AFTER nibbling away at affirmative action for the last few
years, the United States is on the verge of enacting new civil
rights protections for women and minorities.
Senate Democrats and the White House have reached a compromise
that, if passed, would represent a major step. The compromise bill
*Sweep away provisions of recent Supreme Court decisions that
have made discrimination suits harder to win. Instead, the bill
would codify an earlier and easier test of discrimination.
*Allow victims of intentional sex discrimination to sue for
compensatory and punitive damages up to certain limits. Currently,
they can sue only for back pay, restoration of seniority, and an
injunction against further discrimination.
*Prohibit "race-norming the practice of adjusting
employment-related test scores by group. Instead of hiring the top
10 applicants, for example, businesses using race-norming could
hire the top 10 whites, top 10 blacks, and top 10 Hispanics.
Legal experts hailed the proposed language.
"This has got to be treated as a significant advance," said Rod
Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for
In a rare display of collaboration, Senate Democrats and
Republicans cheered and hoped the compromise would move rapidly
through the House.
"We've restored the nation's bipartisan consensus on civil
rights," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. "This is
the next great milestone toward achieving equal justice in our
society and removing race and sex discrimination from the
"It's a joyous day," President Bush said Friday, adding that he
would sign such legislation enthusiastically. A year ago, Bush
vetoed similar civil-rights legislation, saying it would force
businesses to resort to racial quotas to avoid discrimination suits.
"We have a civil rights bill," Bush said. "It's not a quota
Some business groups are skeptical.
"We have not seen the details of the compromise, but based on
what we know so far, we are gravely disappointed," said William
Archey, senior vice president for policy with the US Chamber of
The National Federation of Independent Business, the nation's
largest small-business group, was more direct in its response:
"This bill will make businesses sitting ducks for capricious
While the proposed legislation increases the potential damages
in sex-discrimination suits, it also imposes caps on those damages.
Maximum damages are $50,000 for businesses with 16 to 100
employees; $100,000 for businesses with 101 to 200 employees;
$200,000 for companies with 201 to 500 workers; and $300,000 for
firms with more than 500. …