The Supreme Court was told yesterday that a New York City law aimed at ending discrimination by large private clubs infringed upon the constitutional rights of club members.
Alan Mansfield, an attorney for a private club organization, said the "fundamentally misguided" law, similar to one passed last fall in the District, violated members' First Amendment rights of free association -- the right "to select who their friends will be."
New York's 1984 law, which bans discrimination in public accommodations, exempts certain benevolent orders and religious groups, but says other organizations are covered if they have more than 400 members, provide regular meals and receive payments for dues, meals or other services from members' employers. The law was upheld by the state's highest court.
Mansfield said the law was too sweeping and that it put purely private clubs in the same category as public accommodations without giving the clubs a chance to explain their policies.
New York corporation counsel Peter L. Zimroth argued that Mansfield could not think of a single "real" club that was treated unfairly under the law. "We are talking about large men's downtown business clubs," he argued, not intimate groups protected by the First Amendment.
One club covered by the law, he said, was the New York Athletic Club, which has 10,003 members. "Can you imagine someone saying 'Here are 10,002 of my most intimate friends'?" Zimroth asked. The clubs are not "extensions of the living room" he argued, "but of the business."
Yesterday's arguments were the third the court has heard in five years over what criteria should distinguish private clubs that are free to discriminate from public ones that are subject to antidiscrimination laws. In earlier cases, both involving public service-oriented clubs, the court ruled that states may force the U.S. Jaycees to admit women members and last term it unanimously ruled that Rotary International must do so under a California law.
Several justices asked whether clubs affected by the the law would have the right to present arguments to justify their policies. Mansfield said the law permitted no such rebuttal but Zimroth said clubs were free to argue for exemption from the law.
Some justices expressed reservations because the case, New York State Club Association v. New York City, calls on the court to rule on a direct challenge to the statute itself rather than waiting to review the law's application against a particular club.
And several, including the court's newest justice, Anthony M. Kennedy, wondered whether Mansfield could prove -- as he must in this type of lawsuit -- that the law would be unconstitutional no matter how it was applied.
Kennedy and Justice Antonin Scalia questioned Zimroth closely on whether the law unconstitutionally picked certain private clubs but excluded benevolent and religious organizations.
Zimroth said the city, after 10 years of investigation, concluded "there wasn't any evidence" that other clubs needed to be included.
Kennedy and Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who asked no questions during the hour-long argument, both resigned recently from all-male clubs. A ruling in the case is expected by early July.
In opinions issued yesterday, the court:
Affirming a ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court, ruled 5 to 3 that Mississippi owns all tidally influenced land near the Gulf Coast. Justice Byron R. White, writing for the court, in Phillips Petroleum Co. and Cinque Bambini Partnership v. Mississippi and Saga Petroleum U.S. Inc., said the states, upon entering the Union, "received ownership of all lands under waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide," whether those waters were navigable or not.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia in dissent, said the decision "will disrupt the settled expectations of landowners" in Mississippi and other coastal states. The public trust, O'Connor said, only extends to land under navigable bodies of water.
Ruled that the Merits Systems Protection Board does not have the power to review decisions of government agencies to deny or revoke security clearances to government workers covered by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote the court's opinion in Department of the Navy v. Thomas E. Egan, a case involving a civilian Navy employee who was denied a clearance and fired.
Justice Byron R. White, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, dissented, saying neither Congress nor the president intended that employees fired on national security grounds be denied a full hearing before the MSPB or their agency.