WASHINGTON — In two victories for white men who claimed they had suffered reverse discrimination, the Supreme Court on Monday let stand rulings that threw out a quota for promotions of black firefighters in Birmingham, Ala., and awarded a white engineer $425,000 in damages because he was passed over for a promotion.
The outcome in the two cases shows an increased willingness by the federal courts to apply anti-discrimination laws in favor of white employees as well as minorities. They also put employers on notice that they can be forced to pay damages even for undertaking a voluntary plan of affirmative action.
The court actions come amid a renewed national debate over affirmative action and reverse discrimination.
Indeed, the 21-year-old Birmingham firefighters case illustrates the evolution in the law. Where once the affirmative-action plan in Alabama's largest city was widely applauded as a needed remedy for blatant discrimination against blacks, the same plan later was struck down by judges who concluded that it unfairly discriminated against white workers.
"We are very pleased the Supreme Court has agreed the Birmingham quota plan involved an excessive use of racial balancing," said Raymond T. Fitzpatrick, who has represented the white firefighters for 15 years.
But a civil rights lawyer who defended the city's efforts to promote more minorities said that he was disappointed by the outcome.
"This puts a question mark of confusion over this whole field of law," said Richard T. Seymour of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington. Civil rights advocates had believed that the minority promotion plans in cities such as Birmingham could withstand attacks because they grew from an undisputed history of blatant discrimination in the Deep South.
On Monday, the Supreme Court simply rejected further appeals in the two cases and did not issue written opinions. However the outcome--especially in the Birmingham case--grew directly out of two earlier conservative rulings by the high court.
In 1974, the Lawyers Committee, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Justice Department filed suit against Birmingham, alleging the city continued to exclude blacks from the management ranks of its fire and police departments. After several years of litigation, the city agreed to adopt an affirmative- action plan that, among other things, ensured black firefighters would receive one of every two promotions available.
That 1981 consent decree won the support of virtually all parties, including the city, the Justice Department and the federal judge presiding over the case. The exception was the white firefighters whose promotional opportunities would be limited.
A group of 14 white firefighters claimed that they had suffered reverse discrimination because they were passed over for promotions despite having more seniority and higher test ratings than some black employees who were promoted. In response, the city contended that the disgruntled whites had no right to contest a valid consent decree, and a judge threw out their claim without a hearing.
But in a 1989 decision, the Supreme Court revived the claim of the white firefighters and ruled that white workers cannot be barred from challenging an affirmative-action order that puts them at a disadvantage.
That same year, the high court said in another ruling that cities may not use race as a basis for awarding contracts or jobs unless the efforts were "narrowly tailored" attempts to remedy clear past discrimination.
The first ruling gave the white firefighters a chance to get their claim into court, while the second gave them ammunition to win.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected Birmingham's promotion plan because it was not "narrowly tailored" to promote black firefighters who suffered discrimination earlier in their careers. Instead, the plan worked as "a rigid quota" that violates both federal anti-discrimination laws and the Constitution, the judges said.
"Given the odious nature of race-based decision-making, race-neutral alternatives should be considered before the government implements an affirmative-action plan that uses race as the sole criteria upon which promotions are based," the appeals court said.
The Atlanta ruling marked a sharp setback for civil rights advocates because Birmingham had an undisputed history of discriminating against blacks.
Both the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the city of Birmingham appealed to the high court in February. If the ruling were allowed to stand, they said, it "puts at risk affirmative- action programs previously thought to be lawful that redress egregious discrimination."
But without comment or dissent, the high court denied both appeals in Arrington vs. Wilks, 94-1397, and Martin vs. Wilks, 94-1422.
Lawyers on both sides said the case now will return to a federal judge to decide whether the white firefighters are entitled to damages.