BOSTON — Parents who avoid child-support bills may breathe a bit easier after a US Supreme Court ruling yesterday dealing with the rights of single mothers.
But the comfort of such "deadbeat" parents may be short lived. The high court kept a door open for single mothers on welfare to sue if a state does not comply with federal child-support laws.
Yesterday's ruling began with four Arizona mothers, and touches some 19 million parents around the country - and all 50 states, which have received $40 billion in Title IV aid since 1990.
The Arizona mothers had been unable to collect court-ordered child support from the fathers. They sued the state under a federal statute requiring a good faith effort by the states to help parents collect child support from "deadbeat" dads or moms - if those states were to qualify for federal aid to dependent families, or Title IV.
"Far from creating an individual entitlement to services, the standard is simply a yardstick for [federal officials] to measure the systemwide performance of a state's ... program," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the court, in speaking of the statute created by Congress that requires states to help single parents.
Last year, in a sweeping ruling that would create dramatic changes in the way states operate their welfare systems, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, covering nine western states, said the Arizona mothers had a right to sue.
Some 42 states entered the legal fray by the time the case was argued in front of the nation's highest legal body this past January - saying the law was impossible to enforce, vague, and would result in a nightmare of legal costs that would eat into monies aimed at children.
As it often has during the past decade, the Supreme Court yesterday reversed the fairly liberal Ninth Circuit ruling. But it asked a lower court to look at the federal statute in such a way that would make sharper distinctions when parents can and can't sue. States must be in "substantial compliance" with the federal law. That might mean, say some experts, that states must help spouses or partners locate the other parent.
"I think a Solomonic approach was probably the best under the circumstances," says Jona Goldschmidt, a professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago. "So much litigation would arise if the court found for the parents. You've got parents in so many other states that are dissatisfied."
Laws attempting to force payment by deadbeat dads have become popular in many states. Advocates say states must do better in tracking nonpaying spouses. They point out that states are experts at collecting traffic and parking tickets on computerized systems, but that equally accessible deadbeat dads, who may owe thousands of dollars, are often ignored.
"A lot of Americans sympathetic to the moms were afraid the court would strike down the law entirely," says Mark Tushnet of the Georgetown University law school in Washington. "But as is characteristic of this court, the justices split the difference."
In other rulings yesterday, the Supreme Court:
* Let stand a US appeals court ruling that Brown University discriminated against women in its intercollegiate athletic program, in violation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in education. The appeals court sided with the female athletes who brought the suit, finding that the Providence, R.I., school gave more opportunities to male athletes than female.
* Refused to free ABC television from a $1 million libel award it was ordered to pay over a news report on a Georgia county's troubles with its garbage-recycling machine.
* Turned away, without comment, arguments by a California carpenters' apprentice program that a court-ordered 20 percent goal for new female apprentices is unfair.
* Agreed to decide whether workers who say they were illegally coerced to quit their jobs because of their age can sue for discrimination after they accept a severance package.