High Court Agrees to Hear 105 Cases : Thorny Issues to Be Argued This Fall

The Supreme Court already has agreed to hear 105 cases in the term that begins Monday, enough to keep it busy into January. Among the questions they pose:

--Can the government require its employees or workers in the federally regulated railroad industry to undergo drug tests? No, say the unions, unless the government has evidence that an individual is a drug user. Yes, says the Reagan Administration, because the government’s interest in a drug-free workplace outweighs the intrusion on an employee’s privacy. (Burnley vs. Railway Labor Executives, 87-1555, and National Treasury Employees Union vs. Von Raab, 86-1879. To be argued Nov. 2.)

--Does a post-Civil War law giving blacks the same rights as whites to “make and enforce contracts” forbid racial discrimination in private schools and real estate sales? Twelve years ago, the high court answered yes. But last April, in a surprise move, five justices voted to reconsider. Legal experts say that overturning this ruling could be an important symbolic setback for civil rights but that its practical impact would be limited because other federal and state laws also prohibit such discrimination. (Patterson vs. McLean Credit, 87-107. To be argued Oct. 12.)

--Can the city of Richmond require that at least 30% of its contracts go to minority-owned firms? Yes, say city officials, because less than 1% of its contracts had been going to minority businesses. No, says the Reagan Administration, because such a law discriminates against whites. (Richmond vs. Croson, 87-998. To be argued Oct. 5.)


--Can an accounting firm reject a successful woman as a partner because she is loud and profane and has a “macho” attitude? No, said a federal appeals court, concluding that such sex stereotyping constitutes illegal sex discrimination. But the company contends that she was rejected because she was difficult to work with and that a man with similar traits would have fared the same. (Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins, 87-1167. To be argued Oct. 31.)

--Can police in a helicopter hover at 400 feet above a house looking for marijuana? The Florida Supreme Court, ruling that this represents an “unreasonable search” banned by the Fourth Amendment, said no, and a California appellate court came to the same conclusion last year. But the Supreme Court in 1986 upheld aircraft searches at 1,000 feet, and state police say that the same ruling should cover helicopters. (Florida vs. Riley, 87-764. To be argued Oct. 3.)

--Can property tax assessors use new sale prices to set tax rates without reassessing other, similar properties? Coal companies in West Virginia, challenging this “welcome, stranger” method of taxing, contends that it results in their paying 30 times more per acre than nearby, similar property that has not changed hands. If the court agrees and declares this unconstitutional, some lawyers say that the property tax system created by California’s Proposition 13 will be threatened. (Allegheny Pittsburgh vs. Webster Co., 87-1303. Arguments not yet scheduled.)