WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court's rulings Wednesday on
affirmative action amount to a rejection of the policies and
arguments t hat the Reagan administration has been advancing for six
years in the field of civil rights.
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
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. …