A state may not cut off public funding to a private organization simply because it engages in abortion counseling, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The justices, on a 5-3 vote, said that the Arizona Legislature went too far when, in barring the use of state funds to pay for abortions, it declared also that no funds may go to any group whose activities included "counseling for abortion procedures and abortion referrals."
Planned Parenthood challenged this 1980 statute, and lower courts declared it unconstitutional. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said earlier this year that Arizona could instruct private groups not to use any of their state money for abortion activities but could not cut off all funds to groups like Planned Parenthood.
On appeal to the high court, Arizona Atty. Gen. Robert Corbin said that the state "has a legitimate interest in the furtherance of its policy to promote human life . . . (and) to disassociate itself from abortion and abortion-related activities."
The high court took the somewhat unusual step of affirming the appeals court ruling without hearing arguments in the case. Since first affirming a woman's right to an abortion in 1973, the pro-abortion rights bloc on the court repeatedly has rejected state laws that are seen as attempts to infringe on this right.
Abortion Bloc Intact
In the voting on the Arizona case, the pro-abortion rights bloc held intact, with Associate Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and Lewis F. Powell Jr. voting in favor of the appeals court ruling. Opposed were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Byron R. White and Antonin Scalia. Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a former member of the Arizona Legislature, took no part in the ruling on the case (Babbitt vs. Planned Parenthood, 86-369).
Meanwhile, faced with the question of when a school district may stop busing children for purposes of desegregation, the justices let stand without comment two conflicting appeals court decisions--one allowing busing to end in Norfolk, Va., and a second directing it to continue in Oklahoma City.
Both school systems were found guilty in the early 1970s of segregating their students and were forced to bus children between white and black neighborhoods. In recent years, both districts asked the courts to let them resume their former policy of sending children to the nearest elementary school.
Racial Motives Charged
But civil rights attorneys said that such a move was "racially motivated" and would in itself be an act of segregation.
The Norfolk school board said that the busing plan was causing it to lose white students to nearby school systems and thus was making racial imbalances in classrooms worse. However, attorneys for the NAACP contended that the Norfolk plan to stop busing "served the explicitly articulated racial purpose of increasing the number of white pupils attending the Norfolk schools . . . by minimizing the number of blacks attending schools with whites."
Nevertheless, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Norfolk's action earlier this year, concluding that the system had fully complied with a 1971 desegregation order (Riddick vs. School Board of Norfolk, 85-1962). In June, however, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the school board in Oklahoma City could not end its busing plan if doing so resegregated the system (Board of Education of Oklahoma City vs. Dowell, 86-326).
Court observers had seen these cases as an example of a classic conflict between appeals courts that the Supreme Court would resolve. But, after sitting on the two appeals for several weeks, the high court said Monday that it would hear neither case.
"I think it's impossible to read anything into this," said William Robinson of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "All you can say is that the court doesn't always take an issue when lawyers think they should." He and other civil rights attorneys said they were disappointed that the Norfolk decision was allowed to stand, but they added that it had no importance as a precedent because the Oklahoma City ruling also has been permitted to stand.