Trio of Cases Tests Supreme Court on States' Rights

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, having reshaped the balance of federal-state government power in recent years, begins its 1999-2000 term tomorrow with several chances to fire fresh volleys in what some call a states' rights revolution.

The justices also confront an old quandary -- public aid to religious schools -- and a new one close to home -- grandparents' right to see their grandchildren.

Heading into the new century, the court also is tackling disputes over tobacco regulation, automobile safety, anti-abortion demonstrations and limits on political contributions.

The nine-member court has been intact since 1994 and, despite Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's recent colon cancer surgery, is not expected to undergo any change before the next presidential election.

Three cases will test the court's commitment to giving states more power at the federal government's expense -- a phenomenon Washington lawyer Charles Cooper calls "the most noticeable development of the Rehnquist court."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has led the court since 1986.

"These cases address in differing ways a single political impulse -- to give more power to the states," said Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This year, the court's consideration of those questions comes even closer to core concerns of the civil rights community."

FEDERAL VS. STATE

The relationship between the federal government and the states -- what constitutional scholars call federalism -- is not widely considered as politically volatile as abortion, religion and other topics that reach the nation's highest court. But the justices' view of that relationship defines in fundamental ways the ebb and flow of political power while affecting everyday American life.

The justices will use a Virginia case to decide whether Congress exceeded its authority in 1994 when it enacted a law allowing women who are raped or stalked to sue their attackers.

A federal appeals court threw out the law after ruling that Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce and assure equal protection for all citizens did not authorize it to give victims such a legal right.

A Florida case will determine whether state employees who say they are victims of age discrimination can make a federal case of it.

The justices must decide whether Congress, in passing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, wiped out the 11th Amendment immunity that states enjoy against being sued in federal courts.

A South Carolina dispute over states' practice of selling personal information from driver's license records -- such as addresses and Social Security numbers -- focuses on Congress' power to require states to close motor vehicle records to the public. …