WASHINGTON — A criminal may not dodge a court's order to make financial restitution for a crime simply by declaring bankruptcy, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In reversing an appeals court decision, the high court said that Congress did not intend to include criminal restitution among the "debts" that can be discharged through bankruptcy.
"Our reading of (federal bankruptcy laws) creates a broad exception for all penal sanctions, whether they be denominated fines, penalties or forfeitures," Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote for the 7-2 majority.
The court reinstated a $9,933 debt of a Connecticut woman who had drawn welfare payments to which she was not entitled. Carolyn Robinson had pleaded guilty to larceny in 1981 and, as a condition of her release from jail, was ordered to repay the amount at $100 a month. Three weeks later, she filed for bankruptcy.
A bankruptcy court ruled for the state and against the woman, but, in 1985, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals declared that restitution orders are debts under a 1978 revision of the federal bankruptcy laws.
Powell said that lower courts regularly had ruled that criminals could not escape court judgments through bankruptcy, but he conceded that the intent of Congress was not clearly stated. "In the light of the established state of the law . . . we have serious doubts whether Congress intended to make criminal penalties debts," he wrote.
Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens dissented in the case (Kelly vs. Robinson, 85-1033).
Meanwhile, in arguments before the court, the justices appeared closely divided on whether a "statistical imbalance" in the work force--but not actual evidence of discrimination--gives an employer legal reason for granting job preferences to women over men.
Constance Brooks, an attorney representing Paul Johnson, a Santa Clara County, Calif., road worker who lost out on promotion to a woman in 1980, said that an employer should "have to go beyond the statistics" to show "convincing evidence" of past discrimination before it could engage in reverse discrimination.
But Justice Sandra Day O'Connor pointed out that none of the 238 skilled jobs in the county transportation department had ever been held by a woman.
Brooks replied that the agency had not said whether any women had ever applied for jobs such as operating a road grader, and she suggested that "societal and attitudinal factors" could explain the absence of women.
Steven Woodside, an attorney for the county, said that the lack of women in skilled jobs "made us vulnerable to a charge of discrimination and justifies our taking action."
But Justices Byron R. White, Antonin Scalia and Powell questioned that premise.
"So an employer always has a right to discriminate on the basis of race or sex if its work force does not contain the right percentages?" Scalia asked.
Lower courts have divided on the case.
In a second case, Charles Fried, the Reagan Administration's attorney before the court, contended that a federal judge exceeded his authority by requiring the Alabama state police to promote one black for each white promoted.
The judge's order was "ill-considered and not narrowly tailored" to remedy the problem without discriminating against whites, he said.