Court Declines To Decide Case Testing If Grove City Bill Applies to Prior Suits

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong — January 30, 1991 3 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to decide whether a key civil-rights law should apply in lawsuits that were pending before the measure was passed.

By a vote of 7 to 2, the Court left standing lower-court rulings in DeVargas v. Mason & Hanger-Silas Mason, Inc. (Case No. 90-720), in which Alfredo DeVargas, an ex-policeman who is blind in one eye, claimed that he was unfairly denied a job as a security officer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1981 and again in 1983.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit rejected Mr. DeVargas’s claims last August, saying that his suit was pending prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988.

That law nullified the High Court’s 1984 ruling in Grove City College v. Bell that the federal law barring sex discrimination in education applied only to federally funded programs or activities, and not to schools and colleges as a whole.

Civil-rights officials in the Reagan Administration contended--and several lower courts agreed--that the Grove City decision also extended to laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, race, and handicap in employment and other areas.

Shortly after the Restoration Act was passed, the Education Department’s office for civil rights said that “discrimination alleged to have occurred before [passage] is not affected” by the measure.

Associate Justices Byron R. White and Thurgood Marshall dissented from the decision not to hear the De Vargas case; it takes four votes to accept a case for argument.

Lawyers for Mr. DeVargas argued unsuccessfully that the case merited the High Court’s attention because two other federal appellate courts “reached precisely the opposite conclusion” of that of the 10th Circuit Court.

The ruling by the 10th Circuit Court also “is inconsistent with congressional intent on a civil-rights issue of national significance,” said the lawyers, Steven R. Shapiro and John A. Powell, both on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation in New York City.

“It’s hard to know” the ramifications of the Court’s decision not to hear the case, said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association. “It obviously doesn’t have as wide-reaching an effect” as a court ruling, she said.

Ms. Gregory noted that appellate court “conflicts are always difficult,” leaving one view of a law intact in one part of the country and another interpretation prevailing elsewhere. “There’s no way of knowing” how many suits are affected by the appellate decision in the DeVargas case, she added.

In other action, the High Court this month accepted a California case involving a state constitutional prohibition barring political parties from endorsing or opposing candidates in school-board and other local elections.

The case, Renne v. Geary (No. 90-769), began with a 1987 suit that claimed the ban violates the First Amendment. A federal district court granted a partial summary judgment to the ban’s critics in 1988. City and county officials from San Francisco appealed and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1989 upheld the prohibition. In 1990, the full appeals court reversed the panel’s decision.

The Supreme Court also declined to review a case involving costs of a hearing over the non-renewal of a tenured teacher’s contract.

In Independent School District I-3 v. Rankin (No. 90-865), a teacher in Noble County, Okla., sued after the district declined to renew his contract. In 1987, a federal district court found the school system had not violated the teacher’s rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in 1989 overruled the lower court, holding a state law unconstitutional because it required a teacher to pay half the expenses of the hearing.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Court Declines To Decide Case Testing If Grove City Bill Applies to Prior Suits