After years in court, Birmingham, Ala., hiring goals are finally upheld


WASHINGTON -- After more than a decade of litigation, a federal district judge has upheld an affirmative action plan for the city of Birmingham, Ala., including numerical hiring goals that were attacked by the Reagan administration and by white city employees.

The Birmingham case, one of the nation's most celebrated courtroom tests of affirmative action, involves firefighters, police officers and other city employees. It has attracted attention around the country and has already been reviewed once by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruling in 1989, which allowed the reopening of job bias cases in a number of cities, was considered a major setback by civil rights advocates.

Judge Sam C. Pointer Jr., chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham, said the city's affirmative action plan was legally justified in view of the exclusion of blacks from city jobs in the past. In a ruling Friday, he concluded that the plan "did not unnecessarily trammel the rights of whites" and did not violate their constitutional rights.

Raymond P. Fitzpatrick Jr., a lawyer for white city employees who are plaintiffs in the case, said yesterday that they would appeal Pointer's decision.

Richard T. Seymour, a lawyer for black employees of the Birmingham fire and police departments, said the latest decision "will give encouragement to many employers, public and private, to continue their affirmative action plans."

Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. of Birmingham welcomed the decision. "I hope that it will help hasten the end of this fight over reverse discrimination in the city of Birmingham," the mayor said an interview.

The Bush administration says it supports affirmative action in principle. But it has often opposed enforcement of numerical goals for the hiring and promotion of blacks, Hispanic people and women, arguing that such goals tend to become rigid quotas.

Administration officials had no immediate comment on the ruling in Birmingham.

The Birmingham case began in 1975, when the Justice Department sued the city, charging that there was a pervasive "pattern and practice" of illegal job discrimination against blacks and women.

After a long trial, the Justice Department helped negotiate a consent decree, which set up an extensive plan of affirmative action, including numerical goals for the hiring and promotion of women.

Under the original decree, for example, one black firefighter was to be promoted for each white who won promotion to lieutenant in the Birmingham Fire Department. The decree stipulated that all the people selected for such promotions must be qualified for their new jobs.

The Justice Department signed the decree in May 1981, but it later challenged actions taken by the city under the decree. Then in 1984, the department sided with white city employees who said their rights had been violated by the preferences given to blacks.

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