WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court upheld the rights of whites Monday to challenge affirmative action plans in a reverse discrimination case from Birmingham, Ala., once known for its opposition to the civil rights movement.
In a 5-4 decision, the court affirmed a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that allows a suit by white firefighters, seeking to block hiring and promotion quotas, to go forward.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the decision is a continuation of the country's 'deep-rooted historic tradition that everyone should have his day in court.'
But civil rights groups condemned the court's ruling as a 'full-scale retreat' on affirmative action and warned the decision would make it more difficult to bring discrimination suits in the future.
'This is just one body blow after another, the sum total of which is to set the clock back on civil rights,' said Isabelle Katz Pinzler, a spokeswoman for the America Civil Liberties Union.
The decision comes just one week after the court ruled, 5-4, that a simple comparision of an employer's white and minority workers is not enough to prove discrimination in hiring.
It appeared Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the decisive vote in the Birmingham case, as he joined Rehnquist and Justices Byron White, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. Before Kennedy joined the court, the justices split 4-4 in January 1988 on an identical case involving an affirmative action challenge by white New York City police officers. ---
In other action Monday, the court:
-Upheld a South Carolina ruling that a death sentence should be reversed when a prosecutor introduces irrelevant evidence about the victim's character to influence the jury.
-Ruled that a trial judge may impose a stiffer sentence following trial for the same charges a defendant had earlier pleaded guilty to and received a lighter punishment for.
-Announced it would decide, in an Arkansas case, when uninsured demand notes can be considered securities.
-Agreed to review a $1.3 million verdict against Texaco for price discrimination in a case that pits retailers against wholesales and could force big changes in product distribution practices nationwide.
-Refused to review a lower court ruling that bans people from protecting livestock menaced by endangered species -- specifically sheep under attack by grizzly bears.
The Birmingham ruling is the latest tangle in 14 years of federal discrimination suits filed by blacks, the NAACP and later the federal government charging the city had engaged in a pattern of discrimination against blacks and women.
In the 1950s, the city -- known for vicious attacks on civil rights protesters by Birmingham police -- advertised municipal jobs such as firefighter with a 'white only' designation. The city did not hire a black firefighter until 1968.
In July 1981, despite a nearly 50 percent black work force, only 79 of 480 police officers were black and only 3 out of 131 sergeants were black. There were no blacks among the 40 police lieutenants and captains.
In the fire department, 42 of the 453 firefighters were black and there were no blacks among the 140 lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs.
After two trials, the city entered into consent decrees in 1981 with those bringing the suits setting hiring and promotion quotas for blacks and calling for an end to discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.
The long-term goal of the court-approved decree was to have the racial mix of city employees match up with the makeup of the civilian labor force.
Part of the plan included a 50 percent annual minority hiring and promotional goal for firefighters and for fire lieutenants and a 25 percent goal in the city's engineering department.
After the plan was approved by the federal court, it was challenged by white male firefighters who claimed it violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Constitution by intentionally favoring blacks over whites and by promoting less qualified blacks ahead of whites.
The government, reversing its original position, sided with the white firefighters. Under the Reagan administration, the government repeatedly -- but generally unsucessfully -- fought affirmative action plans on the ground they discriminate against whites.
The suit was eventually dismissed before trial but reinstated by the appeals court.
The parties to the consent decree, the blacks, the city and the Personnel Board of Jefferson County, Ala., all asked for high court review seeking to overturn the appeals court decision. ---
87-1614 John W. Martin, et al., vs. Robert K. Wilks, et al.