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Supreme Court looks at discrimination precedent

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday over whether a federal law enacted in 1866 to help eradicate ``the badges of slavery'' may be invoked today to sue private citizens accused of discrimination. The case stems from an appeal by Brenda Patterson, a black woman, who wanted to use the 1866 law to force her North Carolina employer, McLean Credit Union, to pay actual and punitive damages for alleged on-the-job harassment.

The lawyer representing the accused employer said the 1866 law ``would not reach private acts of discrimination,'' and that the court in a key 1976 decision interfered with the will of Congress in extending the old statute's reach.

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The court sent shock waves through the civil rights community last April when it announced it would explore the issue of on-the-job racial harassment in the case.

While no party to the North Carolina case urged reconsideration of the 1976 precedent, the justices by a 5-to-4 vote took the extraordinary step of acting on their own initiative to call for a reexamination.

The deciding vote was cast by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's newest member, who could shift the balance toward a more conservative direction.

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