The Supreme Court on Tuesday barred the divorced spouses of military veterans from sharing in retirement pay the veterans have converted into disability benefits.
In a 7-2 ruling in a California case, the justices said a 1982 federal law does not permit state court divorce decrees to divide the disability benefits.Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the court, said, "We realize that reading the statute literally may inflict economic harm on many former spouses. But we decline to misread the statute in order to reach a sympathetic result when such a reading requires us to do violence to the plain language of the statute and ignore much of the legislative history."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a dissenting opinion, said, "The harsh reality of this holding is that former spouses . . . can, without their consent, be denied a fair share of their ex-spouse's military pension simply because he elects to increase his after-tax income by converting a portion of that pension into disability benefits."
Justice Harry A. Blackmun joined O'Connor in dissent.
The case stems from the 1979 divorce of Gerald and Gaye Mansell after 25 years of a marriage that produced six children.
Mansell, a retired Air Force major, receives $1,200 a month in retirement pay and $482 in disability benefits. The disability benefits were converted from retirement pay by Mansell because, unlike the pension, they are tax-exempt.
The divorce settlement, filed in Merced County, Calif., awarded Gaye Mansell half of the retirement pay in an uncontested split of that money and, originally, half of the disability benefits.
But Mansell went to court in 1983 to modify the divorce decree and exclude the disability pay.
The California courts rejected his request.
California is a community property state, meaning property acquired during marriage is considered jointly owned.
In other action Tuesday, the Supreme Court:
-Refused to lift strict advertising limits imposed on a Texas counseling center that authorities called a "fake abortion clinic" run by anti-abortion activists. The justices, without comment, let stand rulings that ads run by the Problem Pregnancy Center in Fort Worth violated a state law banning deceptive trade practices.
-Let stand a decision banning organized prayers at the start of high school football games, refusing without comment to review a ruling in a Georgia case that such pregame invocations impermissibly promote religion.
-Refused to reinstate the conviction of a California man, Stephen Edward Leichty, who admitted he tried illegally to ship a drug via air freight. Without comment, the court left intact a ruling that police unlawfully searched the shipment without a court-issued search warrant.
-Ruled 7-2 in a Florida case that a state death penalty law does not have to require juries, instead of judges, to make the specific findings authorizing imposition of capital punishment.
-Defeated by an 8-0 decision a bid by mining companies to revive a 5 percent cap on the royalties they pay to help finance Arizona public schools. The justices upheld a ruling by the state's highest court that the cap, established by the state Legislature in 1941, violates federal law.