WASHINGTON — A divided U.S. Commission on Civil Rights broke from its conservative mold on Friday by refusing to criticize a Supreme Court decision upholding job preferences for women.
The commission, which has been accused by civil rights activists of hewing to a Reagan Administration line in recent years, voted 5 to 3 not to accept a staff report that assailed the high court's opinion in Johnson vs. Santa Clara County Transportation Agency.
In a 6-3 ruling on March 25, the court permitted the California agency to promote a woman, Diane Joyce, over a white man, Paul E. Johnson, who had scored slightly higher in a competitive interview.
The decision said that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 employers need not admit past discrimination in order to adopt an affirmative action plan to overcome "a conspicuous imbalance in traditionally segregated job categories."
Two Types of Appointees
The eight-member commission, split equally between congressional and presidential appointees, has been dominated by a conservative majority since 1983. It was chartered 30 years ago to review the performance of federal agencies and recommend new laws.
Favoring acceptance of the staff report were Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., Vice Chairman Murray Friedman and William Allen, all appointed by President Reagan.
Allen argued that affirmative action plans, by sanctioning discrimination to correct statistical imbalances in the work force, are "an enormous evil in this society."
Pendleton said the decision, by removing evidence of discrimination as a condition of preferential promotions, could allow employers to fend off legitimate individual claims of bias by enacting an affirmative action plan based on statistical balance.
"I think employers love this decision," he said.
Commissioners Mary Frances Berry, Francis S. Guess and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez endorsed the Johnson decision, saying in a joint statement that it "gives careful approval to much needed voluntary efforts to improve the employment status of women in a gradual way."
They were joined in rejecting the staff report by Robert A. Destro and Esther G. Buckley. Destro said that although he saw problems possibly arising from the Johnson decision, he believed adopting the staff report unchanged would give the impression that the commission believes "somehow that getting rid of sex discrimination is not real important."