Not the right fight Piscataway case: Supporters of affirmative action wisely chose settlement.

November 28, 1997

A CIVIL RIGHTS coalition is being criticized by conservatives for settling a lawsuit by a white Piscataway, N.J., teacher laid off instead of a black teacher who held a similar job. Affirmative-action foes should blame themselves for being outflanked. They should have known in a case where the plaintiff asked only for a money judgment that she might settle if offered enough.

So consumed were conservatives with getting the Piscataway case before the Supreme Court that they apparently assumed )) the white teacher, Sharon Taxman, shared their zealotry. She instead decided to pay her lawyers and get out of the spotlight. Thus foes of affirmative action have been denied, for now, a far-reaching Supreme Court decision saying that skin color should never be a consideration in personnel decisions. But the settlement allows a lower-court ruling favoring Ms. Taxman to stand.

The 21 civic, fraternal and civil rights groups that make up the Black Leadership Forum decided it was better to leave intact the decision of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The group raised more than $300,000 to help the Piscataway school board pay off Ms. Taxman. That saddened the black teacher, Debra Williams, who believes her masters degree made her more qualified than Ms. Taxman. But it was the right thing to do.

If the Black Leadership Forum had not ended the eight-year-old Piscataway case, it would have been heard by a conservative Supreme Court that most likely would have supported the Philadelphia ruling.

The Piscataway board said it kept Ms. Williams on the payroll because she is black and it wanted a more diverse staff. Although Ms. Williams disagrees, the board said she and Ms. Taxman were equal in all other respects. That apparent use of skin color as the sole factor in making a layoff decision made the Piscataway case a poor one for affirmative-action supporters to fight. "Bad cases make bad law," said National Urban League president Hugh Price.

Nearly everyone agrees that affirmative action isn't always properly applied and that it needs improvement. But the Piscataway case threatened to effectively kill affirmative action before necessary changes can be made. Settling the case has bought affirmative action more time. Its supporters must use it wisely.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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