A revolution has changed thinking in the United States about how best to treat retarded citizens. No longer should they be warehoused in giant institutions, say current theories. Rather, they should be placed in small group homes within the community and given as much freedom as possible.
But the Supreme Court has dealt that movement a setback, ruling April 20 that federal law does not require states to take the handicapped out of institutions and put them in less restrictive settings.
On behalf of the majority, Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that a federal "bill of rights" for the retarded is not an absolute guarantee but only an encouragement to states to improve their services. The "rights," included in the Disabled Assistance Act of 1975, call for giving retarded citizens "appropriate treatment" in the setting that would give them as much liberty as possible.
Moreover, the law prohibits the federal government from giving money to institutions that fail to give appropriate treatment.
At issue in the case is the Pennhurst State School in Pennsylvania which once housed 1,200 residents under allegedly "atrocious" conditions. Parents testified that their children were injured at the school, and the court record shows that noise and odors permeated the atmosphere. Parents of the residents and the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens filed suit, and a federal district court ordered the institution closed.
The Supreme Court found that the lower courts had moved too far under the Disabled Assistance law, a federal-state grant program.
The 6-to-3 majority ruling found "nothing in the Act or its legislative history to suggest that Congress intended to require the states to assume the high cost of providing 'appropriate treatment' in the 'least restrictive environment' to their mentally retarded citizens."
Further, the justices ruled that the handicapped cannot claim a constitutional right to improved services under the guarantee of equal rights, since Congress would not have imposed such "massive financial obligations on the states."
The case, which was a major one in the field of handicapped rights, will almost certainly relieve some of the burden on states to upgrade their services. "The states believe they are moving within their own pace to provide the least restrictive setting," said Christine Bremer, a lawyer for the State of illinois, one of several states that had asked the Supreme Court to reverse.
Reacting to the ruling, she conceded that there are problems with institutions for the retarded. "There has been a massive change in [theories about] what is the best setting," she said, adding that states must move within their budgets.
In other action, the court cast a shadow on what could have been a major new route for bringing civil rights suits. Also by a 6-to-3 decision, it ruled that a street barrier that blocked traffic between an all-white neighborhood and a black one in Memphis, was not a "badge of slavery."
Justice John Paul Stevens found that Memphis closed off the street in the interest of safety and tranquility and in part for the sake of children walking to school.
Black residents, who had formerly used the street-when traveling to the nearby zoo, had charged that the white community was trying to shut out blacks from their neighborhood.
The black citizens claimed the barrier damaged their property values and constituted an unconstitutional "badge of slavery" under the 13th Amendment. If the Supreme Court had agreed, that amendment could have been used in future civil rights cases.
Justice Stevens ruled that closing the street was a "routine burden of citizenship."
In dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote: "The picture that emerges from a more careful review of the record is one of a white community, disgruntled over sharing its street with Negroes, taking legal measures to keep out the 'undesirable traffic,' and of a city, heedless to the harm to its Negro citizens , acquiescin g . . ."