WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that may lead to greater autonomy for the states, ruled yesterday that Missouri may constitutionally require state judges to retire at the age of 70.

Ruling 7-to-2 in Gregory v. Ashcroft, the court in an opinion delivered by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor ruled that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 does not apply to elected state judges.

The court then subsequently ruled 5 to 4 that because the age discrimination law does not specifically state that it applies to elected state judges, the court cannot conclude Congress intended to cover them.

"Congressional interference with this decision of the people of Missouri, defining their constitutional officers, would upset the usual constitutional balance of federal and state powers," said Justice O'Connor, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice David H. Souter.

"For this reason, it is incumbent upon the federal courts to be certain of Congress's intent before finding that federal law overrides this balance," the justices said.

In dissent from that portion of the ruling, Justice Byron R. White and Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority's ruling "directly contravenes" the court's rulings in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority and South Carolina v. Baker.

In the Garcia case, the court said states must rely on the federal legislative process to avoid encroachments on their sovereignty, a ruling that some state officials have said reduces them to the position of lobbyists.

In the South Carolina case, the court ruled the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds is not constitutionally protected. The court there held that so long as "the national political process did not operate in a defective manner, the 10th Amendment is not implicated."

The Constitution's 10th Amendment provides that all powers not specifically given the federal government or specifically denied to the states, are retained by the states.

"The vagueness of the majority's rule undoubtedly will lead states to assert that various federal statutes no longer apply to a wide variety of state activities if Congress has not expressly referred to those activities in the statute," Justice White said. "Congress, in turn, will be forced to draft long and detailed lists of which particular state functions it meant to regulate."

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