The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the government's authority to cut off federal funds to schools and colleges that practice employment discrimination against women.
The decision preserves what many civil rights advocates regard as a remedy--jeopardized by lower court rulings around the country--that is swifter and of greater deterrence than individual job discrimination lawsuits brought in the nation's courts.
It is a defeat for the nation's educational institutions, however, which have bitterly contested the government's authority to use the law in question, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, as a club against employment bias. The law was intended to protect only students and other "beneficiaries" of federal programs, they contend, rather than teachers, counselors and other employes.
Two Connecticut public school boards, the North Haven Board of Education and the Trumbull Board of Education, brought the suits that produced yesterday's 6-to-3 ruling. Both were accused by female employes of discriminating against women in hiring, leaves of absence, job assignments and other working conditions. Both, like thousands of other school systems, receive federal funds.
The women could have filed job discrimination suits under two U.S. anti-bias laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead, they complained to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which launched investigations and enforcement proceedings under 1975 federal regulations that could have led to cutoffs of funds for both systems.
The school boards sued to block those proceedings, arguing that the regulations exceeded Congress' grant of authority. Four courts of appeals have agreed with that argument, although the Second Circuit, in this case, disagreed.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun, writing for the majority yesterday, said that Title IX contains a "broad directive that 'no person' may be discriminated against on the basis of gender. . . .
"Under that provision," he said, "employes, like other 'persons,' may not be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of or subjected to discrimination under education programs receiving federal financial support."
Blackmun said that Congress' failure to expressly exclude employment discrimination from the legislation supports his conclusion.
A second issue in the case concerned the institutions' claim that even if the government can cut off the money for employment discrimination, only funds for the specific program at issue could be terminated, not all funds for the educational institution.
Blackmun agreed with that interpretation. But he left the government regulations intact, saying they conformed with the legislation's "program-specific" requirement.
Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist, dissented in North Haven Board of Education et al. vs. Terrel H. Bell, Secretary, Department of Education. Powell said that Blackmun had misinterpreted the history of the legislation and the intent of Congress in passing it.
The case was the source of unusual debate within the Reagan administration. The government has been arguing for years in favor of a broad reading of the law. Some conservatives within the Education Department and elsewhere in the government, however, tried unsuccessfully to get the the Justice Department to reverse the position when President Reagan took office, as they did in the controversial case concerning tax exemptions for schools that practice racial discrimination.
During oral arguments on the case, the administration was chastised by one justice for not having its act together.
In another job discrimination decision yesterday, the court took steps to limit federal court consideration of complaints already resolved by state courts.
In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices said that a New York man who couldn't win his ethnic and religious bias suit after fully litigating it in the state courts could not then go into the U.S. District Court with the same complaint. The case was brought by Rubin Kremer, who said the Chemical Construction Corp. laid him off as an engineer in 1975 because he was a recent Jewish immigrant from Poland.
Justice Byron R. White, writing for the court in Kremer vs. Chemical Construction Corp., based his ruling on doctrines requiring the federal judiciary to respect the findings of state judiciaries.
In a third case, the court ruled 6 to 3 that posting of eviction notices in a Kentucky public housing project was insufficient warning to give tenants an adequate opportunity to contest the displacement.
Justice William J. Brennan Jr. noted that posted notices can be removed in a variety of ways before being received by tenants.
The court affirmed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit invalidating the Kentucky procedures. Brennan said the U.S. mail would provide better notice.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist, dissented. O'Connor noted that the ruling overturned procedures in "at least 10 other states . . . despite the total absence of any evidence in the record regarding the speed and reliability of the mails."