The Supreme Court yesterday forced the last remaining all-male eating club at Princeton University to admit women as members, letting stand a ruling that fraternities said presents "a grave threat" to their existence.
The court declined to hear arguments by Tiger Inn, an exclusive century-old undergraduate club, that a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling requiring it to admit women interfered with its constitutional right of freedom of association. The club, a social organization and dining hall, will now have to admit women when it accepts new members this spring in the annual Princeton ritual known as "bicker."
In other action yesterday, the court threw out an Ohio case that raised the question of whether the families of murder victims should be allowed to tell juries considering the death penalty about the character of the victim and the grief they have suffered.
The state of Ohio, the Bush adminstration and victims' rights groups had urged the court to use the case to overrule a 1987 decision in which it said such emotional evidence was too inflammatory for jurors to hear. A majority of justices are on record as disagreeing with that ruling.
The court heard oral argument last week in the case, Ohio v. Huertas, but dismissed it yesterday in a one-sentence order saying its acceptance of the case had been "improvidently granted," meaning the court should not have agreed to hear it.
While the justices did not elaborate, the murderer's lawyer had asked them to take that step because the Ohio Supreme Court, in disallowing such evidence, had rested its ruling on state law, which the justices do not review.
In addition, the prosecutor had conceded at oral argument that the request by the victim's father that the jury impose the death sentence -- a key part of the testimony on which the Ohio Supreme Court appeared to base its ruling -- went too far.
The eating club case, Tiger Inn v. Frank, started in 1978 when Sally Frank, then a Princeton sophomore, was denied admission to the males-only Cottage Club and filed suit the next year against Cottage and the two other all-male clubs, Ivy Club and Tiger Inn. The three clubs are the oldest and most prestigious of Princeton's 12 eating clubs, which provide meals for about three-fourths of juniors and seniors.
Responding to Frank's suit and other pressure, Cottage Club has admitted women since 1986. Ivy accepted 14 women this fall, but has filed a civil rights suit against the state for forcing it to do so.
At Tiger Inn, members voted in October to continue to ban women and to seek to overturn the state supreme court ruling requiring it to admit women.
The New Jersey law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in public accommodations. Although it makes an exception for "distinctly private" clubs, the New Jersey court ruled that Tiger Inn did not qualify because of its close connections to the university.
In asking the high court to review that ruling, Tiger Inn's lawyers said it could affect thousands of fraternity chapters on college campuses nationwide, Harvard's exclusive all-male Fly Club and Yale's famous all-male singing group, the Whiffenpoofs.
If the New Jersey court is correct, they said, "the members of many private social organizations will be deprived of their right to freedom of association."
They were supported by the National Interfraternity Conference, which said the New Jersey decision "and the potential cost of fighting its extension to thousands of similar college student groups across the country present a grave threat to the right of private association at the nation's colleges and universities."
Frank, now a law professor at Drake University, said the discrimination of which she complained "is very harmful, even at an undergraduate club. . . . It's very important that people, while they're at Princeton, do not learn the lesson that discrimination is permissible."
She said the treatment of fraternities would vary among states, depending on their laws, and could turn on such factors as whether they serve as dormitories or are primarily eating places. "It's sort of the next case and it's unclear how it would turn out," she said.
In other decisions, new Justice David H. Souter joined with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and three liberals -- Justices Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens, and Harry A. Blackmun -- to overturn a Florida man's death sentence in the court's first 5 to 4 vote of the term.
The case, Parker v. Dugger, involved Robert Lacy Parker, who was sentenced to death in a triple murder. The jury in Parker's case had recommended life in prison, but a judge -- as allowed under Florida law -- overrode that suggestion and sentenced Parker to death. The Florida Supreme Court said the judge used some improper criteria in imposing the death sentence but upheld it anyway.
In an opinion by O'Connor, the court said the Florida Supreme Court had failed to consider whether there were any mitigating circumstances concerning Parker or the crime that would tip the balance in favor of life in prison. That failure, O'Connor wrote, "deprived Parker of the individualized treatment to which he is entitled under the constitution."
In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Byron R. White accused the majority of improperly second-guessing the state court in a "radical departure" from earlier cases.
In a second decision yesterday, U.S. v. R. Enterprises, the court gave federal prosecutors broad leeway to subpoena records from businesses suspected of wrongdoing. Ruling in an Alexandria-based obscenity investigation, the court said a grand jury subpoena challenged on the ground that it would not turn up relevant information should be upheld unless there is "no reasonable possibility" it would produce useful information.