Legal Test for California's Affirmative Action Ban

By Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Legal Test for California's Affirmative Action Ban


Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Foes of affirmative action hope to follow in the footsteps of California voters and pass state and federal laws that will effectively end racial and gender preferences in hiring and education.

But before such a rollback can take place, the courts must rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 209, the ballot initiative behind the reform movement.

A landmark case will soon go before Federal District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, who heard arguments on Dec. 16 over the issuance of a preliminary injunction barring implementation of Prop. 209 until a court decision is reached. The complexity of the constitutional issues raised in the case, leaves judicial experts sharply divided over the likely outcome. "Our position is the case is very clear given existing precedents of the Supreme Court," says Ed Chin, the lead lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) team arguing to overturn the California ballot measure. "I'm confident the US Supreme Court will uphold the California Civil Rights Initiative," says Eugene Volokh, a University of California constitutional law professor and a Proposition 209 supporter. As written, the CCRI amends the California constitution to bar discrimination against, or preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, or contracting. According to the official ballot analysis prepared by the state legislature, this measure would preclude a wide variety of "affirmative action" programs, such as for university admissions or granting public contracts, designed to aid minorities and women who have been victims of discrimination in the past. The plaintiffs argue that, despite its apparent neutrality, the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution by creating barriers in the political process to attempts to remedy past or present discrimination. In the past, supporters of affirmative action could go to local or state governments to seek such programs. And the Supreme Court has ruled that under strictly defined terms of proof of discrimination, such programs are indeed constitutional. Now those seeking redress would have to resort to a statewide initiative to amend the Constitution. "Women and minorities who come before local government with strong evidence of discrimination would not be heard anymore because of Proposition 209," says Mr. …

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