Bailing out Piscataway School Board: Civil Rights Groups Avoid Possibility of Allowing Supreme Court to Make "Bad Law"

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Bailing Out Piscataway School Board: Civil Rights Groups Avoid Possibility of Allowing Supreme Court to Make "Bad Law"

The settlement of a New Jersey reverse discrimination case by civil rights groups has headed off a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling many activists believe would have dealt a death blow to affirmative action programs in the United States.

Last month, Sharon Taxman, a White teacher in Piscataway, N.J., accepted a $433,500 out-of-court settlement agreement to end her nine-year-old discrimination lawsuit against the Piscataway Township Board of Education. Taxman had been laid off in 1989 by the Board of Education so that a Black teacher with similar qualifications could be retained by the school district for diversity reasons.

A coalition of civil rights groups, which included the National Urban League and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, are contributing 70 percent of the settlement to bring an end to an appeal that was scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in early 1998.

"I think the settlement move by the coalition was somewhat unusual. It was extraordinary. But I think they were being realistic knowing the conservative makeup of this Supreme Court." says U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), a veteran civil rights activist.

The settlement was ununsual in part because civil rights organizations have tended in the past to have more confidence that federal courts would preserve affirmative action programs rather than dismantle them outright, according to Congressman Lewis.

"There was more willingness to rely on the courts," says Congressman Lewis. Civil rights activists feared that the conservative Supreme Court would issue a ruling in the Piscataway case which would result in widespread dismantling of affirmative action, including its use in higher education. Last August, the coalition, under the guidance of the Black Leadership Forum, decided to seek a settlement in the case. As a result, the group agreed to raise the cash necessary for a settlement agreement, essentially bailing out the school district.

"There is an old adage that bad cases make for bad law, and this was one of the worst cases imaginable for defenders of affirmative action,"

National Urban League President Hugh B. …

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