Key affirmative action case settled Civil rights groups step in to end dispute over N.J. school job

November 22, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Civil rights groups, fearing that the Supreme Court would use a major affirmative action case to strike down many racial preferences, have agreed to pay a white teacher to drop the lawsuit she filed after being laid off to save a black colleague's job.

Under a highly unusual settlement approved Thursday night, Sharon Taxman, a white high school teacher in Piscataway, N.J., and her attorney will be paid $433,500. Of that total, $308,500 comes from a coalition of civil rights organizations, with the remaining $125,000 from the Piscataway School Board.

Taxman's share will be about $186,000 -- nearly as much as she would have received if the Supreme Court had agreed with lower courts that her 1989 layoff constituted racial discrimination.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who helped raise the money for the settlement, said: "This case was riddled with problems," and a ZTC ruling in it would have been "a distortion of the issue." Jackson said civil rights groups had "outflanked" opponents of affirmative action "because we took this whole thing out of court."

Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, which opposes affirmative action, said "the defenders of racial preferences are running for the hills." Bolick said those defenders "have temporarily delayed the inevitable."

Taxman's lawsuit, which was begun for her by the Bush administration, has become a vivid symbol of the nation's debate over affirmative action.

Opponents of affirmative action portrayed the case as a clear-cut challenge to the use of race to promote a racially diverse work force, in the private or public sector.

Supporters of affirmative action, though, said it was a poor test case, because the school board had not done enough to justify its layoff decision and because the case was an artificial one not likely to happen elsewhere.

The white teacher lost out to a black colleague, Debra Williams, under an affirmative action plan after the secretarial studies staff at the high school was cut by one position. After finding that the two teachers had equal seniority, the school board chose to keep the black teacher and lay off the white teacher. Lower courts ruled that this decision violated federal civil rights law.

The Piscataway case had been shaping up as a significant test of whether employers could ever use racial diversity as a goal to justify decisions on hiring, promotions or layoffs. The lower courts in the case had said no.

This was the only affirmative action case the Supreme Court had on its docket for the current term since it refused this month to rule on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 209, a ban on affirmative action in state and local government.

It may take up to two years before any major affirmative action case reaches the court, legal analysts said. Other lawsuits challenging the use of racial preferences are moving ahead in Georgia, Michigan and Washington state, all of them in the early stages.

David B. Rubin, the school board's lawyer, said leaders of the civil rights groups had told the board of "their genuine concern that an adverse ruling in this case could gut the infrastructure of affirmative action across the country."

Robert C. DePaul, vice president of the school board, said the board had acted to "cut our losses and end it right here. Let the politicians fight this battle."

Taxman's lawyer, Stephen E. Klausner, said he understood that "civil rights groups were going out of their minds over this case," fearing that the Supreme Court would use it as an occasion to overturn a major 1979 ruling allowing broad affirmative action plans.

Walter Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, which has waged a legal offensive against affirmative action, said the settlement was "an explicit recognition by civil rights groups of the mistreatment of Ms. Taxman, and an implicit recognition of the overall weakness of their position on racial and gender preferences."

Those groups, Mellor added, "have lost the moral high ground" and now want to "retrench and fight a rear-guard action."

But Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that "the extreme right wing" had "distorted and defined [the case] as something other than what it is."

The settlement was worked out partly through the efforts of lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, speaking for a Washington-based group known as the Black Leadership Forum, made up of the leaders of 21 black organizations.

The forum, which did not return phone calls yesterday, put up the $308,500, or about 70 percent of the settlement figure, said Rubin, the school board lawyer.

The Legal Defense Fund lawyers referred all calls yesterday to a public relations firm, which did not respond.

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