BOSTON — The US Supreme Court yesterday showed its cautious, moderate streak in rulings on two closely watched cases: free speech on cable television and laws on sexual harassment.
In a 5-to-4 vote on a First Amendment case, the high court ensured that the viewpoints of local news broadcast stations will continue to be heard in the 60 percent of American households that use cable technology.
The ruling upheld a 1992 federal law that requires cable providers to carry local stations. Congress was concerned that independent stations would be driven out of business by conglomerates like Time Warner Entertainment Co. and Turner Broadcasting System. Both these corporations had challenged the federal law.
In a second ruling, the nine justices did not go so far as to make sexual harassment a federal offense, which certainly would have qualified as a landmark decision. But they kept the door open for doing so.
The case dealt with the strange saga of an influential Tennessee state judge, David Lanier, found guilty of sexually assaulting five women in his chambers, all of whom were employees or prospective employees of the court. Mr. Lanier had served 27 months of a 25-year sentence when the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit released him in January 1996, saying a lower court had exceeded federal legal precedent in convicting him.
Both decisions, along with a technical ruling on a Mississippi motor-voter law, show a cautious court that is reluctant to go out on any legal limbs.
"The rulings show again [that] this is a moderate court," says Mark Tushnet of the Georgetown Law School in Washington. "We have known that all along."
Broadcast law experts say the cable TV ruling, while preserving local programming, is not likely to alter in any practical way the content on cable, since most local news stations are not known to be voices of dissent. Also, in evidence presented before the high court, only 1 out of 20 cable stations in the US refused to carry local programming.
"This won't change the landscape of cable TV or anything," says Mark Kende of the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Lansing, Mich. "It just puts limitations on cable's ability to go out there and act in a cutthroat manner."
In the sexual-harassment case, women's groups had hoped the high court would for the first time in US legal history create a new federal criminal law. The law would cover any state official convicted for "physical abuse of a serious and substantial manner."
The Lanier case was an especially telling one for civil libertarians - and a special challenge to the US Supreme Court - since it dealt with grotesque facts involving a fellow judge let out of prison by the second higher judicial authority in the land, a federal appeals court.
In one of seven instances, Lanier had requested oral sex from a woman who was not only a prospective employee, but whose child-custody case was being reviewed by Lanier.
IN a case affecting voters in Mississippi, the court ruled that the US Justice Department will have an opportunity to review how the state has implemented a federal motor-voter law.
The law, which took effect in 1995, allows citizens to register to vote at the same time they are getting driver's licenses or applying for welfare benefits. But the 10,000 new Mississippi voters who registered under the new law are eligible to vote only in federal elections. To vote in state and local elections, those people must register separately. The court ruled the state's approach has the "potential for discriminatory impact" and should be cleared by the federal government.
Finally, the court also agreed to decide whether states' wrongful-death laws apply in lawsuits alleging that someone died because federal rights were violated.
The justices will use the case of an elderly Alabama woman who died in a fire at her Tarrant, Ala., home in December 1993. Her family filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city, contending town firefighters did not extend as much protection to her home because they knew it was in a predominantly black neighborhood.
* Sexual Harassment. The ruling against a former state judge means sexual harassment by government officials may still be considered a federal offense.
* Cable Television. The ruling ensures equal citizen access to a variety of TV programming, despite free-speech objections of the cable industry. It is a victory for local broadcasters, who worried cable providers would drop them.
* Federal Motor Voter Law. The US will have a chance to review Mississippi's voter-registration system, which the court says may have "discriminatory impact." Under the current system, citizens who register at motor-vehicle or welfare offices can only vote in federal elections.