WASHINGTON — In a key case involving the rights of the homeless, the Supreme Court Monday let stand New York City's ban on begging by panhandlers in its subway system.
Without comment or dissent, the high court refused to reconsider an appeals court ruling in May which said that beggars are a "menace to the common good" who do not have a free-speech right to ask others for money.
The court's action does not set a binding national rule of law because the appeal was dismissed without a formal opinion. Nonetheless, the decision provides a boost to many cities that--overwhelmed by a rising homeless population--are seeking to revive old, unenforced laws against loitering and begging.
The rejection also may signal a retreat from several broad 1st Amendment opinions written by retired Justice William J. Brennan Jr. In a series of cases beginning in 1980, Brennan and the court said that the 1st Amendment protects the right of charitable solicitors to go door-to-door seeking money. In 1987, the high court also ruled that the Los Angeles Airport Authority may not ban all soliciting in buildings at Los Angeles International Airport.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist vehemently dissented in the rulings protecting door-to-door soliciting.
New York transit officials began enforcing a ban on panhandling last year after growing complaints that persistent beggars were harassing commuters. In Washington, D.C., police recently began arresting panhandlers in the fashionable Georgetown section under a long-forgotten, 50-year-old law that banned begging on city streets.
In decades past, the courts frowned on general laws against begging, loitering or vagrancy. Such laws often went unenforced simply because city attorneys thought they would be ruled unconstitutional.
However, conservative judges are inclined to read constitutional rights more narrowly and are more willing to uphold local regulations.
Lawyers for the homeless said they fear that the high court action will lead to a crackdown on those who are very poor. "I think this will encourage more arrests of the homeless," said Richard Milin, the New York lawyer who appealed the subway ban to the high court.
The National Coalition for the Homeless said that the New York ruling "would permit every state and local jurisdiction to deprive thousands of our most desperate citizens of the right to express to their fellow human beings the urgency of their needs."
The New York regulation on soliciting bans panhandling in the subway while allowing artists and solicitors for religious, political or charitable organizations to ask people for money.
In January, U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand ruled that the policy infringed on the beggars' right of free speech. In May, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Sand on a 2-1 vote and upheld the new ban.
The appeals court opinion seemed to reflect New Yorkers' growing hostility toward beggars and the homeless. It referred to beggars as "intimidating, . . . threatening . . . and harassing" to the 3.5 million daily commuters on the subways.
The New York transit authority's victory may be more symbolic than practical, simply because the number of beggars exceeds the number of transit police. "There are still beggars in the subways, millions of them," Milin said. "They are not really enforcing the law."
A California law, on the books since 1961, makes it a misdemeanor to "accost other persons in any public place . . . for the purpose of begging or soliciting alms." The state courts said that the law forbids aggressive panhandling but not a meek request for funds.
"We make arrests periodically under that law if we have complaints or the foot patrolmen see beggars stopping people," said Forrest Wilkins, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. "But there's no major push to enforce it."
In other actions, the court:
--Agreed to decide whether a divorced man can use federal bankruptcy laws both to keep the family home and to refuse to pay his ex-wife for her share of it. The divorce decree of Gerald Sanderfoot, a Wisconsin man, and Jeanne Farrey, his former wife, divided their assets--the nearly $60,000 value of their house. He was entitled to keep the house under the decree, and she was given a $30,000 lien on it. Three months later, he filed for bankruptcy in federal court, a move that canceled her lien and left him with the home under a "homestead exemption."
An appeal upheld Sanderfoot's move, even though one judge called it a "perversion of bankruptcy law." The case (Farrey vs. Sanderfoot, 90-350), will be argued early next year, with a ruling expected by July. The high court decision will have a direct effect in California because the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also has ruled that federal bankruptcy laws can be used to cancel debts from state divorce decrees.
--Let stand a ruling (AMA vs. Wilk, 90-542) forbidding the American Medical Assn. to refer to chiropractors as quacks. In 1987, a trial judge agreed with chiropractors who said that the AMA was using its power to monopolize the market and damage competitors.
--Agreed to decide how far states can go in shielding rape victims from having to discuss their sexual histories on the witness stand. The case (Michigan vs. Lucas, 90-149) does not directly challenge the constitutionality of so-called "rape shield laws," but it asks the court to consider whether these laws may be limited in some cases.