WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court this year has opened the door to greater local control over schools, barred plaintiffs from using a key civil rights law to sue municipalities for violations of federal adoption law, and upheld the ability of state legislatures to retroactively change regulations.

But despite providing protections for state and local autonomy, the high court has imposed limits on perhaps the greatest power of a sovereing -- the ability to tax.

In one of the most significant rulings of their 1991-92 term, the Supreme Court Justices said states may not require mail-order firms to collect and remit taxes owed on goods purchased from out-of-state firms.

The court, in an 8-to-1 ruling in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, ruled that imposing tax collection responsibilities on catalogue and phone retailers places an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce.

State officials claim the ruling winh cost them in excess of $3 billion annually in lost revenues.

In another significant case, Chemical Waste Management Inc. v. Hunt, the court said states may not impose discriminatory taxes on the disposal of waste from other states, even if the goal is to protect the health and safety of their citizens.

Ruling 8-to-1 in that case, too, the court struck down an Alabama law that levied a higher tax on the disposal of hazardous waste generated outside the state than the tax imposed on locally generated toxic waste. The justices said Alabama's differential tax treatment of out-of-state waste violates the Constitution's commerce clause.

In a separate case involving waste disposal, the court in a 7-to-2 decision struck down a Michigan law prohibiting private landfill owners from accepting waste that originates outside the county in which their facilities are located.

The rationale in in the case, Fort Gratiot Sanitary Landfill Inc. v. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, was similar to that employed in the Alabama case. The court majority concluded that the law was actually aimed at out-of-state waste, and the interstate commerce clause was cited again.

Potent "Dormant' Clause

The Constitution's commerce clause, then, is the common thread running through the three opinions. The clause authorizes Congress to "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states." It is silent on the issue of regulating commerce in the event Congress has not acted.

But going back to at least 1824, the Supreme Court has recognized a "negative" or "dormant" commerce clause, under which states may not establish burdens on the free flow of goods and services across state lines.

The court's dormant commerce clause jurisprudence is a bow to the nation's early experience under its first constitution.

Under that charter, cries of unfair trade practices and protectionism filled the air, but fingers were not pointing at Japan or Korea. Instead, the states that united under the Articles of Confederation found their neighbors to be the culprits.

When delegates convened in 1787 to write a new constitution, they decided that a common national market was necessary for the growth of the new nation, and gave Congress explicit authority to be the sole regulator of interstate trade.

By and large, the clause has fulfilled its promise, creating a transcontinental market that Europeans hope to emulate with the much-heralded European Community 1992.

But today, states hungry for revenues are chafing under the commerce clause. What the Supreme Court deems a burden on interstate commerce, they see as lost income in a recessionary economy.

But the states have the weight of legal precedent stacked up against them. In 1942, for example, the Supreme Court gave the commerce clause a broad sweep by ruling, in Wickard v. Filburn, that Congress could control a farmer's production of wheat for home consumption, even though there was a "trivial" impact on interstate commerce.

The court, in fact, said Congress' commerce power could be used to regulate local activities that, when considered alone, had no impact on interstate commerce.

The activity in question need only have national ramifications. If all farmers chose to grow wheat only for home consumption, in this example, it would have a huge impact on the nation. Consequently, Congress was free to regulate the farmer, and by extension it was free to regulate just about anything.

Still, news out of the court this term has not been all bad for state and local officials.

Even though the court said states could not compel mail-order firms to collect use taxes, the justices specifically invited Congress to take a look at the issue.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the court's opinion, said congress "has the ultimate power to resolve" the matter.

Clinging to Apronstrings

In other areas, the court specifically broadened the potential for greater state and local authority.

In one of the most closely watched cases of the court's session, Freeman v. Pitts, the Supreme Court ruled that public school officials under court-ordered desegregation plans could regain lcoal control in increments as they satisfied various aspects of those plans.

As is the case with many rulings, however, it is unclear whether school districts across the nation will rush to get out from under court control. For one thing, federal court control over school operations has provided officials with valuable political cover.

Just two years ago, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled that federal courts may order local governments to levy taxes even if a state's constitution requires voter approval for tax increases.

The ruling which came in Missouri v. Jenkins -- a case stemming from desegregation efforts in Kansas City, Mo. -- appeared to undercut municipal autonomy. But many state and local officials applauded the ruling because it provided a funding mechanism for complying with federal mandates.

In a more clear-cut victory for state officials this term, the Supreme Court rule 7-to-2 that children may not use a federal civil rights law to sue municipalities over alleged violations of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.

The ruling in the case, Suter v. Artist M., appeared to backtrack from a 1990 decision that hospitals and other health-care providers may use the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to sue states for "reasonable and adequate" Medicaid reimbursements.

The court said the 1980 adoption law does not contain an explicit or implied right under the 1871 act to sue officials for failing to make "reasonable efforts" to prevent the removal of children from their families.

Instead, the court said, enforcement of the law is left in the hands of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which can cut off federal funding to state and local child-welfare agencies that fail to comply with federal regulations.

The court majority tried to distinguish its Suter decision from the 1990 case, Wilder v. Virginia Hospital Association, by noting that in the latter case the law required states to make Medicaid reimbursements that are "reasonable and adequate" to meet the needs of "efficiently and economically operated facilities."

By contrast, the adoption law's requirement of "reasonable efforts" was not defined in a meaningful way, leaving "a great deal of discretion" to states in determining how to handle child-welfare programs.

In another significant victory for states, the court ruled that state legislatures may retroactively change regulations governing employers without violating the U.S. Constitution's contract clause.

State officials had feared that a contrary ruling in General Motors Corp. v. Romein could have substantially reduced their ability to set a broad array of policies.

Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor adressed those fears, saying that had General Motors prevailed, stte legislatures would be "severely" limited in their ability to change regulations.

Despite such rulings, however, state and local finance officials scrambling to find new revenue sources may not look forward to their almost certain day in court.

Given the broad sweep of the court's current view of the Constitution's commerce clause, and the apparent willingness of plaintiffs to challenge new state taxes, officials may find themselves caught in a revenue squeeze for the foreeable future.

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