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Reagan seeks court support for shakeup of affirmative action

The Reagan administration is hoping for a United States Supreme Court ruling next term to bolster its view that racial goals and quotas in minority hiring plans discriminate against whites. The court may address the issue as early as October, according to William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

At stake may be the future structure of US affirmative-action policies.

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Reagan officials seek to narrow the scope of minority-hiring plans by limiting the use of racial quotas. They say that in the years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, racial laws have been expanded beyond the scope intended by original sponsors, including Hubert Humphrey. Civil rights laws were designed to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans, they say, not preferential treatment for selected minorities.

Mr. Reynolds told a congressional hearing last week that four cases challenging affirmative-action quotas are currently at the federal appeals court level and ``will be before the court next term.''

Virtually all established civil rights leaders and organizations have condemned the Reagan administration's interpretation of affirmative action and of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This provision forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Civil rights leaders maintain that if the administration is successful, the nation's civil rights movement will be set back 20 years.

Nonetheless, administration officials are sticking to their guns. They say that quotas or goals granting preferential treatment to blacks illegally discriminate against other minorities and whites.

The administration cites as its authority the Supreme Court's 1984 Memphis firefighters case (the ``Stotts'' case). They say it outlaws as discriminatory any racial or gender-based goals for hiring, firing, or promotions.

Civil rights leaders disagree with the Reagan administration's view of the importance of the Stotts case. They contend that the Supreme Court's decision applies strictly to the facts of the Memphis case and does not establish sweeping new civil rights precedents.

Earlier this year, despite widespread debate and confusion about the significance of the Stotts case, the Justice Department asked some 50 cities and counties with recently negotiated minority hiring plans to redraft their programs to eliminate racial or gender-based quotas. This action was taken, Reynolds says, to bring the cities and counties into compliance with the Stotts decision.

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A federal judge in Washington, D.C., recently refused a request by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to issue an injunction blocking the Justice Department from redrafting the 50 affirmative-action plans. But so far, only two cities -- Wichita Falls, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y. -- have indicated they intend to cooperate with the Justice Department.

Civil rights leaders argue that minority hiring plans are toothless unless they are made strictly accountable through established hiring and promotion goals.

``We had a history of 15 to 20 years of race-neutral policies, but it has not been until the courts started taking race-conscious actions that we have gotten any results,'' says Julius LaVonne Chambers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Rather than strict hiring quotas, the administration favors ``affirmative outreach'' programs designed to attract more minority and female workers into pools of qualified applicants for specific jobs. Officials say that once such pools are established, decisions on hiring and promotions should be made on a ``colorblind'' basis.

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