Corporate America a winner in high court
''Excellent! Excellent for long-term economic growth,'' was the elated assessment by US businessman Jack Albertine of the vast majority of United States Supreme Court decisions this term.
Mr. Albertine, president of the American Business Conference - which represents fast-growing high-tech companies - was on the phone from Paris to a reporter in Boston. The businessman was especially buoyed by Supreme Court decisions that significantly eased antitrust regulations.
''Antitrust laws were written in an era when competition was zero,'' Albertine explained. ''Now we face stiff competition (abroad). The climate is no longer one of economic depression but international competition. The Supreme Court sees that we face a new world in international competition.''
Mr. Albertine also praised the court for a ''realistic'' bankruptcy decision that allowed a company in financial difficulty to abrogate labor contracts unilaterally. Congress has since modified the effect of this ruling. But the point is, Albertine stressed, that the ''court is bending over backward to help business.''
This rosy view of what many hope will be a budding romance of the court with business was echoed by others. Corporate America appeared to be a clear winner in the recently ended Supreme Court session: Major decisions eased not only antitrust regulations and bankruptcy rules but environmental requirements, offshore leasing restrictions, and affirmative-action mandates.
Still, not everything went business' way. Where business clashed with government regulations, business generally lost.
But most high-court watchers in the economic community view recent rulings as a victory for President Reagan and his conservative philosophy of government as much as a bonanza for business.
Business-related decisions were heavily influenced by the Supreme Court's majority leaning toward economic efficiency, including cost benefits, but also toward giving of a relatively free rein to government regulatory agencies. This thread ran through not only the court's economic-related rulings but also those dealing with criminal justice, civil rights, and church-state matters.
The response so far is predictable. Liberal critics, among them supporters of individual rights, are starting to sound the alarm that free enterprise is likely to run unchecked. But this sector is equally concerned that the court, led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, appears to be abandoning its traditional role of setting limits on government.
Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe of the Harvard Law School, for example, warns: ''In one sphere after another, the court has affirmed the almost boundless authority of government over the individual and of the executive over other branches.'' And Anthony Lewis, a veteran Supreme Court observer and columnist, documents a trend to overrule lower courts which had tended to harness government authority.
Conservatives, including business leaders, have their own reservations about government power. But, like Jack Albertine, they prefer to dwell on the court's decisions as paving the way for long-term economic growth.
The highest accolades from private enterprise are given to the court's finding in the Copperweld Corporation v. Independence Tube Corporation antitrust case. Reversing a 37-year-old legal doctrine, the justices decided that a corporation and its wholly owned subsidiary cannot be charged with conspiracy to restrain trade in violation of antitrust laws.
In ruling for Copperweld, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court award of doctine of ''intra-enterprise'' conspiracy framed by the Supreme Court in 1947. Lower courts had found that Copperweld and its wholly owned subsidiary, Regal Tube, were in violation of antitrust regulations when they urged customers and suppliers not to deal with Independence.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Reagan administration argued that ''intra-enterprise'' conspiracy is inconsistent with economic reality. A 5-to-3 majority of the Supreme Court agreed. A parent company and a wholly owned subsidiary ''have a complete unity of interest,'' Chief Justice Burger wrote for the majority. ''They are not unlike a multiple team of horses drawing a vehicle under the control of a single driver.''
The justices, however, did not rule out the possibility that a company and its partly owned subsidiary could be sued for restraint of trade, nor did it immunize either from liability in other antitrust areas.
Explaining the court's reasoning on antitrust, Bruce Fein, general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission and a constitutional authority, says the justices were looking at economic results and not technical structure: ''They resisted anything but an economic cost-benefit analysis - determining whether the consumer was aided or harmed to see if there was an antitrust violation.''
Business was a winner in the environmental field, too, when it was teamed with the Reagan administration. The goal for both: to ease the burden of federal regulations on industry.
A key victory came when justices reinstated controversial clean- air regulations that environmentalists had challenged as too permissive. In so doing , the court upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's ''bubble'' policy for determining whether industries are meeting air-quality standards. Under this concept, pollutants from an entire industrial plant with a number of separate buildings are considered a single bubble. A company thus can expand or upgrade without an extensive environmental review as long as increased emissions of a given pollutant from one part of the facility are offset by a decrease elsewhere.
Industry also got a boost from the Supreme Court's ruling that states may not automatically block federal offshore oil lease sales by arguing that such sales are inconsistent with their coastal protection plans. Such points, however, may be raised again at the time of exploratory drilling and production.
A rare business rebuff by the court came in the area of nuclear safety. The justices ruled in a case involving the late Karen Silkwood that juries may assess punitive damages against employers whose workers are injured as a result of exposure to radioactive materials.
Affirmative-action plans - long fought by many business interests as costly and inequitable - were dealt a major setback in a Memphis case. The court sharply curbed the authority of federal judges to order broad plans favoring women and minorities over other, more senior workers in job training, promotions , and employment benefits. Justices, in effect, adopted the Reagan administration philosophy of restricting affirmative-action remedies to individuals personally victimized by discrimination. Almost certainly, future cases brought by business and government will try to limit even more the use of reverse discrimination in employment.
The corporate sector made little headway in cases where the justices perceived specific discrimination against women. For instance, in the controversial Hishon case, the Supreme Court paved the way for further litigation by ruling that federal bans against bias apply to business partnerships in law firms. It also upheld state civil rights statutes in ordering Minnesota's Jaycees to accept women as full members. Future rulings will determine if other ''male only'' groups will be forced to adjust their eligibility standards.
Government regulation triumphed over business in a case involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's procedures for initiating investigations of employers in cases of alleged bias and in a case involving the Immigration and Naturalization Service's practice of sweeping through factories in search of illegal aliens.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was also upheld by the court in its effort to obtain confidential analyses of corporations' tax liabilities prepared by private accountants. Stephen Bokat of the US Chamber of Commerce litigation center says this decision may prod many businesses to move their internal tax reviews to their legal departments and thus invoke attorney-client privilege in an attempt to avert IRS scrutiny of their plans.