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High court hears arguments on landmark sex-bias case

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Legal partnerships: protected by laws of privacy and freedom of association, or subject to public scrutiny and federal antidiscrimination laws? The issue was argued Monday before the US Supreme Court in Hishon v. King & Spaulding - a case that civil rights groups and others see as a landmark in the area of sex discrimination.

Involved are hiring and promotion policies, including partnership decisions, of the nation's large law firms. (Employers of 15 or fewer workers are excluded from federal civil rights statutes.) Some say the case also has implications for large brokerage houses, accounting firms, and other businesses set up as partnerships.

Plaintiff Elizabeth A. Hishon has brought suit against a prestigious Atlanta law firm that denied her a partnership and, in effect, forced her to seek other employment. Mrs. Hishon charges sex bias and asserts that large law firms are big businesses and partnership decisions should be subject to discrimination laws, particularly -Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The plaintiff's lawyers say the case has implications not only for women but also for blacks, Jews, and other minorities who, they insist, have been historically excluded from highly paid and prestigious position in law firms. They say that a ruling against Mrs. Hishon will be viewed by women and minorities as the ''Dred Scott case of the 1980s.''

Defendants King & Spaulding - whose partners have included former US Attorney General Griffin B. Bell and Charles H. Kirbo, adviser to former President Carter - argue that government intrusion into partnership considerations violates constitutional protections of freedom of association and privacy. They reject the view that ''the law is just another business.''

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