TOPICS > Politics

Supreme Court Watch

January 12, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: A very busy day at the Supreme Court. For more on today’s rulings and arguments, we turn to NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

Jan, I’m going to ask you the take us inside the court on three key cases today. The first one hand had to do with police stops. A fellow is walking down the street. He sees four police cars converge in the neighborhood. He turns tail and runs, and the court is basically said today the police are totally within their rights in stopping him, apprehending him, and in this case arresting him?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. The court in a 5-4 decision said that the officers here could pursue this gentleman and stop him for further questioning because he ran when he saw the officers, and he was in an area that was known for drug trafficking. The decision, which was written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said that head-long flight, wherever it occurs, is the consummate act of evasion, and I quote here. He said, “it is not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but it is suggestive of such.” And that gives the police officers the justification to pursue and stop and ask more questions.

GWEN IFILL: 5-4 ruling, very narrow. There was obviously a lot of dissent.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. The dissenters made much of the fact that the majority opinion didn’t explicitly say that flight alone was always enough to justify a police officer stopping someone. So they said, yes, we agree with the court’s refusal to issue this very specific rule, trying to limit the scope of today’s decision.

GWEN IFILL: In the court’s decision today, was there some sort of sense that the Supreme Court in general is favoring broader rights for police officers, giving police officers the right to pursue a hunch?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, they would say, no, you can’t pursue a hunch. You still have to have some grounds of suspicion that you can articulate, but, yes, this is the latest in a series of decisions from this court that have gradually given police more power to stop and question people and have trimmed people’s rights to avoid contact with police officers.

Regulating commerce or restricting states’ rights?


GWEN IFILL: Second important case today. The court decided that the states cannot sell information from people’s driver’s licenses to political candidates or to businesses and instead that they have to keep that private. Was this more about regulating commerce or about restricting states’ rights or neither?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it was actually a little of both. The court today let stand a federal law that prohibited states, as you said, from disclosing this information. They said that Congress was, and this again was written by the Chief Justice, that Congress was within its authority to regulate commerce when it limited states from selling this information, information that went into the stream of commerce, and that Congress wasn’t going, you know, too far in ordering states around when it said that that information could be restricted.

GWEN IFILL: But this wasn’t in favor of states’ rights like we have come to expect from this court. What in the decision — a unanimous one in this case — showed why that was so?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the decision was very… this is interesting, like I said, for two reasons. One, it’s interesting because now we’re going to have this information restricted. But also, it’s the first in recent terms to slow down this move to give states more rights vis-à-vis Congress and limit Congress’ power over the states. But the opinion was very tightly written. There’s no broad, sweeping language, as we’ve seen in some of the other cases. It certainly suggests that Congress is going to be free still to impose regulations on states, but it doesn’t give us a lot of hints about what other behavior it won’t allow.

GWEN IFILL: How widespread a practice is this, selling personal information, states selling personal information and profiting from it?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It was quite widespread and considerably lucrative for the states. In fact, New York, for example, one year made $17 million selling this kind of information. So states really wanted to have this authority to sell the information. And that’s why they so strongly protested.

GWEN IFILL: Does the court decision also prohibit states from just releasing this information for free if they wanted to?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, to certain groups. There are some exceptions. Law enforcement agencies still can get the information, private investigators, but it focuses on the state’s practice of selling the information to telemarketers or other groups who would then take it and use it. And the law, Congress passed the law in 1994 in response to the murder of an actress who was pursued by a stalker who had gotten information about her location through these records.

GWEN IFILL: Third important case, this time arguments rather than a decision. Grandparents’ visitation rights. Thumbnail sketch: A set of grandparents in Washington State decided they wanted to have… the court enforced their right to visit their grandchildren even though their son had passed away. Is this a question of parent’s rights versus grandparents’ rights?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Not quite. I mean, it certainly seems that way at first blush because the grandparents did go into court to seek this visitation to ensure that they would be able to see their grandchildren. But the law that they turned to allows any person at any time to petition for visitation. The Washington Supreme Court said that law was just too broad because it went beyond grandparents.

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me. What kind of reaction were we getting there from justices in the courtroom about this today?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Justice Rehnquist jumped right in and said, you know focusing on the broad nature of this law, and said, a great aunt could go to court and say she wants visitation, you know, on Friday afternoons to take the child to the movies, and Justice O’Connor, Sandra Day O’Connor also was quite adamant about how could this be that this broad rule that just seemed so, you know, extraordinary that anyone could at any time petition for visitation, how could a state court allow that kind of thing?

GWEN IFILL: At first blush when you look at a case like this, it sounds like grandparents want to see their grandchildren, what’s wrong with that? But that’s not where the Justices were today, at least it didn’t sound like it.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. It’s such an emotional case. And it’s obviously a really difficult issue that they struggled with because, sure, the grandparents want to see the children, but the Justices also focus on the parent’s rights to decide how their children should be raised, as the Chief Justice said, their right to determine how they’re going to be brought up and who they’re going to see. And those rights are fundamental. That’s what the lower court, the Washington State Supreme Court focused on when it sided with the parents. It said the parent’s rights were fundamental and that any person just couldn’t come in and trump them.

GWEN IFILL: 50 states now have some sort of visitation rights laws on the books. With this case, which is of course speaking very much to a broad, broad, anybody can visit kind of Washington State case, will this affect those other states, as well?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The lawyer for the grandparents said, yes, it would. And he made clear that, sure it’s any person at any time, but the court still has to look at whether or not the request is in the best interest of the child. Those laws that you refer to do focus on the best interest of the child analysis, but very few of them, I think the lawyer said today, only four have that broad, any person, any time language. The other laws refer more specifically to grandparents or stepparents or siblings.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the best interest of the child, I wonder whether there was any concern expressed today about the argument of children being used as weapons in adult controversies.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s a really good point, one made by Justice John Paul Stevens, who said it seemed striking to him that if someone did want to use the child as a weapon, as he said, to deny someone visitation, it just seemed very unfair. A grandmother who has cared for a child or lived with a child for ten years could then be denied visitation.

GWEN IFILL: So it’s impossible. This won’t be decided until June. It’s impossible to tell what any of these Justices would ultimately do, but did any of them say, maybe we should give some sort of nod to grandparents’ rights?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Like you said, it’s hard to predict. But they seemed very dubious of this law because it’s so broadly written. But that’s not to say that other, more narrow laws might not pass muster.

GWEN IFILL: Of the nine Justices, six are grandparents themselves. Was there any way of telling, listening to them debate this today, that their own personal experiences were informing the things they were talking about?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No. I think the issue is such an emotional one that they didn’t even bring in personal experiences or anecdotes about – you know — hanging out with their grandchildren. But the nature of the questions reflected how focusing on a grandparent wanting to continue a relationship with a child versus a parent wanting to decide who the child can see and on what terms illustrated just the difficult nature of the case.

GWEN IFILL: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thank you very much.