WASHINGTON — Refusing to plunge again into the controversy over affirmative action, the Supreme Court Monday let stand a lower court ruling that required an Indiana school district to lay off less experienced black teachers before dismissing whites with more seniority.
The result means that school districts must follow seniority strictly when laying off teachers, although other high court rulings have allowed preferential treatment in hiring and promotions.
Court Avoids Controversy
Since returning to the bench on Oct. 5 with one vacant seat because of the retirement of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., the Supreme Court has steered away from more controversial issues, instead agreeing to hear appeals on a variety of less volatile cases. The court, for example, said Monday that it would review a Louisiana case to decide whether a state may tax a mail-order catalogue printed outside the state. A second case will test whether Virginia must allow non-residents to take its bar examination.
On affirmative action, the Supreme Court had said in 1986 that public employers may give preference to blacks in hiring decisions to overcome past discrimination. But, on a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled in favor of a white school teacher from Michigan who lost her job when black teachers with less seniority were retained.
In an opinion for the court, Justice Powell said then that affirmative action was laudable but that the school district's plan was not "narrowly tailored" to meet the interests of both black and white teachers.
Lawyers for the South Bend, Ind., school district urged the justices to clear up confusion growing out of those 1986 rulings.
"Employers need additional guidance from this court on the permissible limits . . . on the use of layoffs to preserve gains made pursuant to affirmative action plans," the district said in its appeal.
In the 1970s, facing a surging enrollment of black students, the school district began hiring more black teachers. School officials acknowledged at the time that the district may have discriminated against blacks in the past.
But, by 1982, overall enrollments were shrinking. Forced to cut back, the district laid off 48 white teachers who had more seniority than blacks who were retained. The white teachers sued but lost in a trial court and before a three-judge appeals court in Chicago. However, the full appeals court reversed that decision and ruled in favor of the white teachers last year.
The high court, in a brief order Monday, said it would not review that final decision (South Bend Community School Corp. vs. Britton, 87-282).
In another action, the court let stand a lower court order requiring the government to keep tabs on how Social Security funds are spent on behalf of a person who cannot care for himself (Bowen vs. Jordan, 87-230).