Old Civil Rights Case Is before a Judge Again; A Group of Black Firefighters Says the Fire Department Should Be Bound by a 1982 Hiring Decree

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Byline: PAUL PINKHAM

A judge is reviewing issues first raised in a 1971 civil rights complaint about hiring practices in Jacksonville's fire department after a group of black firefighters resurrected the old lawsuit.

The case was inactive for two decades and is so old it had to be retrieved from a storage facility in Atlanta.

At issue, then and now, is the racial breakdown of new hires at the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, an agency long plagued by racial discontent.

The Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters contends the city should still be bound by a 1982 federal court decree that required hiring one black firefighter for every new white firefighter until the makeup of the department paralleled that of the city.

The city says that goal was met in 1992, and the 1:1 hiring requirement was discontinued. City Hall lawyers argued in court last month that nothing in the 1982 order required a judge's approval to make that decision.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan has indicated he will rule in four to six weeks on whether the brotherhood and three individuals denied jobs at the department are even eligible to assume the plaintiff's role in the case. If they are, he then will turn his attention to whether the city's 1992 decision was legal.

Lawyers for the brotherhood first moved in 2007 for unspecified contempt of court sanctions against the city for failing to comply with the 1982 decree. They said the city has never offered proof that it complied with the order in 1992 and, in fact, misled the brotherhood and others about the hiring ratios. The city denies that.

"Had the city done what it was supposed to do, it would have had a hearing before a court," said Dennis Thompson, the group's Ohio attorney, who specializes in firefighter discrimination cases.

Further, Thompson said the number of black firefighters in the department has remained stable since 1993 while the department has grown, meaning African-Americans are less represented than they were 16 years ago. …

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