but violations of any federal law.
Justice William J. Brennan Jr., with Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens, dissented.
In other action yesterday, the court refused to strike down limits on the contributions that can be made to political action committees, the special interest fund-raising machines that many fear now dominate federal elections.
The court did make it harder to enforce those limits and other election controls, however, by allowing alleged violators to bring court actions designed to block Federal Election Commission enforcement proceedings on constitutional grounds.
The controversy started with an FEC charge that the California Medical Association exceeded a $5,000 limit when it contributed to its PAC, the California Medical Political Action Committee.
The association then went to court on its own, seeding a judgment that the limit was a violation of the First Amendment because it restricted political expression and discriminatory because labor unions and corporations with PACs have broader limitations. Later, the FEC went to court with its own enforcement suit.
The FEC argued that the limits were constitutional and that a contrary holding would allow an evasion of the law restricting individual campaign contributions.It also said that allowing its enforcement targets to seek judgments against the commission would disrupt its activities with excessive and time-consuming litigation. The targets, like the California PAC, can raise their constitutional complaints in defense to the FEC suit, the agency argued. The justices agreed on the constitutional question yesterday but rejected FEC's efforts to block the suits. Justice Potter Stewart, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William Rehnquist, dissented, saying the suit by the California Medical Association was improper under election law.