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Civil-Rights Cases Affecting Education on Supreme Court's Agenda

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Several of the major education-related cases to be heard during the 1983-84 session of the U.S. Supreme Court, which began this week, involve controversies over the scope of federal civil-rights laws.

Grove City College v. Terrel H. Bell (Case No. 82-792), involves a challenge by a small liberal-arts college that receives no direct federal education aid to a U.S. Education Department rule requiring its officials to sign a form saying the school will not discriminate on the basis of sex. The school contends that since only its students receive federal aid, it need not sign the form.

The case has drawn a considerable amount of attention because in a recently submitted brief, the U.S. Justice Department, in endorsing the college's argument, broke with previous Administrations, which had interpreted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to require a school or college that receives federal aid in any form to comply with the law in full.

In August, the Education Department changed its policy to conform to the Justice Department's and sought to drop an investigation of two schools--Chicago State University and Governors State University--that had been accused of discriminating on the basis of sex, race, and national origin.

Civil-rights lawyers have said that this shift in the Education Department's regulatory policy, if upheld by the Court's interpretation of Title IX, could be broadened to limit the scope of other civil-rights laws affecting education.

Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Darrone (Case No. 82-862) concerns the scope of authority of another federal anti-discrimination statute--Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which permits handicapped job applicants to sue a prospective employer for discrimination against the handicapped if the employer receives federal funds. The case involves Thomas LaStrange, a former locomotive engineer who had part of one arm amputated in an accident unrelated to his work and who subsequently sought a job with Conrail, which turned him down.

Mr. LaStrange sued Conrail under Section 504 on the grounds that the company received federal funds. A federal district court ruled that Mr. LaStrange could not sue under that provision because, in general, the federal aid that Conrail received did not affect Mr. LaStrange's employment circumstances.

A federal appellate court reversed this decision, ruling that Section 504 prohibits such employment discrimination by recipients of federal aid, regardless of the nature, purpose, or intended beneficiaries of the aid, and that the prohibition can be enforced by a private suit. Conrail is appealing this decision.

Lawyers say the outcome of the case will probably affect similar Section 504 suits in education.

In Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts (Case No. 82-206), the Court will consider the authority of a lower federal court to overturn a "last-hired, first-fired" layoff system in Memphis in order to preserve improvements in the racial balance of the city's fire department.

Education lawyers say they are watching this case closely because it raises issues similar to those in several federal appellate-court cases decided recently that involve the layoff of public-school teachers.

The Court will also make a final ruling on an appeal by the Justice Department stemming from a draft-registration case. The agency is asking the Court to overturn an injunction by a federal district court in Minnesota that stopped the government from enforcing a 1982 law prohibiting students who have not registered for the draft from receiving federal student aid.

In June, the Supreme Court temporarily overturned the district court's injunction, which had been based on an opinion that the law--Section 1113 of the Defense Department Authorization Act of 1983--amounted to an illegal Bill of Attainder and violated students' protection from self-incrimination. The case is Selective Service System v. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (Case No. 83-276).

Last term, in Bob Jones University v. U.S., the Court ruled that federal tax exemptions can be denied to private schools and colleges that are racially discriminatory. This term, in W. Wayne Allen v. Inez Wright (Case No. 81-757) and Donald T. Regan, Secretary of the Treasury v. Inez Wright (Case No. 81-970), the Court is being asked to decide whether parents have the right to sue the Secretary of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service to force federal officials to adopt more effective procedures for determining an institution's tax-exempt status and for revoking the tax-exempt status of discriminatory schools.

The Court will also hear a case that lawyers say could affect state collective-bargaining laws.

Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges and Minnesota Community College Faculty Association v. Leon Knight (Case Nos. 82-898 and 82-977) concern the rights of non-union community-college faculty members to participate in discussions with college administrators about employment conditions not covered under collective-bargaining agreements. Twenty such faculty members have argued successfully in lower federal courts that a Minnesota law that gives union members the exclusive right to participate in the so-called "meet and confer" sessions violates their First and 14th Amendment rights.

In Migra v. Warren City School District Board of Education (Case No. 82-738), the Court will consider whether a teacher who sued her employing school system successfully for breach of contract in a state court can file a separate civil-rights suit in federal court. Two lower federal courts have ruled that such action is prohibited by prior decisions.

In addition, Sony Corporation of America v. Universal City Studios Inc. (Case No. 81-1687) raises the question of whether off-the-air taping of television programs on home videocassette recorders is an infringement of the copyright of the owners of such programs. Teachers and librarians have said that restrictions on such tapings could limit the educational uses of such material. Oral arguments were heard in the case in January, but the Court had scheduled it to be reheard on the first day of its 1983-84 session.

In addition to the cases already scheduled to be heard during this court term, the Justices were expected to announce this week which of the other 989 pending cases they will hear this year.

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