Stage Set for Supreme Court Review of Court-Ordered Affirmative Action Plans

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court, in opening its new term, has set the stage for a broad review of court-ordered affirmative ac tion plans that the Reagan administration contends discriminate against whites.

The court has agreed to review two federal court orders opposed by the administration.

- One required preferences in promotions for black and Hispanic firefighters in Cleveland to make up for past discrimination by the city.

- The other penalized a New York-New Jersey sheet-metal workers' union for failing to comply with a membership quota and other preferences for non-whites that had been imposed to rectify past discrimination by the union.

In accepting these and 22 other cases for review, the court added significant new issues to a docket already packed with controversy, at a time when the administration is forcefully urging the court to adopt its conservative legal doctrines.

The court also agreed to review a lower court decision holding a capital murder defendant's conviction unconstitutional because all opponents of the death penalty had been removed from the jury. The outcome could affect the fate of hundreds of death row prisoners.

Other issues the justices agreed to consider include whether suspension of a student who used sexual innuendo in addressing a high school assembly violated his First Amendment rights; whether a wife said to be her husband's accomplice in espionage can be forced to testify against him, and whether sexual harassment of an employee by a supervisor invariably makes the company for which they both work liable under sex discrimination laws.

The two affirmative action cases pose a clash between the administration and most lower federal courts on the power of the judiciary, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to use racial preferences to make up for past job discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

They join another case already on the court's docket, involving the constitutionality of voluntary affirmative action plans adopted by government employers as part of their labor agreements.

Together, these three cases provide the court, which has been closely divided on affirmative action issues, with a chance to pass definitive judgment on the administration's campaign against plans that favor non-whites over whites.

The justices heard arguments earlier this month in four of the 88 cases they had previously agreed to review, including the first case in which it has considered the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. …