In its first opinion of the 1991-92 term the Supreme Court last week ruled state officials can be forced to pay money out of their own pockets if their actions infringe on other people's rights.

Ruling 8 to 0 -- Justice Clarence Thomas did not participate because the case was argued before he was sworn in -- the court said officials can be held liable under the federal civil rights law even if their actions were part of their officila duties.

The case, Hafer v. Melo, stemmed from the 1988 election of Barbara Hafer as Pennsylvania's auditor general.

Ms. Hafer, a Republican, allegedly fired a number of Democrats in the office after her election because they had supported her opponent.

The court previously has ruled that the civil rights law does not authorize lawsuits against states or officials in their official capacities. But in the Hafer case, the court clarified that the officials themselves may be held personally liable for misdeeds that violate the rights of others.

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