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High court backs laid-off white teachers.

High court backs laid-off white teachers

The Supreme Court rejected an affirmative action plan that permitted black teachers in Jackson, MI, to retain their jobs while more senior white teachers were laid off. The plan had been instituted by the Jackson school board and the teachers' union after they had determined that the percentage of black teachers in the school system was substantially less than the percentage of black students. Despite the Court's ruling, it appears that the validity of using employment goals and quotas to equalize employment opportunities must await clarification in two cases scheduled to be heard by the Court this term. This is apparent from the fact that the Court was sharply divided in the Jackson case: there were three opinions by the five-member majority and two by the minority.

Not surprisingly, both proponents and opponents of the use of goal and quota systems claimed that the decision strengthened or at least did not nullify their positions. Terry Eastland, spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the decision "leaves for another case the bottom-line gut issue of when race may be taken into account in employment." During the arguments before the Court, Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds had expressed the Reagan Administration's position that affirmative action plans may not use quotas or goals and that the Government should intervene only on behalf of individuals who can prove that they are victims of specific acts of discrimination, rather than on behalf of groups or classes of people seeking redress of alleged broad patterns of discrimination.

The events leading to the decision began in 1973, when the school board and the Jackson Education Association revised the seniority provisions in their contract by providing that "at no time will there be a greater percentage of minority personnel laid off than the current percentage of minority personnel at the time of layoff." This change was based on a finding that in 1969, 15.2 percent of the students but only 3.9 percent of the teachers were black. When Jackson was forced to lay off teachers in 1981 and 1982, the contract requirement was followed and some black teachers were retained while several white teachers with more service were terminated. Eight of the laid-off white teachers then sued the school board, contending that the action violated their rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. A Federal district judge ruled in favor of the school district, and his decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In reversing the Court of Appeals' decision, the Supreme Court said that the board of education did, in fact, violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for four members of the Court, Justice Lewis Powell rejected the Court of Appeals' position that the school board's efforts to provide "role models" for minority students or its efforts to reduce the effects of broad "societal discrimination" justified race-based layoffs. Justice Powell said, "This Court has never held that societal dsicrimination alone is enough to justify a racial classification. Rather, the Court has insisted upon some showing of prior discrimination by the governmental unit involved before allowing limited use of racial classifications to remedy such dsicrimination." In this case, Justice Powell said, there was no evidence that the school board had determined that prior dsicrimination in hiring teachers had actually occurred. In another aspect of the ruling, Justice Powell said the Court's 1977 ruling in Hazelwood School District vs. United States established that the proper statistical measure the school board should have used in assessing the makeup of the system's staff of teachers was the percentage of black teachers relative to the pool of available teachers, rather than relative to the racial composition of the student body.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that the petitioner had proved that the "layoff provision is 'not narowly' tailored to achieve its asserted remedial purpose by demonstrating that the provision is keyed to a hiring goal that itself has no relation to the remedying of employment discrimination."

In another concurring opinion, Justice Byron White said the board's action clearly violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, adding, "Whatever the legitimacy of hiring goals or quotas may be, the discharge of white teachers to make room for blacks, none of whom has been shown to be a victim of any racial discrimination, is quite a different matter. I cannot believe that in order to integrate a work force, it would be permissible to discharge whites and hire blacks until the latter comprised a suitable percentage of the work force."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justices William Brennan and Harry Blackmun, said the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit "a union and a local school board from negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that apportions layoffs between two racially determined groups as a means of preserving the effects of an affirmative hiring policy, the constitutionality of which is unchallenged." Justice Marshall accused the Court majority of overlooking the racial tensions and threats of litigation that prevailed when the job retention preference was adopted and concluded, "a public employer, with the full agreement of its employees, should be permitted to preserve the benefits of a legitimate affirmative-action hiring plan even while reducing its work force."

In a separate dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the board's efforts to attain "multi-ethnic representation" on the
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Title Annotation:Supreme Court reverse discrimination case
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Jul 1, 1986
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