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Supreme Court Dismisses Appeal Over Denial of Welfare Aid to Noncitizens


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to review Congress' 1996 welfare overhaul that cut off food stamps and disability benefits to most noncitizens.

The "national policy with respect to welfare and immigration," lawmakers had said, is "self-sufficiency." Immigrants who come to live in the United States should "not depend on public resources to meet their needs," they said.

Since then, Congress has backtracked a bit and restored benefits for several groups of immigrants. They include those who are disabled and blind, those over age 65 and under 18, military veterans and those who have worked more than 10 years in the United States.

But lawyers for the cities of Chicago and New York went to court seeking to have the food stamps and other benefits restored to all legal noncitizens. They maintained that the policy amounted to discrimination against lawful residents, in violation of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago disagreed, ruling that Congress has broad power to set rules for immigrants and noncitizens.

In the past, the high court has ruled that the government may not discriminate against persons because of their race, gender or ethnicity. At the same time, it has said that federal authorities have leeway to establish distinctions based on a person's immigration status.

Chicago's lawyers took the issue to the Supreme Court, but it came as no surprise when the justices dismissed the appeal without comment on Monday (Chicago vs. Shalala, 99-898).

Meanwhile, the court's interest in protecting property rights in California appears to be fading.

On a 6-3 vote, the justices refused to hear the case of a San Francisco couple who complained that the city had demanded $600,000 from them for a permit to rent rooms in their small Victorian hotel to tourists.

Before, the hotel had been home to longer-term renters and the city hoped to preserve housing for these city residents.

San Francisco Couple Sues Under 5th Amendment

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which champions property rights, has long complained that public officials in California wield too much power over private property. Their lawyers cited the case of Claude and Micheline Lambert, the hotel owners, as an example.

The Lamberts offered $100,000 to obtain the permit to convert their rental rooms for tourist use but refused to pay more. They sued the city under the 5th Amendment, which forbids the government from taking private property for public use without paying just compensation.

The Supreme Court breathed new life into this provision in the late 1980s in a series of cases from California. In one decision, Justice Antonin Scalia sided with the owner of a beach house in Ventura who did not want to give up his private walkway along the ocean in exchange for a building permit.

The California Coastal Commission had engaged in an "out-and-out plan of extortion," Scalia said, and he told judges to closely examine demands imposed on property owners by local officials.

Since then little has changed, say lawyers for property owners in California. They say that they have been frustrated and disappointed as state judges have ignored Scalia's rule, instead siding with local officials in disputes over zoning and building permits.

The Lamberts were rebuffed in state courts and in October appealed the issue to the Supreme Court. They portrayed it as a test of whether the justices are still serious about protecting private property.

Scalia Fails to Win Majority for Review

In recent weeks, the justices repeatedly have discussed the Lamberts' case, but Scalia was unable to win over enough justices to hear the case.

On Monday, the court issued an order denying review of the case (Lambert vs. City of San Francisco, 99-697). Attached was a six-page dissent by Scalia, but he was joined only by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

The issue has proved especially troublesome for the court's conservatives. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have been wary of giving judges too much power to intercede in local zoning disputes.

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