Since President Reagan took office, Justice Department officials have argued that numerical hiring and promotion goals were invalid as a remedy for employment discrimination, and that relief could be awarded only to identified victims of discrimination.
The court explicitly and forcefully rejected that argument in cases involving a New York labor union and the Cleveland Fire Department. Race-conscious remedies, including goals, ""may be appropriate where an employer or a labor union has engaged in persistent or egregious discrimination, or where necessary to dissipate the lingering effects of pervasive discrimination,'' Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in a passage summarizing the logic of a majority of the court.
The ruling is the latest in a series of defeats suffered by the administration in Supreme Court cases concerned with the essence of Reagan's domestic agenda. The other cases this year involved abortion, voting rights, Social Security disability benefits and the treatment of handicapped infants.
William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, has denounced race-conscious remedies and numerical goals as ""morally wrong.'' He has led the administration's campaign against consent decrees in which state and local governments agreed to use hiring goals to undo the effects of discrimination against black and Hispanic workers and women.
The court said that an employer and employees could voluntarily adopt broader remedies through a consent decree than a judge might have awarded after a trial.
In practical terms, the new decisions will force the administration to reconsider its all-out assault on hiring goals. Police and fire departments with affirmative action plans designed to correct historic patterns of discrimination can now keep those programs in place with greater confidence that they will not be struck down.
But the administration can plausibly contend that the decision in the New York case applies only to the most blatant instances of race discrimination. Repeatedly since 1964, the court said, the sheet metal workers' union had been ""found guilty'' of discrimination against black and Hispanic workers and the union was twice cited for contempt of court.
The hallmark of the Reagan administration's civil rights policy, as enunciated by the Justice Department in courts throughout the country, has been broad categorical statements about the illegalityof racial preferences and numerical goals.
The court delivered 135 pages of opinions full of nuance and thoughtful distinctions, thus rejecting the broad prohibition urged by the solicitor general of the United States, Charles Fried.
""We have said that race-conscious remedies which are not victim-specific are never permissible,'' Fried explained. …