Bush and Senate Settle Differences on Civil Rights in Sex-Discrimination Suits, Burden of Proof Would Return to Employer, Caps Would Be Set

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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 would:

*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 Civil Rights.

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 workplace."

"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 bill."

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 Commerce.

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 lawsuits."

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. …


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