Washington — The US Supreme Court took a step into the election process this week by agreeing to decide whether the three major television networks were unreasonable when they refused to sell air time to president Carter's political campaign.
At issue in the case is how much control federal laws have over television air time during campaigns. The case grows out of a year-old argument between the Carter- Mondale Re-election Committee and ABC, NBC, and CBS television networks over a 30- minute paid political documentary.
In October 1979, the re-election committee asked the TV networks for half-hour slots during the first week of December to launch the President's political campaign. The networks refused, calling it too much time, too early in the campaign, and noting that it would disrupt normal programs.
Both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and a federal appeals court have ruled that the three networks should have granted the time since the campaign was already "in full swing."
Federal laws governing the television airways make special requirements for treatment of politicians. TV networks must grant (reasonable access) to candidates for federal offices, and a network could lose its license for "willful or repeated failure" to sell political air time.
ABC, NBC, and CBS argue that the federal government is interfering with constitutional rights of a free press. They also charge that the FCC ruling will have the effect of dragging out political campaigns even longer and making them more expensive.
By agreeing to review the case, against a recommendation from the US solicitor general, the Supreme Court justices show that they are willing to consider these questions.
In other Supreme Court action Oct. 3:
* Rep. Michael (ozzie) Myers, convicted of taking a bribe in an Abscam trial, failed to win a review for his grand jury indictment.
The Pennsylvania Democrat charged that the FBI undercover investigation known as Abscam was unconstitutional because it violated the principle of separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
Although the court refused to hear his case, more Abscam appeals are already on their way to the court, including cases charging that the Federal Bureau of Investigation entrapped Myers and other congressmen by tempting them to commit crimes.
* In the area of rights for the handicapped, the court agreed to hear arguments on whether the University of Texas can be required to pay for a sign-language interpreter for a deaf graduate student.
In this case, Walter Camenisch, a deaf student, was studying for a masters degree, which was a requirement for his post as acting dean of students for a Texas school for the deaf. According to Mr. Camenisch, the university must provide such interpreters to comply with federal antidiscrimination provisions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Attorneys for Texas hold that Congress has not required "affirmative action" and has offered no funding to pay for services such as sign-language interpreters. The university has maintained that it will allow interpreters in classrooms but that the handicapped students must pay for them.
* In a case concerning separation of church and state, the Supreme Court has granted a hearing on whether states must extend federal unemployment program to employees of church-owned schools.
While certain church-related activities are now exempt from the Federal Unemployment Tax Act, Congress has voted to require that private schools must come under the law. So far, most states have complied but several have continued to exempt parochial schools.
In the case before the court, two Lutheran schools in South Dakota are charging that having to comply with the unemployment program would interfere with freedom of religion and involve unconstitutional entanglement between church and state.
* In other action, the court has let stand a libel conviction against an Ohio newspaper that printed a column charging a local sports figure with lying after a court had already acquitted him. He had been accused in inciting a melee at a wrestling match. Justice William Brennan dissented, saying that the "press is free to differ with judicial determinations."