WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court sent a strong hint yesterday that high school students in Maryland and other states cannot complain that their rights are violated if they are forced to do community service -- without pay -- to graduate.
In one of hundreds of orders it issued in its first formal sitting of a new term, the court rebuffed a constitutional challenge from Bethlehem, Pa., to community service -- a duty imposed now in scores of school districts throughout the country.
In Maryland, high school students across the state must do 75 hours of community service as a condition for graduation. Although some people have complained about the requirement, no one in Maryland has challenged it in court.
With no sign of a dissent, the court voted to leave intact the most important federal court ruling yet on such requirements. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia rejected in March a claim by two high school students in Bethlehem that the mandatory duty of 60 hours of unpaid service imposed there was a kind of "involuntary servitude" in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court's refusal to review the Circuit Court ruling does not mean the justices agreed with it. But the action does leave the matter as is unless the justices should step into a future case raising similar challenges.
On its opening day yesterday, the court heard three cases, highlighted by active and at times persistent questioning in all three by the newest justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The court acted on just over 1,500 cases and granted review of only nine.
Among the nine, the justices voted to decide whether prison officials have a constitutional duty to prevent inmate rape -- an issue that arises in a case involving a transsexual inmate raped at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. The court also agreed to spell out how far cities, states and the federal government may go to ban public signs to beautify the landscape and to rule on whether federal labor law provides any protection for nurses who oversee less-skilled aides in nursing homes, clinics or hospitals.
Among the cases the court chose to pass up was the first one to reach it claiming that it is unconstitutional race bias to punish someone more heavily for drug crimes involving "crack" cocaine -- used by many black drug users -- than for those involving powdered cocaine, favored by many whites. A former Alabama college student, now serving a 12-year prison sentence for trafficking in crack, sought to challenge the federal law that punishes crack crimes 100 times more severely than offenses with powdered cocaine.
The court also turned aside a plea urging it to prevent sex and race bias in law firms' choices of partners by limiting the professional standards those firms may use; an appeal by a Utah fraternal lodge, the Elks, insisting it had a constitutional right to keep out women; and a new plea by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, asking the justices to do more to deny federal civil rights protection to abortion clinics facing blockades.
The state of Maryland also failed to get a hearing on its legal protest over the release from state prison of Clarence J. Hancock, who served 17 years for murdering a Prince George's County woman. In May, the court refused an emergency plea by the state to keep Hancock behind bars. He has since been moved to a halfway house in Baltimore.