The Supreme Court yesterday dismissed a challenge to state laws that limit the fees lawyers may collect in medical malpractice cases, finding no constitutional barriers to California's effort to cap those fees.
The court, with Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Byron R. White dissenting, issued no opinion in rejecting a challenge to California's 1975 law. The law imposed a sliding scale for limits on attorneys' fees.
Despite the absence of an opinion, constitutional experts say that the ruling signals state legislatures and courts that limits similar to those imposed in California probably would be upheld.
The justices last month rejected a challenge to a provision of the 1975 law that limited noneconomic awards in such cases.
The provision at issue yesterday, passed in response to what the legislature said was a "crisis" in health-care costs, allows a lawyers' fee of 40 percent for the first $50,000 won by a plaintiff, one-third of the next $50,000, 25 percent of the next $100,000 and 10 percent of anything over $200,000.
In yesterday's case, Roa v. Lodi Medical Group, a couple wanted to pay a lawyer 25 percent of a $495,000 settlement in a suit over treatment during the birth of their son. A judge said California law permitted them to pay no more than about $90,000 to the lawyer.
The parents appealed, arguing that the law violated their rights to freedom of speech and to decide how much of their recovery to allocate to legal advocacy.
In another action, the justices, acting in a closely watched voting case, issued a stay of a 1984 ruling striking down Indiana's reapportionment scheme as unconstitutional political gerrymandering. The court's one-paragraph order in Davis v. Bandemer left in place a plan drawn up by Indiana Republicans.
A three-judge panel ruled that that plan discriminated against Democrats and ordered the Republican-controlled legislature to change it by the end of this year. Yesterday's action means the state can wait for a formal opinion from the court, which heard arguments in the case last month.
The justices, meeting in secret conference after oral argument, have taken a tentative vote in the case. Yesterday's action could be a hint that the court will reverse the panel, but lawyers familiar with this case and with voting-rights cases in general cautioned against that reading. An attorney for Indiana Republicans said the action only temporarily relieved state officials of pressure to move quickly to comply with the panel's order.
The court also issued its first two decisions of the 1985 term. In Pennsylvania Bureau of Correction v. U.S. Marshals Service, the court ruled, 8 to 1, that Congress did not give federal judges the power to order U.S. marshals to transport state prisoners to the federal courthouse to testify against state officials.
In Hill v. Lockhart, the court unanimously turned down an appeal by a convicted murderer who claimed he was misinformed by his lawyer about when he would be eligible for parole if he pleaded guilty. The court said the prisoner was not entitled to a hearing because he did not claim that his decision to plead guilty was based on the incorrect advice.
The court also agreed to decide the constitutionality of a recently passed change in the Food Stamp Act that limits eligibility in the program for family members who live together but purchase food and prepare meals separately.
The 1981 and 1982 amendments were aimed at cutting abuse in the $12 billion program and could save about $40 million in yearly outlays, according to congressional estimates.
Four Texas families sued, saying the new limits unfairly affected extended families who live together. A federal judge there agreed and struck down the change as unconstitutional. The case is U.S. v. Castillo.